History of the Great 20th-Century War
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Our digital history of the Great 20th-Century War begins in Europe in 1914. It mobilized more than 70 million military personnel to fight in what was believed to be “the war to end all wars”. The war involved 60 million Europeans, making it one of the largest wars in history, and one of the deadliest. As a result, some 8.5 million combatants and 13 million civilians died in the fighting. Genocide and the Spanish flu pandemic killed millions more worldwide.
The assassination in October, 1914 of the Austro-Hungarian heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo precipitated the war. His culprit was a Bosnian Serb Yugoslav nationalist and member of the Serbian Black Hand secret society named Gavrilo Princip. In response, Austria-Hungary issued an ultimatum to Serbia, whose reply failed to satisfy the Austrians. Then, the two moved to a war footing that triggered a network of interlocking alliances to act. Finally, the crisis grew from a local issue in the Balkans to a war that consumed most of Europe.
World War I proved to be a significant turning point in the political, cultural, economic, and social topography of the world. As a result, numerous revolutions and uprisings worsened the postwar turmoil. The Big Four (Britain, France, the United States, and Italy) imposed victors’ justice at the Treaty of Versailles with Germany. Ultimately, it brought an end to the Austro-Hungarian, German, Ottoman, and Russian Empires. Numerous new states sprang up from their remains. Following this, a second world war erupted just twenty years later. The same belligerents fought over the same territories all over again.
The Inter-War Period was relatively short, but it accounted for many significant social, political, and economic changes throughout the world. The postwar recovery led to the Roaring Twenties, a time of breaking social and economic barriers. Automobiles, electric lighting, radio combined to spread the high energy of the age. But the Great Depression, a desperate time for the world’s people and their economy, followed.
The Inter-War Years saw the rise of communism in Russia, and they ended with the rise of the Nazis in Germany and the fascists in Italy. Independence movements arose in many colonies to challenge the empires of Britain and France. China was embroiled in the Chinese Civil War between the Nationalists and the Communists.
World War II lasted from 1939 to 1945. It involved most of the world’s countries and two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis powers. In all, more than 30 countries threw their entire military, economic, industrial, and scientific resources into the war effort, blurring the distinction between civilian and military resources and targets. This paved the way for aircraft to commence strategic bombing of population centers and the atomic attacks on Japan. By far, this was the deadliest conflict in human history, resulting in up to 85 million deaths. Most were civilians, and tens of millions of people died in the Holocaust and other genocides, and from starvation, mass murder, and disease. After the war, the victors occupied Germany and Japan, and war crimes tribunals were held.
The Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States was an outgrowth of World War II, and it lasted to the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. It is known as “cold war” because there was no actual fighting between the two antagonists. Instead, they each supported allies who waged proxy wars on their behalf in Korea and Vietnam. The conflict was a struggle for global influence by the two superpowers in the postwar world. It played out in nuclear arsenal development, massive military build-ups, psychological warfare, propaganda campaigns, espionage, and embargoes. It even manifested in sports events and the Space Race.
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