Global Wars and Change in the Twentieth Century

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There are two sections in this assignment. You are required to answer a question from each section. You can select either Question #1A or #1B from Section A and then proceed to follow the directions in Section B. You must give equal attention to both sections.You cannot use any sources such as wikipedia,, sparknotes etc. You are required to use the course content and any other approved sources (see below).

A valid bibliography should be included at the end of your post. Please provide examples in every paragraph to support your answer. Avoid block quotes. Make sure that you edit your work for grammar.


  1. Based on your knowledge in this course so far, what lessons do you think the world should learn from:
  2. the two global wars of the twentieth century OR
  3. The Great Depression

There is no right or wrong answer here, but your opinion must be supported by evidence. You should use dates, specific names of people and places, and discuss the relevant facts to back up your assessment.

Your answer must specify what these lessons are (or if lessons could not be learned at all) and which groups, persons, or nations these lessons should be applied to. Remember you must provide specific examples and analyses with evidence to support your answer.


Select 3 appropriate countries from the list provided to answer either Question #1 or Question #2 below.

Countries (Select 3)

United States    Russia   China

Germany             Italy       Vietnam

Korea                    France  Britain

Guatemala          Cuba      Japan

Spain                     Algeria  South Africa

QUESTIONS (Answer all of number 1 OR all of number 2).

  1. A. How did a country you selected above become communist?
  2. Discuss the rise of Fascism in your second selected country.
  3. Describe the Cold War in your third country option.
  4. A. What role did foreign intervention play in the communist revolution which took place in a country you selected?
  5. Explain the foreign influences which gave rise to the fascist government in a second country you selected.
  6. How did the leader(s) of a third country you selected respond to the Cold War?

Unit 7: Global Wars and Change in the Twentieth Century


In June 2014, many countries around the world participated in ceremonies marking the centenary of World War I, (June 1914-1918). These events were covered by various news media in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia. Here is how the New York Times opened one of its tributes:

The war destroyed kings, kaisers, czars and sultans; it demolished empires; it introduced chemical weapons, tanks and airborne bombing; it brought millions of women into the work force, hastening their legal right to vote. It gave independence to nations like Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic countries and created new nations in the Middle East with often arbitrary borders; it brought about major cultural changes, including a new understanding of the psychology of war, of “shell shock” and post-traumatic stress.

It also featured the initial step of the United States as a global power.[1]

In this unit, we shall examine many events in the twentieth century including why this war was considered the First World War, the search for an elusive peace that followed in its aftermath, the birth of Communism, Great Depression, Fascism and World War II. Finally this unit will explore how the war changed the relationship between imperial powers and their colonies, and the emergence of superpowers in what became known as the Cold War.


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[1] Steven Erlanger, The Great War, NY Times, June 26, 2014.

World War I

The reputation and dominance enjoyed by countries in Western Europe as a result of the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions continued unabated especially as these countries controlled most regions of Africa, Asia and parts of the Americas. But this sense of superiority which supported European hegemony was confronted with a sudden but brutal reality in a war which left more than 10 million people dead. The consequence of such carnage and devastation wrought irreparable damage to the image of a civilized Europe. After witnessing this, many colonies fought to break free from European domination. Even within Europe itself, the traditional hierarchies of power were changed.

Please examine John Green’s Crash Course videos on World War I.

·     Watch Crash Course World History Video # HOW World War I Started: Crash Course World History 209

Watch Crash Course World History Video #Who Started World War I: Crash Course World History 210


  • Why did the world fight a war from 1914-1918?
  • In what ways did World War I change our understanding of war?
  • What were the consequences of the war?

o    Unit 7: Global Wars & Change in the 20th Century

o    Causes of World War I

  • The causes of World War I are very complex, and in this unit, in addition to those discussed by John Green in the videos, we shall attempt to cover some of them here. Vladimir Lenin (the leader of Communist Russia) argued in his book Imperialism: The Last Stage of Capitalism that imperialism was the final stage of capitalism after mercantile capitalism, industrial capitalism and finance capitalism. According to Lenin, war was inevitable, and World War I was a direct result of imperialism. He concluded that there were inherent defects to capitalism which is why he advocated for communism. Many historians generally do not subscribe to the inevitability view in history, but there are other weaknesses to this argument.
  • Napoleon Bonaparte’s attempt to export the French Revolution resulted in his defeat at Waterloo in 1815, but this event also marked the beginning of a new European effort to maintain peace through a system of the balance of power. The approach was intended to prevent any one nation from becoming too powerful by forming alliances to protect each other’s interests. This alliance systemis directly related to the emergence of Germany as a unified nation in the 1870s under Otto Von Bismarck. After achieving his greatest goal of a German-speaking nation, Bismarck needed to secure Germany from outside invasion especially from those he had defeated in the process of creating a unified Germany. These included France in 1871 and Austria-Hungary in 1866 (which ironically was also a German-speaking nation). Bismarck accomplished this by creating alliances and new friends. Unfortunately, Britain could not become a German ally at this time because Britain was enjoying a period of “splendid isolation,” which implied that they did not want to be drawn into continental European politics or war. Germany, therefore, turned to Russia and Austria-Hungary in 1873, and created what was called the “Three Emperors League.” By 1878, Russia backed out of this alliance leaving only Germany and Austria-Hungary. Bismarck then settled for a “Dual Alliance” where they both promised to come to each other’s side if they were attacked by Russia. This pact remained in place until 1914 when Austria-Hungary invoked it to get German support in the outbreak of World War I.  This system of alliances ultimately resulted in the two opposing camps known as the Triple Entente versus the Triple Alliance. France, Great Britain and Russia made up the Triple Entente (the U.S. joined them in 1917) while Germany, Austro-Hungary and Italy were in the Triple Alliance. But Italy secretly negotiated a treaty with France which stipulated that Italy will remain neutral in the event of a German attack on France. When World War I eventually broke out in 1914 Italy claimed that Germany was the aggressor and thus invoked its secret treaty to stay neutral until 1915 when it joined the war as an ally of Russia, Britain and France.
  • Germany and Italy, which did not exist as unified countries before the 1860s, destabilized the European balance of power when they emerged on the scene. Germany in particular was seen as a major threat to the French and the British because of the sheer size of the new country and their appetite to acquire colonies in Africa and Asia by challenging the old countries of Europe. Britain had the largest economy and the most powerful navy in Europe until the creation of Germany. Not only was Germany comparatively bigger, but its economy threatened the traditional dominance of the British. Even in the sphere of colonies for example, Germany challenged the British and ultimately gained possession of Cameroon in West Central Africa, they also threatened the French over Morocco. These actions by Germany caused the British to break out from their “splendid isolation” into action. Britain signed a military alliance with Japan to prevent Germany from gaining any colonies in the east. Japan became a suitable choice for a military alliance in Asia because of their surprise defeat of the Russians in the Russo-Japanese Warin 1904-1905. Furthermore, by 1906 Britain commissioned and successfully built the world’s fastest and most weaponized battleship known as HMS Dreadnought. This new battleship almost made the German navy obsolete. This provoked an arms race as the German leader Kaiser Wilhelm II ordered the construction of an equivalent battleship. By the time war started in 1914, Britain could order into battle 49 battleships while Germany could muster 29. Some scholars have argued that the arms race brought Britain into the European alliance system and the world closer to war.
  • In Europe, the Ottoman Empire was undergoing a breakup which caused Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary to all position themselves to pick up land from the disintegrating empire. The Russian Empire had many reasons for supporting Serbia. Russia had been humiliated by Japan in the Russo-Japanese War and the country needed to divert attention from its domestic problems. There was also a need to gain access to the Mediterranean Sea as the Ottoman Empire splintered since Russia had in the previous centuries mostly expanded towards the Pacific. But the Serbs, who were mostly Slavs, were also Orthodox Christians. Russia, as a predominantly Orthodox Christian nation, saw itself as protecting a nation whose brand of Christianity differed from many in the west. For these reasons, Russia pledged total support for Serbian nationalism and independence from the Ottoman Empire.
  • But the Austro-Hungarian Empire wanted absolute control of Serbia and the other Slavic peoples in that area (known as the Balkan region). Austria-Hungary had annexed some of the Balkan region in 1908 from the Ottoman Empire which angered Russia. This annexation also irritated the Serbs who were calling for the creation of a pan-Slavic nation.  It should be noted that Bosnia-Herzegovina was made up of mainly 3 groups: Muslims, Croats – Roman Catholics and ethnic Serbs who were mostly Orthodox. Austria-Hungary, itself made up of many nationalities and ethnicities, was afraid that an independent Slavic nation would destabilize its own empire. Austria-Hungary and Russia were therefore on opposing camps towards Serbia and the region. In addition, since Germany had entered into an alliance with Austria-Hungary, this further complicated the scenario because Russia also had its alliance with France and Great Britain. The battle lines were drawn even before there was cause for war.


