The Twentieth Century in World History
The past can never be understood simply as a stream of facts. To relate the history of the twentieth century, this text emphasizes four interrelated themes as especially important:
1. Global Interrelatedness
2. Identity and Difference
3. Rise of the Mass Society
4. Technology versus Nature
Before the sixteenth century, links between different world regions were relatively weak. Nonetheless, these links were real and important. Well-established trade routes linked major centers of civilization in Eurasia and Africa. The “Silk Road” through Central Asia, for example, facilitated the trade of goods, religion, and disease between China and the Roman Empire some 2000 years ago. Another important trade link before the sixteenth century was the sea route across the Indian Ocean that connected Islamic and East Asian civilizations.
Global interrelatedness intensified greatly between the 1500s and the 1800s, as a Europe-centered global system evolved. This development was far from sudden. During the sixteenth century, European expansion took place mostly in the Americas and Australia, not in Africa or Asia. As late as 1800, China still possessed the largest and most influential economy in the world.
European expansion has been dubbed “ecological imperialism,” as Europeans took with them their culture and technology, along with their plants, animals, and disease-causing pathogens. Disease helped the Europeans in their colonizing efforts by weakening the resistance of Native Americans. At the same time, disease limited European expansion. Not until the medical advances of the nineteenth century could Europeans survive the diseases of tropical Africa.
During the nineteenth century, Europe, led by Britain, achieved full-scale global domination. This was due in large part to “dual revolutions” in industry and politics. The new industrial capitalism brought Europe unprecedented economic and military power, transforming the world system. Political revolution, beginning in France in 1789, complemented the Industrial Revolution. The French revolutionaries overthrew their king and replaced his absolutist monarchy with a republic based on popular sovereignty—the notion that rightful political power derives from “the people.” During the French revolutionary wars, leaders of the new republic used the ideals of citizenship, nationalism, and popular sovereignty to motivate the new mass conscript armies. The combination of industrial strength and mass mobilization gave the wealthiest European states unprecedented power. Outside of Europe, only the United States and Japan came close to achieving the power of the core European states.
European power came with a price. The inequities of industrial development quickly provoked radical critiques. They also contradicted the tenets of nineteenth-century liberalism, which sought to grant the individual freedom. Departing from an emphasis on the individual, Karl Marx argued for equality in economic relationships. He believed that the economic logic of developing capitalism would exploit the working class to such a degree that eventually the economic system would collapse in revolution. Industrialism created the same problems everywhere; therefore, his revolution would be a worldwide one. Marx’s ideas have had monumental and lasting importance. They provided the basis for many socialist and communist systems throughout the world.
These nineteenth-century industrial and political developments had vastly different effects around the world. The British turned India into a colony. Latin America won political freedom but remained economically dependent. In sub-Saharan Africa, the slave trade was abolished, but the region was carved up into colonies for the European powers. Japan, too, was forced to open its markets to the West, but the country was able to industrialize rapidly and become a power in its own right.
Between 1914 and 1945, however, the European world system suffered a three-stage crisis: World War I (1914–1918), the Depression (beginning in 1929), and World War II (1939–1945). The European powers were so weakened after this series of struggles that they began to relinquish control of their overseas colonies.
Furthermore, from these wars, two superpowers emerged—the United States and the Soviet Union. For 40 years after World War II, many analysts thought that superpower rivalry itself defined the pattern of global interrelatedness. But the categories “Free World,” “Soviet bloc,” and “Third World” never adequately described the political and economic reality. Many now believe that the world of the future will have multiple economic cores—one centered in North America, one in Europe, and one in East Asia—although it is not yet clear precisely which countries will take the lead in each core.
Recent advances in transportation and communications mean that all regions of the world, cores and peripheries, will be more tightly connected than ever. Transmission of information by satellite, electronic mail, the world wide web, and cheap jet travel have all “shrunk” the world. Large-scale movements of refugees and other migrants, along with the increasing strength of nationalism and fundamentalist religion in many parts of the world, mean that different cultures will collide, conflict, and interact in patterns of unprecedented complexity. These phenomena are often referred to collectively as “globalization.” Globalization means that the twenty-first century may well be an era of even more rapid change than the twentieth century.
