20th Century History
Learn more about the history of the world in the twentieth century, which was dominated by two world wars: World War I, from 1914 to 1918, and World War II, from 1939 to 1945. Both wars featured Germany as the primary aggressor against an alliance of countries. And while both wars originated in Europe, the conflicts engulfed much of the globe, before they ended with the defeat of Germany and its allies. The outcome of these wars completely restructured geopolitical power in the world in the second half of the twentieth century. Hardships in Russia because of World War I led to massive unrest and the overthrow of the tsar in the Russian Revolution of 1917, resulting in the creation of the Communist-controlled Soviet Union. Despite its ideological differences with the West, the Soviet Union joined with Great Britain and the United States (known as the Allied powers) to defeat Germany and its allies (known as the Axis powers) in World War II. After World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union ascended to become the undisputed world superpowers, while Great Britain saw its influence diminish as its colonial empire crumbled. Ghana’s declaration of independence from Britain in 1957 set off a wave of nationalist movements in Africa, which resulted in the overthrow of colonial rule across that continent.
The continent of Asia also experienced upheaval following World War II. Japan, an Axis power and regional heavyweight, was forced to demilitarize and give up its colonial holdings. China stepped into the power vacuum that followed, bolstered by its association with the Soviet Union, with which it shared a Communist ideology. India, one of Britain’s key holdings in Asia, declared its independence in 1947, partitioning into Muslim-dominated Pakistan and Hindu-controlled India; the rivalry between the two would significantly impact the region through the end of the century and beyond.
The Middle East endured one of the more dramatic restructurings following these wars. Prior to World War I, the region had previously been under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, which was on the losing side of the war. As a result, the Ottomans lost this territory, which was then administered by the French and British. Largely without the participation of representatives from the Middle East, France and Great Britain established new boundaries in the region, without regard to history or the ethnic and religious affiliation of the people who lived there. As a result, disparate communities of people were now expected to cooperate with each other to govern themselves, leading to political instability and bloodshed. The situation worsened after World War II, when international support for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine (in part to atone for the Holocaust, during which some 6 million Jews had died) led to the founding of the nation of Israel in 1948. The Arab nations surrounding Israel refused to recognize the new country, immediately launching the Arab-Israeli War, which resulted in the defeat of the attacking nations and loss of territory. Additional wars failed to restore Arab control, and the region remained unstable into the twenty-first century.
While the continual conflict in the Middle East was a perpetual news story in the second half of the twentieth century, the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union dominated the geopolitical scene. Known as the “Cold War” because there wasn’t open war between the two superpowers, the ideological differences between the capitalist West and the Communist Soviet Union nevertheless spawned numerous conflicts around the globe, most notably the Korean War (1950–1953), the Vietnam War (1955–1975), and covert skirmishes across Latin America from the 1960s until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1989.
Other major global events of the twentieth century included a worldwide influenza pandemic from 1918 to 1919, which killed more people than the world war that had just ended (an estimated 20 to 50 million people), and the Great Depression of the 1930s, which impacted economies worldwide.