  • It was within this backdrop that Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated on June 28, 1914. Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were visiting the tumultuous Balkan regional capital of Sarajevo on their wedding anniversary when they were slain by a Serbian nationalist and terrorist. This unfortunate incident could not have happened at a worse place as it ignited a war in an already tense region. Austria-Hungary gave Serbia an ultimatum which was followed by a declaration of war.  Russia, as an ally of Serbia, declared war on Austria-Hungary. This situation automatically called into place the alliance system with Britain and France mobilizing their support behind Russia while Germany backed Austria-Hungary. The United States eventually entered the war in 1917 on the side of the British and French. A war which was started in Europe soon became globalized as European powers utilized both manpower and material supplies from their colonies in Africa, Asia and South America.
  • Though the alliance system was created to maintain a balance of power in Europe, it had instead precipitated an inevitable slide to war. Many countries in Europe did not expect the war to last for too long. Wives, girlfriends and parents sent their men off to war with the expectation that they would be back home for Christmas. The German emperor Wilhelm II is often quoted for promising his young soldiers in August 1914 that they would be back from the war “before the autumn leaves fall.” However, many of the wartime generals in Europe did not share this view. They expected the war to last for more than a year, but no one expected nor were they prepared for what the world was about witness. Thus, World War I was dubbed as the “war to end all wars.” The war dragged on until 1918 and stalemated on many fronts as these countries could not defeat each other in the battlefields. Romania and Greece joined Italy (which had switched) to the side of the Allied Powers with the hopes of gaining land from the Ottoman Empire. Even Japan declared war against Germany to honor its treaty obligation with Britain, but the Japanese used the war to gain control of German colonies in Asia. The Allies had support from their African and Asian colonies. About 800,000 Indian soldiers were sent to fight in Europe for the English while many Africans fought on the side of the French.

o    Planning and Fighting in World War I

  • World War I (1914-1918) matched the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire) in opposition to the Allied Powers (Great Britain, France, Russia, Japan, Italy and the United States). As a result of the advances of the industrial revolution, this war was fought unlike any other before it. Modern technology introduced during this war, such as poison gas, mechanized tanks that neutralized the trench warfare, and aircraft carriers, resulted in the death of more than 9 million soldiers. In this section we shall review the Western Front, Eastern Front, the campaigns against the Ottoman Empire, fighting at sea, negotiating an end to the war, and the impact of the war.


  • At the onset of the war, Germany was sandwiched between two enemies–Russia to the east and France to the west. But this was not unexpected because Germany had been at war with many countries before and had prepared plans for a possible war on two fronts. In the early 1900s Count Alfred von Schlieffen devised a strategy, which was later slightly modified, in which he envisioned the possibility of Germany facing a war on two fronts. Militarily and strategically this is not a tenable position, but it was based on the reality of the alliance system in which Russia and France were not part of the German network. The Schlieffen Plan was based on the fact that in 1904, Japan had crushed the Russian army. Therefore, in the event of a war on two fronts, the Germans believed the Russian army was weak and could need several weeks to be efficiently mobilized for fighting. For this reason the French army was considered a greater threat.
  • Schlieffen’s plan took into account that the French were still bitter over their defeat by the Germans in 1870 when Bismarck was seizing territories to create a unified Germany. The French lost Alsace-Lorraine to Germany as a result of that defeat, and as such guarded their border with Germany closely. Schlieffen called for a small contingent of German soldiers to keep the French army busy at the German border while the main army crossed into France through Belgium – a neutral country. The French had not paid as much attention to this border with Belgium as they did with their German boundary. In addition, the French miscalculated by believing that Germany could never invade Belgium to get to France. The goal was to quickly defeat the French before turning to the war in the east with Russia where the Germans believed they would annihilate an unprepared and relatively weakened Russia.
  • This plan was almost a great success as the Germans invaded Belgium on August 4th, 1914 and succeeded in entering France. They were almost at the doorsteps of the French capital of Paris when an insurmountable counterattack by the Allied troops drove the Germans back into the outskirts of Paris. This retreat by the Germans implied that a critical part of the Schlieffen Plan had failed as France could not be defeated quickly enough. At this point both sides dug up trenchesput up a resistance which caused the Western Front to stalemate for more than three years. Why did the Schlieffen Plan fail?