Identity and Difference
Interaction among cultures, whether on a local, regional, or global scale, raises questions about the formation of identity that are key to understanding the politics of the twentieth century and world history in general. Often, the formation of a distinct identity not only brings people together but it also labels outsiders as being different or even uncivilized. Europe’s rise to global power depended in part on this sort of distinction, as did Hitler’s political program in pre-World War II Germany. Indeed, most world civilizations have defined themselves against supposedly inferior “barbarian” outsiders.
The European drive for world domination and European powers’ nationalist programs transformed local definitions of identity and difference all over the globe. Inside Europe, governments strove to homogenize the cultural identities of their populations through mass education, conscription, and nationalist indoctrination. But nationalist projects inevitably provoked resistance and alternative nationalisms, especially among economically or politically oppressed ethnic groups. One could mention the Irish in the British Isles, the Basques in Spain and France, or the Serbs under Ottoman rule.
In societies that came directly or indirectly under European rule, local responses to social change varied widely. Sometimes, resistance took the form of asserting “traditional” values. At other times, elites plunged their countries headlong into the transformations demanded by the world economy. Where resistance to European colonization and dominance did occur, leaders required that all issues be made part of a coherent nationalist agenda. In many places, however, colonial administrators had drawn boundaries with no sense of ethnic or linguistic realities; these new countries had to create their own national identities.
Rise of the Mass Society
In 1750, when industrialization and globalization first arose, the world population was approximately 500 million. At that time, however, demographic changes began to take hold in the world’s core countries. Improvements in food supplies and productivity gains in industry led to a near doubling of the world population by 1800. By 1900, it had grown to 1.7 billion, and in 1996, the figure was about 5.8 billion. Growth rates are highest in the developing world, whereas in developed countries, population growth has now dropped to replacement levels. Furthermore, in the nineteenth century, as the population was expanding in the core countries, innovations in transportation and communication mobilized people as never before. Industrialization brought millions of people from the countryside into the cities. Politics also contributed to the rise of mass society. The ideal of popular sovereignty called for an informed electorate. Compulsory education was seen as a way to create an informed electorate and to teach the skills that were necessary for an industrial economy. Mass conscription also became widespread.
The new mass politics has not always taken liberal democratic forms. Liberalism and nationalism have flourished together in only a few countries of the European and “neo-European” core (Canada, Australia, and the United States). In other societies, including Germany, Russia, Italy and many of the colonies and semi-colonies of the periphery, mass mobilization has at times assumed authoritarian forms. Today, democratization remains a central issue for the developing world.
Technology Versus Nature
Although technology has long made human beings less vulnerable to the forces of nature, only since the Industrial Revolution have science and technology begun to reach the point at which they could alter the balance between human societies and their natural environment.
Technological “progress” in the last century has brought about both great benefits and vast destruction. New technologies have increased food supplies, improved health, and accelerated communications, but they have also led to neglect of effective traditional ways of doing things. The millions of casualties of the two world wars, the degradation of arable land, and human-induced climate change are some of the negative results of this progress.
THE THEMES IN CHAPTER 1
Global interrelatedness. Political, cultural and economic interconnections link different parts of the globe in patterns that have evolved in the twentieth century.
Identity and difference. Global connections have not erased the distinct identities of the various peoples who make up the world population. As societies develop at uneven rates, the balance of power among peoples are constantly shifting socially, politically, and economically.
Rise of the mass society. The sheer growth of the human population has magnified all the changes brought about by politics, economics, and technology. In addition, mass society has created qualitative changes in every aspect of human relations.
Technology versus nature. Although modern technology has reduced human vulnerability to the forces of nature, the unintended consequences of technology have now put many aspects of the natural environment at risk.