  • The Russian army had rightfully anticipated that the German plan in the event of a war would be to attack France first before invading Russia. Based on this, the Russians in August of 1914 invaded German Poland and East Prussia. The Russians had some initial successes in the battlefields but the Germans put up a stiff resistance and even had to transfer some soldiers from the Western Front to fight in the east. The Russians mounted more offensives but with less success and more casualties. There was growing discontent in Russia over their strategy in the war and huge loss of Russian lives. These factors contributed in the collapse of the Russian monarchy, the Communist Revolution and Russian exit from the war in 1917. With the surrender of Russia, Germany could now concentrate and focus on the war in the Western Front.
  • Austria-Hungary was ill-prepared for war. Although they were gallantly successful over the Serbs, Russia made most of its victories in this war by defeating Austria-Hungary. This prompted the Germans to take over the Austrian army and to conduct the rest of the war in that region.


  • When it became clear that movement in the war was difficult in both the Western and Eastern Fronts, the Allied soldiers led by Britain decided to invade the Ottoman Empire and the soft targets of the Central Powers to gain access of the sea route to Russia. The invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula in April 1915 was an absolute blunder and disaster by the Allied Powers. More than 250,000 soldiers were killed, and by January 1916 they were forced to retreat. A combination of Australian and New Zealand armies with their British and French allies were not ready for the well prepared Turkish army who also had a better understanding of the geography of that region.
  • The Allied Powers also set their eyes on fighting against Austria in northern Italy as well as fighting the Turks in Egypt and Mesopotamia. While they were successful in Egypt and Mesopotamia, the Battle of Caporetto in 1917 proved to be tougher. Since the Germans had taken over the Austrian army, their reinforcements gave the Central Powers a much needed victory. It was only later in the war that with assistance from the Americans, the tide of the battle began to turn for the British and the French.


  • The United States initially attempted to stay neutral in this war, but public opinion was divided. Some Americans of British descent wanted the U.S. to enter the war on the part of the Allied Powers. The Irish and German Americans called for support of Germany. There were even more Americans who did not support either side and wanted to stay neutral believing that “it would be folly for the country to sacrifice itself to…the clash of ancient hatreds which is urging the Old World to destruction.” Some African-Americans led by the labor leader A. Phillip Randolph did not believe that there was any benefit for African-Americans in the conflict among white nations.
  • Following its neutral stance, the U.S. wanted to continue trading with both sides of the war, but the British navy used its strength to effectively cut-off access to supplies and raw materials for the Central Powers by imposing a quarantine. Although they could no longer trade with the Central Powers, the administration of President Woodrow Wilson enjoyed an increase in trade with Allied Powers from $824 million to $3.2 billion in two years.
  • Under pressure from a declining access to trade and raw materials, the Germans resorted to their best technology–submarine warfare. On December 16, 1914 the German submarines outmaneuvered the British and successfully shelled some coastal towns in Britain. This success prompted the Germans to plan another subsequent attack but this time, the Germans were unaware that their radio traffic had been intercepted and decoded by the British. The German submarines were ambushed midway between Germany and Britain at sea in the infamous Battle of Dogger Bankin January 1915. After this defeat, Germany decided against confronting the British Royal Navy; instead they decided to use their U-boat strategy to sink commercial ships. This approach of torpedoing all vessels traveling to Britain is what ultimately turned the tide of public opinion in the U.S. in favor of intervention.
  • In April, 1915 German submarines sunk a British luxury ship known as the Lusitania. This resulted in the death of 1,198 people of which 128 were Americans. Despite the outcry the Germans continued to sink more vessels. President Wilson sought and Congress approved more than $1 billion to build up the American navy and army. Subsequently, German moves towards Mexico prompted the U.S. states to declare war against Germany in April 1917. With unrestrained German submarine attacks against U.S. trading interests, President Wilson broke off diplomatic relations in February 1917.
  • The immediate cause of the U.S. entry into World War I was the Zimmerman Telegram. German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmerman had sent a telegram to the ambassador in Mexico urging the Mexican government to join the war with the Central Powers. Furthermore, Zimmerman provided that should the U.S. get involved in the war, the Germans will provide assistance to the Mexicans to regain the lands they had lost (Texas, New Mexico and Arizona) in the war of 1846-1848. There were border tensions between the U.S. and Mexico at this time which saw attacks on the U.S. side by the Mexican insurgent leader Pancho Villa. The U.S. retaliated by sending General John Pershing to occupy parts of northern Mexico. This cross border tension between the two countries greatly influenced how the U.S. interpreted the Zimmerman Telegram. When President Wilson went before Congress to get war authorization against Germany, although the vote was not unanimous, many in the U.S at this time were in favor of war. 


  • With the exit of Russia from the war in 1917, the Allied Powers expected a massive German offensive on the Western Front. There was no doubt that such an offensive would change the tide of the war, but the Allied Powers were counting on American intervention with reinforcements and an invigorated army. Erich von Ludendorff launched a massive offensive on July 15, 1918, but with the assistance of the British Expeditionary Force, more than 85,000 American soldiers, and the French army under the effective leadership of Phillipe Petain, the German offensive was thwarted and the Allied Powers launched their own.
  • The situation started to unravel for the Central Powers. Despite the victory in Gallipoli, the Ottoman Empire was faced with an Arab revolt and an Allied invasion on many fronts. Faced with many regions breaking away, the Turks were forced to surrender in October 1918. On November 4th, 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire surrendered, as it was disintegrating with many of its peoples fighting for nationalism and self-rule. The Germans had no option with their allies all defeated, and on November 11, 1918, they signed an armisticemarking the end of World War I.


  • After the war ended, the representatives of the Allied Powers met in Paris in January 1919 to begin the process of settling scores, assigning blame and reaping reparations for their losses. They made all of the important decisions while the vanquished countries were not invited to the conference until May 1919. It was during this interlude that differing views of the European countries and their American ally emerged. President Wilson had argued that unless the negotiations were carried out as “peace among equals” there would not be any lasting peace. According to his vision, Wilson believed the old European system of alliances and balance of power had to be replaced with a new order in which a “League of Nations” would be responsible for resolving problems. Wilson outlined what became known as the “Fourteen Points”which constituted the working document for the negotiations after the war.
  • The Fourteen Points attempted to eliminate some of the problems that had led the world to war. For example, Wilson called for national self-determination in which people who spoke a common language and had a common culture should create their own nation and rule over themselves. He therefore favored the right of self-rule for the peoples of the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and German empires. This ultimately saw the creation of the new states such as Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Poland, Austria, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and Finland. It is important to note that all these new states were created in Europe. Wilson called for a reduction of armaments, adjustment of colonial claims in the interest of colonized and colonial governments, and freedom of the seas.
  • Georges Clemenceau, Vittorio Orlando andDavid Lloyd George the leaders of postwar France, Italy, and Great Britain together with Woodrow Wilson constituted the “Big Four.” The European leaders were set on gaining what was lost during the war and punishing Germany. They disagreed with Wilson in some areas. For example, the colonies owned by the Central Powers were not granted independence as was the case with the Balkan region cited above. On the contrary, the colonies in Africa and Asia were divided up among the “Big Four” to be ruled under a new system called “Mandates,” and to be managed by the League of Nations. German colonies in Africa, such as Kamerun and Togo, were divided between the British and the French. The same happened in the Middle East and in Asia.
  • Some of the colonized people who showed up at the Paris Conference like the Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, women suffragists asking for the right to vote, labor unions seeking better working conditions, Africans from the continent of Africa, and African-Americans who sought equality and better treatment were completely snubbed at the conference. The Japanese delegation introduced a “racial equality proposal” to be included in the articles of the League of Nations. Based on the unequal treaties (covered in the previous units) and treatment Japan had endured at the hands of the Europeans, the Japanese were soliciting equality of nations as a basic right. The ramification of this Japanese proposal threatened the world order because it upended the basis for colonial or imperial rule. Despite the opposition of many, the proposal passed but was overruled by Woodrow Wilson, the chair of the conference who claimed that the issue was very sensitive and thus needed a unanimous vote. Perhaps Wilson (who was an unapologetic southerner) was concerned about the impact such ideas might have on the United States where de facto and de jure segregation reigned supreme.
  • In the Treaty of Versailleswhich ratified these negotiations, Woodrow Wilson had a mixed bag of success and failure. Germany,  for example, was severely punished as it was ordered to relinquish all of its colonial possessions and 10 percent of its pre-war territory in Europe (including Alsace-Lorraine). France was given the right to extract raw materials from the German region of Saarland until 1935. The size of the German army and navy were also limited, and its leaders were to be tried as war criminals. Under Article 231, Germany accepted responsibility for the war and agreed to pay reparations in the amount of $32 billion. The Germans hated this treaty and in subsequent years, Adolf Hitler would come to power based in part by exploiting the deep seated animosity Germans had for their treatment in Versailles.
  • Back home in the United States, Woodrow Wilson faced a completely different problem. The League of Nations had been adopted in the Versailles Treaty but for the U.S. to play a crucial role, Congress needed to ratify the treaty. Although some areas of the public opinion in the U.S. supported the treaty, the Republican Party which controlled the Senate was opposed to it for various reasons. The Isolationists believed that the U.S. should not have gone to war in the first place and now had to steer clear of all European involvements. The Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Henry Cabot Lodge alongside other senators objected to Article 10 of the Treaty which called for collective security under the League of Nations. They contended that this clause ceded the power of the Congress to declare war to a foreign body. Henry Cabot Lodge like others who had reservations about the treaty asked for amendments before ratification. President Wilson refused to allow any amendments and the treaty was defeated. The U.S. had championed the creation of a new order but now could not be a party to it.
  • Finally, the decision by Russia to withdraw from the war in 1917 also had consequences in the Paris Conference. The Communist Revolution (covered in the next section) which had taken place in Russia was economically and philosophically different from the capitalist systems of the west. The Communist condemned the war and repudiated their debts. They also revealed private deals that the Allies had entered into concerning post-war negotiations. For these reasons, the Allied Powers did not invite Russia to the Peace Conference in Paris.

o    The Birth of Communism

  • The Russian Empire on the eve of the twentieth century was ill-prepared to face the challenges of the future. There were many problems which the Russian Empire was structurally incapable of fixing or could not adequately address. For example, the Russian leader (whose title was “Tsar,” also spelled as “Czar”), Nicholas II, was a despotic monarch who believed that because he got his power directly from God, the people did not need any political party or a legislature. All laws came from Czar Nicholas II who was assisted in the administration by the noble aristocratic families. In this section we shall review weaknesses of the Russian society, the ideas of Karl Marx, the Russian Revolutions (in February and October) and Russian Civil War.
  • The Russian society was made up of primarily 3 classes. The peasants, who made up 80 percent of the population, were the poorest. They depended on the land to support their families, but these lands were owned by the aristocrats. As landlords, the aristocratic class were relatively fewer in number (approximately 1.5 percent of the total population), but the power they wielded exceeded their numbers. Every so often the landlord redistributed the land to the peasants while keeping the most arable areas. The peasants depended on the landlord and paid him rent for the use of the land.
  • As the industrial revolution took root in Russia, many new investors from Western Europe were looking for opportunities in the east. The process of industrialization in Russia was slower and different. The most significant areas were in the Trans-Siberian Railway, which attracted a lot of workers and development across different regions in Russia. Like elsewhere where the industrial revolution occurred, a new class made of workers emerged in Russia. Although their number was relatively smaller because Russia was fairly new to the process, the working class in Russia faced many problems. There were no legalized labor unions to bring the changes that workers wanted, and as a result, they worked long hours under terrible conditions for minimal pay. Russian workers were willing to agitate for changes, but they were prohibited from doing so. The peasants, like the workers, were in a similar bind. There were no political parties through which they could express their frustrations. Land was owned by a few and freedom to express themselves did not exist. There were no elections because Czar Nicholas II ruled by divine right.
  • It was within this atmosphere that many intellectuals in Russia (they were very few) decided to look elsewhere for ideas on what could be done to bring change. As intellectuals, there were few opportunities for them in a society where the aristocrats were favored to rule and run the country along with the czar. The Russian intellectuals were thus looking forward to creating a representative democracy with election of their leaders, a national legislature, and basic and protected freedoms under a constitution.
  • Karl Marx, who is often mentioned in relation to Russia, was a German-born Jew who settled in Britain. Karl Marx and Fredrick Engelsare considered the intellectual fathers of communism. In the two most influential books on the subject, Das Capital and subsequently Communist ManifestoMarx impugned the capitalist market system of Adam Smith. Karl Marx argued that capitalism was a stage in human development which was fraught with problems as it created class differences. He claimed that private ownership of the factors of production (land, labor and capital) by the wealthy bourgeoisie gave rise to the exploitation of workers. Under capitalist systems, Marx argued that the quest for profit drove the creation of empire, colonialism and state control by the wealthy individuals. As a result he concluded that the state institutions like the army, police, and jails were all tools of coercion that the upper classes use to control the poor working class people.

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  • Karl Marx & Frederick Engels
  • Karl Marx recommended communism as an alternative to capitalism. He stated that after the capitalist phase of human development, societies will progress to socialism (which is the last stage before communism). Under the socialist system (a lesser form of communism) private ownership of property and the factors of production will be completely eliminated and individuals will be motivated to work for the collective good of the society which meets all their needs and not only the needs of the wealthy. Since communities will have common ownership, the class system will disappear and so too will the need for police and the army. Finally Karl Marx posited that for a communist revolution to occur two conditions must be met: the country must be an advanced capitalist system with a significant working class (proletariat) population. The second condition was that the proletariat was the revolutionary class and their leaders must emerge from within this rank. Karl Marx and Engels concluded with the words, “workers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains.”
  • The question was whether Russia could meet the ideal standards for a communist revolution as set by Marx and Engels. The Social Democratic Labor was the main socialist political party in Russia at a time when political parties were illegal. After that party collapsed in 1903, the Bolshevik Partyemerged and championed the dream for a communist revolution according to the ideals of Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels. Although the Bolsheviks recognized the differences between Russia and the standard set in the Communist Manifesto, they nevertheless believed that Russian intellectuals could make up for what the workers lacked. When political parties became legal in 1905 the other political parties which developed in Russia did not share the same vision with the Bolsheviks. The Liberals and the Non-Marxist Socialists vehemently disagreed with the Bolsheviks in their vision for a new Russia, but what they all wanted was a replacement of the despotic monarchy of Czar Nicholas II.
  • Although the Russian economy was progressing as a result of the industrial revolution, an economic slump in 1900 and 1905 caused the workers to go on strike. They demanded legal equality, basic freedoms, an 8-hour workday, minimum wage, the right to unionize and to strike, the right to create political parties, and to elect their representatives. When the workers tried to present their petition to Czar Nicholas II more than 300 of them were killed. This massacre became known as “Bloody Sunday” because it happened on a Sunday, but the failure of the Czar to hold the officers accountable exacerbated the tension as more workers across the country rose up in protest.
  • This crisis coincided with the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905in which Russia was defeated by Japan. This marked the first time in recent memory in which an Asian country had defeated a European nation. The consequences of this victory for Japan were significant while the repercussions for Russia were far-reaching. Besieged by an external defeat and threatened by domestic revolution, Czar Nicholas II was forced to make some concessions.  He granted workers the right to unionize, offered universal male suffrage,  and allowed a new constitution which guaranteed freedom of religion, press and speech. However, there were problems with these concessions and the new constitution. The Czar could veto any legislation passed by the democratically elected house (called Duma in Russia). He could even dissolve the house if he wished. Finally, the electoral system was blatantly unequal with one aristocratic vote equal to 15 peasant and 45 worker votes. The goal to create a constitutional monarchy in Russia had instead unleashed the people’s appetite for more freedoms.
  • It was at this point in their history when World War I broke out. Although Russia rarely gets the credit it deserves in this war, it is important to note that as part of the Allied Powers, Russia did score significant successes against the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire. By 1917 the effect of the war on the belligerent nations was visible. Russia, more than any other country in Europe, had sustained the highest casualties with close to 2 million dead. As a result of this and because of the ineptitude of the Czar Nicholas II in his conduct of the war, there were uprisings and labor unrests across Russia. The Czar was forced by the February Revolution to abdicate his throne. The provisional government led by Social Democrats, who gained control of Russia, made the ill-fated decision to continue with the war. This decision to continue with an unpopular war prompted the Bolshevik (Communist) Party to oppose the provisional government. The Bolsheviks under their leader, Vladimir Lenin, gained popularity and ultimately overthrew the provisional government in the October Revolution of 1917.
  • The success of the Communists in the Russian Revolution meant that they could now end the war as they saw fit. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsksigned between Germany and Russia in March 1918 ceded Russian control over much of the East to Germany in return for a peaceful withdrawal from the war. After Russia left the war, it was not until the armistice of November 1918 when the war formally ended. After being ceded to Germany in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the countries of Finland, Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia all became newly independent states with the defeat of Germany. The triumph of communism in Russia provoked a backlash from a mixed assortment of conservatives, landowners, pro-monarchists and liberals (known as the Whites) who came together in a civil war to topple communism in Russia. The war between the Whites (supported by the West) and the Reds (Bolshevik-Communists) lasted until 1921.
  • Vladimir Lenin

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U.S. Involvement, Wilson’s 14 Points, and The League of Nations

The United States under President Woodrow Wilson had pledged at the outset of the Great War to remain neutral. While some Americans supported the Allies, others were in favor of the Central Powers, thus neutrality seemed like the most appropriate thing to do. But after winning reelection in 1916, President Wilson was confronted with an increasing German submarine attack on U.S. vessels, such as the Lusitania, which left more than 100 Americans dead. The immediate involvement by the U.S. into World War I was provoked by an obscure, but potentially treacherous message sent from Germany. The Zimmerman Telegram was sent by Germany to Mexico with assurances that should Mexico enter into an alliance with Germany in the Great War, Germany would help Mexico to regain Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California – all states that were lost to the U.S. in the Mexican War. The Zimmerman Telegram helped to sway an undecided public to enter the war. President Woodrow Wilson sought and Congress declared War on Germany on April 6th, 1917.

American troops were not ready for war despite the Congressional mandate. In 1918, the first American soldiers landed in Europe and this changed the tide of the war which had turned with the withdrawal of Russia in 1917. By the end of 1918 more than 2 million American soldiers had seen combat in Europe. But not all Americans were treated equally in the battlefields of Europe. The Harlem Hellfighters were a unit of African-Americans who because of Jim Crow were denied the right to fight under the American flag. Instead, they fought against the Germans under French command. Their bravery and sacrifices earned them respect and the name Harlem Hellfighters.

Click here to read more about the Harlem Hellfighters.

Faced with increasing pressure from the Allies especially because of the counteroffensives launched with the help of the Americans, Germany surrendered and signed an armistice on November 11, 1918.

President Woodrow Wilson drew up a plan that would later be known as the Fourteen Points to address the post-war period. Wilson called for the creation of a multinational organization to replace the erstwhile European alliances and balance of power. This new body was to have the authority to resolve global disputes and it became known as the League of Nations (the precursor to the United Nations). Wilson’s plan included the right to self-determination, equality of the people of the world and collective military action in the face of aggression. This last item was a major reason why Congress did not ratify the Peace Treaty and thus America missed an opportunity to serve as leader of the world as Wilson envisioned.

With more than 20 million dead in World War I, the British and the French were not very interested in Wilson’s ideas. They held Germany responsible under the War Guilt Clause of the Treaty of Versailles. Germany was forced to pay reparations and lost its overseas colonies. France even wanted Germany to be divided up as it was before unification.

In Africa, Germany lost control of its colonies in Kamerun (Cameroon) which became a Mandate territory of the League of Nations. The League of Nations created three different types of mandates for the territories seized from Germany and its allies. Class A mandates were territories which were considered capable of self-rule and independence within a relatively short period. This category included territories which were all in the Middle East such as Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Transjordan and Iraq. Class B mandates were all in Africa and the prospect for them to gain independence or self rule was distant. The German colony of Kamerun (now called Cameroon in English or Cameroun in French) fell under this category. Those regions classified under Class C mandates were considered eternally incapable of self rule or independence and included German South West Africa (today called Namibia) which was given to South Africa, Western Samoa given to New Zealand and Papua New Guinea to be administered by Australia.

The League divided Cameroon between the British, who controlled Nigeria, and the French, who were in charge of Central Africa. Thus, an African nation which played absolutely no role in causing the war was divided up as the spoils of war between the victors. French Cameroungained independence in 1960 from France. The English-speaking Cameroons were in a more complicated scenario because the British further divided their own portion of the Cameroons into two: British Northern Cameroons and British Southern Cameroons. In a 1961 plebiscite (conducted by the United Nations, which had replaced the League of Nations) to determine their future as independent states, the two Cameroons under British rule and administered as part of Nigeria voted differently. British Northern Cameroon voted to remain as part of Nigeria and is today part of the northern states in the Federal Republic of Nigeria. On the other hand, British Southern Cameroon voted to gain independence by reunifying with French Cameroun in 1961. Today the two Cameroons (with English and French speaking sections) have an uneasy peace as the English speaking minority (shown in red in the maps below) are increasingly decrying their position in the union with some advocating for secession from the French speaking regions. But the crisis in Cameroon like others can be traced to World War I and the Versailles Treaty.


All defeated powers such as Germany and the Ottoman Empire lost their colonies, which were to be administered by the League of Nations as Mandates. This meant that the League of Nations was to prepare these territories for independence. The Arab states were governed by the French and English as mandates. The British rule over Palestine ultimately split that land among the Palestinian Arabs and the Jews with a resultant conflict that is present today. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire therefore saw the rise of new states such as Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq.

The Great Depression

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The twentieth century had many challenges for the world in general, but particularly so for the West. Western capitalism which was hailed over socialism and communism faced imminent collapse. The greatest economic slump in history known as the Great Depression was caused by many factors. World War I had poisoned the well of goodwill and garnered instead such mistrust that any political international action had little chance of success. So when the United States Stock Exchange Market crashed on what has become known as Black Tuesday (October 29, 1929), many investors saw the value of their shares fall precipitously. In a few hours investors lost what they had gained in an entire year – $14 billion which was the equivalent of $185 billion in 2011. What made this crash significant was the fact that it determined the direction of the market and the global economy for the next decade.

In the days following Black Tuesday the economy and the markets continued on a downward spiral. For example, in the next four days, stock market prices fell by 25 percent, which cost a total loss of more than what the U.S. had spent in World War I and was ten times more than the federal budget in 1929. On November 13, 1929 the Stock Market hit its lowest point with over $100 billion lost. When the major banks like Morgan and Chase intervened to stem the losses by buying back stocks, this was a signal to investors that all was not well and instead many flooded the market to sell causing further losses.

The stock market crash on Black Tuesday did not cause the Great Depression. But it definitely played a role as it destroyed confidence in the economy. Back then, many Americans believed that what was good for Wall Street was good for Main Street. Thus the stock market was seen as reflecting the state of the economy. As a result of the panic, people rushed to their banks to withdraw all their savings since there were no federally insured savings. If the bank closed while your money was saved, that was a loss which could not be salvaged. But as more people withdrew their money from the banks, more banks were forced to close because they lacked fluid capital to stay in business.

Since the United States was not attacked during the World War I, its farmers and economy continued to produce goods which were used in war ravaged Europe. Americans were enjoying a substantial boost as a result of the war. With time, however, many in Europe could not afford to pay for these goods. At the end of the war, Germany and Austria were required to make reparations they could not afford. For the British, French and other European countries, once the war ended, their farmers were able to start a gradual return to the fields. Their industries gradually started to pick up, but the British and the French expected German reparation payments to be used to grow their economies. If the payments stopped, these economies were affected. The initial growth in the economies of Western European countries implied a decline in the dependence on and demand for American goods. For the United States, the boom cycle of the economy which they had enjoyed since the war had come to an end.

The Dawes and Young Plan in the U.S. was intended to resolve this problem by providing loans to the Germans to help pay their debts to the Allies. Britain and France depended on this money to pay for their loans from the United States. It is evident that money from the United States to the Germans was used to pay reparations to the British and the French. These two countries used the reparation money to pay down the debts they had incurred during the war from the U.S. All of this was fine as long as the U.S. economy was booming. But this precarious situation came crashing down with the Stock Market collapse of 1929 marking the beginning of the Great Depression.

The Great Depression affected people differently. Many banks were forced to close because their investments and stocks lost value. Almost everyone lost their savings while workers lost their jobs. Unemployment reached 30 percent in Germany and several other countries. The absence of social security or services meant that many Americans depended on soup kitchens and breadlines which could no longer help them as the situation deteriorated.

Although the U.S. served as a major creditor and financier after World War I, there were some structural problems within its economy. Many of the people who invested in the stock market engaged in what was known as margin trading. That simply meant that many investors asked their brokers to buy stocks on credit while making only the minimal amount due. But when the market crashed the brokers demanded complete payments to be made which many could not afford. Banks also became insolvent as people rushed to collect their savings. Industries could not get loans as banks were now hard on cash forcing many to lay off workers. Productivity declined, industrial growth slowed and purchasing power in the economy ebbed.

In 1930, the U.S. passed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act as means to protect the American farmer. During World War I, American farmers enjoyed the demand for their produce, but after the war, European, African and South American produce were flooding the global markets causing a decline in prices. Some American leaders believed that by raising tariffs on farm products they would protect American farmers by making farm imports expensive. Although the tariff did not cause the depression, it did not make it any better because as a result of the U.S. raising the tariff, foreign countries also invoked retaliatory measures provoking a fall in global trade by 66% from 1929 to 1934. American exports to Europe fell from $2.3 billion in 1929 to $784 million in 1932. European exports to the U.S. also fell to $390 million in 1932 from $1.3 billion in 1929. After World War II the U.S. would become the champion of free global trade, but at this time that was not the case.

The Great Depression did not affect only the U.S. and Europe. In West Africa for example, Ghana which supplied cocoa to the industrial markets of Europe faced a significant drop in commodity prices. South American economies that also depended on export were badly affected. A number of military takeovers or dictatorships occurred in countries like Mexico and Brazil. Many critics argued during this period that Russian communism perhaps deserved a closer re-examination. This was particularly so because the Communist government in Russia carried out massive industrialization and a program of rebuilding the economy which created full scale employment in the 1930s when the rest of the world economy was hit by the Great Depression. In the United States, the government of Franklin Roosevelt was willing to try anything new to save the economy. The New Deal which redefined the relationship between Americans and their government created a series of safety nets by following the ideas of Maynard Keynes who argued that governments should invest in infrastructure during period of recessions. The response of Germany, Italy and Japan to the Great Depression was different from all that has been discussed so far.

The Rise of Fascism

Fascism emerged as an alternative solution to the problems facing the world after World War I. It was a nationalistic movement which at its root was opposed to communism, parliamentary democracy, feminism, liberalism and freedom of press. Fascism appealed to a broad spectrum in society, but seemed to have had a great effect on Italy, Germany, Spain and Japan.

In Italy, Benito Mussolini was the fascist leader who gained a gradual majority in government through democractic elections, and then used his influence to pass laws creating a fascist state with power concentrated in the hands of a single leader. All labor unions were abolished and press freedoms were limited. To address the problems of the Great Depression, Italy under Mussolini took over all banks and nationalized the industrial sector. Subsequently, he turned his attention to Africa where in 1931 he successfully invaded and conquered the former Ottoman Empire territory of Libya. In 1935, Mussolini marched in Ethiopia to avenge the humiliating defeat his country had suffered at the hands of the African country in the Battle of Adowa in 1896.

Denunciations of his actions did not stop Mussolini from settling over 200,000 Italians in Ethiopia to release pressure from the homeland by pacifying the colony. The League of Nations could only decry the aggressions by Mussolini, but could not stop it. Mussolini moved closer towards Adolf Hitler who became his ally in the Rome-Berlin Axis of 1936.

Benito Mussolini & Adolf Hitler

In Germany, the end of World War I saw the abdication of the emperor and the creation of a new government under the Social Democratic Party known as the Weimar Republic. It was the Weimar Republic which signed the Versailles Treaty accepting German responsibility for the war. Faced with attacks from all angles, a crushing reparation debt, and mounting unemployment, the Weimar Republic was unable to defend its record. It was within this atmosphere that the National Socialist Party (Nazi) found expression and popularity of fascist concepts. Hitler gained tremendous support with his message of German nationalism, racial superiority, and hatred for the Jews, disabled, and blacks. In 1933, the Nazi party won 37 percent of the vote, and Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany.

Like Mussolini, Hitler, silenced the press and labor unions, and he solidified his control over the nation. Hitler built roads, bridges, rearmed the military and invested in public projects that employed many Germans. His policies were so successful that Germany emerged out of the Great Depression and Hitler became more popular. Hitler, targeted the Jews as the source of German problems. In 1935, Germany passed the Nuremberg Laws which forbade German citizenship to Jews.

While Japan never had any single ruler who enjoyed the same status of Hitler or Mussolini, the country gravitated towards authoritarianism. The Great Depression made the Japanese look favorably towards Radical Nationalism, an organization which, like Fascism, rejected democracy, favored an exalted emperor and territorial aggrandizement in foreign policy.

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There were many reasons why Japan made the move towards imperialism and militarism. Japanese militarism probably goes as far back as the period of the Meiji Restoration when in 1873 the country passed a conscription law requiring all men to serve in active duty for three years with four years of additional reserve duties. Japan aspired for Western-style imperialism especially as western countries such as Britain, Netherlands, France and Spain had made intrusions into Asia using their military power. For Japan to be able to enjoy such privileges, the country needed to industrialize. After Japan defeated China in 1894-1895, Japan forced the Chinese to pay reparations while Japan also seized the island of Formosa. The tides were turned when European countries forced Japan to give back some other islands. At this point the Japanese knew that their economy, military and security defined how they were perceived and treated by others.

As the European countries continued to expand and create empires, Japan came to share a belief in “manifest destiny” by holding that they had the responsibility to free other Asian countries from foreign imperialism. Invoking the principle of Social Darwinism, the Japanese saw their expansion as a means of survival reserved only for the strongest countries. This belief was bolstered by the Japanese defeat of Russia in 1904.

Perhaps the most immediate factors that influenced Japan towards militarism was their treatment by European countries from the unequal treaties and coercive acts in the 1850s to the post-war conference in Paris. In signing the unequal treaties with France, Holland, U.S. and Russia, Japan was humiliated to concede immunity from Japanese courts to foreigners. In 1905, the state of California passed Anti-Japanese laws, which in San Francisco sent Japanese children to segregated schools. The Paris Conference rejected a Japanese proposal for racial equality in the League of Nations Covenants. At the Washington Naval Conference of 1921, U.S. and Britain assigned a low status to Japan by the 5:5:3 ratio which meant for every five military ships built by the U.S. and Britain, Japan was allowed only three. This treaty was renewed in the 1930s and Japan was pressured into signing it as it was extended to heavy cruisers. In 1924 America passed the Japanese Exclusion Act which prohibited immigration by Japanese into the U.S.

For Japan to assert itself and occupy its appropriate place under the sun, the country needed rapid industrialization and a robust military, But by the 1930s the Great Depression and the Smoot-Hawley Act had caused a decline in global trade. The Japanese needed new markets for their goods and raw materials for their industries. The Dutch East Indies, for example, had oil which Japan badly needed along with iron ore in China.

After making the necessary calculations, Japan launched an attack against China in Manchuria on September 18, 1931. At this point the Japanese believed that they had attained the imperial status of any western country and could now afford to gain control of Asia. By 1937 Japan was engaged in an all-out war with China which ultimately culminated in the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

Japanese troops entering Tsitsihar in Manchuria.


World War II

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The origin of World War II can be placed squarely at the doorsteps of World War I. Dissatisfied with the status quo after the first war, some countries took matters in their own hands to redress the situation. In what ways do you think the First World War was responsible for the second? Let us begin our discussion about World War II with the Japanese in Asia.

Like we did in World War I, please watch the video below and note the differences John Green raises in his analysis of World War II.


  • World War II started in World War I? What do you think?
  • What were the consequences of this war?
  • What was the Hunger Plan as described in the video above?

Although Japan had limited participation in World War I, it wanted a place at the peace negotiations in Paris. Instead the Japanese felt humiliated as they were denied any equal treatment with the Western powers. After the war, the Washington Naval Treaties (1921-1922) codified a second class status for Japan by limiting the number of naval vessels Japan could build relative to other countries such as the U.S. or Great Britain.

Japan already controlled a portion of China as a result of the war with Russia in 1904, but in 1931 the Japanese army seized the Chinese province of Manchuria. The League of Nations, like a toothless bulldog, could only decry Japan’s aggression as it lacked the ability and resources to stop it. Japan later withdrew from the League and joined Germany and Italy in the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis. Japan continued its invasion of China by attacking mainland China in 1937.

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America supplied most of the raw materials that Japan needed in its war effort such as scrap iron, oil, copper and machine tools, but the U.S. was displeased with Japanese aggression and sought to limit the export of critical commodities to Japan. The Japanese responded by invading territories in Asia that were under Western imperial control. Japan invaded Malaya, Burma, Indonesia, Indochina, and the Philippines by claiming “Asia for Asians.” The Japanese argument was that they were liberating other Asians from European or American colonialism, but the other Asians soon realized that Japanese rule was not different from Western imperial rule. Ultimately, the Japanese made the decision to attack the U.S. by destroying its naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in 1941. This was the immediate action which brought the U.S. into World War II and merged the theaters in Europe and Asia into a global war.


  • In your opinion, what are some of the reasons that caused Japan to invade the U.S.?
  • Did this attack on Pearl Harbor hurt or help the Japanese cause?

On the same day that Japan attacked the U.S., other Japanese divisions invaded the Philippines. From there Japan continued with its policy to capture and “liberate” the Pacific Islands from Western control. They moved into Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. In May 1942, American forces stemmed the tide of Japanese advances in the Battle of the Coral Sea. General Douglas MacArthur led the American forces who started advancing on Japan after they prevented a possible Japanese attack on Australia. President Roosevelt died before the war ended and was succeeded by Harry Truman who made the ultimate decision on how Japan was defeated. The United Stated brought Japan to its knees with the dropping of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.  In the areas that Japan had conquered, did the Japanese live up to the demand they made at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 on racial equality?

In Europe, Germany led the charge to war. Since Hitler had risen to power by promising to right the “wrongs” of the Versailles Treaty, he consistently violated every tenet of that treaty. After rebuilding the German army, Hitler entered the forbidden areas of the Rhineland which were demilitarized under the Versailles Treaty. In 1938, Hitler moved into Austria and Czechoslovakia and by 1939 he had launched an all-out war into Poland. With the treaty between Germany, Italy and Japan, the two European partners swept through much of Europe by 1941 while Japan gained control of Asia. The U.S. declared war against Japan in 1941 after the attack on Pearl Harbor, but was unable to go to war until 1942. Despite being attacked by Japan, the U.S. first went to war against Germany in Europe.


Fighting in World War II

The Path to War

After fighting in the Western Front in World War I, Hitler decided to try his hands in politics by joining the German Workers’ Party.  Hitler renamed the party National Socialist German Workers Party (popularly known as the Nazi party). For this party to be successful, Hitler needed to express his vision and translate his ideas into policies that would benefit the average German.  This was accomplished with his autobiographical publication known as Mein Kampf (My Struggle). Hitler expounded on his ideas of extreme German nationalism, a disdain for communism, anti-Semitism and his belief in Social Darwinism especially as it relates to the supremacy of the German people. Hitler advocated for a living space (Lebensraum) which implied the right of the superior German race to rule and control other lesser races.

The problems facing Germany after World War I together with the Great Depression made many Germans gravitate toward extremist right wing parties believing that they could solve all problems. Hitler’s appeal cut across many different classes. The poor saw him as a man who would create employment for the masses. The industrialists, landowners, and military experts believed that Hitler would protect Germany from the threat of communism. Thus, the Nazi party easily became the largest party in Germany winning large numbers of seats in the legislature (the Reichstag). Hitler used his new authority to pass laws which granted him more powers, and by 1934, all power rested with him as he acquired the title of “Fuhrer,” or leader of the German people.

Once Hitler was completely in charge, he set in place the process towards scrapping the Treaty of Versailles, which he blamed for most of Germany’s problems. In his public speeches, Hitler claimed to be a man of peace who simply wanted to correct only those provisions of the treaty that had been unfair to his people. Although Germany was forbidden from having an air force along with only a limited army, on March 9, 1935 Hitler stated that Germany would have a new air force which was quickly followed with an expansion of the army. Although the British and French criticized him, they did not intervene. Hitler’s move was to send his army into the demilitarized Rhineland in 1936. Once Hitler noticed that the British and French were unwilling to go to war to enforce the provisions of the Versailles Treaty, he continued to violate all of its terms.

In 1935, Italy also had territorial ambitions like Germany. Italy invaded Ethiopia but was angered by the condemnation of the League of Nations. Mussolini responded by forming an alliance with Hitler which in 1936 supported General Francisco Franco, the fascist leader in the Spanish Civil War. The war in Spain provided Hitler with an opportunity to test all the new weapons he was developing in violation of the Versailles Treaty. Hitler later signed an anti-communist cooperation agreement with Japan. With his friendship in Europe now guaranteed, Hitler continued his plan towards expansion. The next stop was Austria. Hitler forced the Austrian chancellor to appoint Nazi supporters in position of power. Afterwards these supporters “begged” Hitler to enter Austria to maintain law and order. Austria, which was the birthplace of Adolf Hitler, became officially annexed in March 1938.

The insatiable Hitler believed that he could take over the newly created Czechoslovakia by claiming that he simply wanted the Sudetenland (the northwestern part of Czechoslovakia) which was heavily populated by ethnic Germans. When Hitler made the demands, the British leader Neville Chamberlain and his French ally met in Munich with a view to appease Hitler. Hitler had successfully gotten Chamberlain to believe that this was his last demand. German soldiers marched into the Sudetenland, but by March 1939 they occupied all of Czechoslovakia. Hitler had come to believe that the West was weak, and he saw himself as being the most powerful leader in the world. Within a few weeks, Hitler made new demands on the Polish port of Danzig. Hitler still believed that Britain and France would not go to war over Poland, but he feared the possibility of an alliance between the Soviet Union and Western powers which would push Germany into a war on two fronts. For this reason, Hitler entered into a non-aggression pact with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to preclude such a prospect. On September 1, 1939, Germany unleashed its newly tested (in Spain) air force with a strategy known as the Blitzkrieg or “lightning war.”

With a combined air and ground assault, German troops had overpowered Poland forcing surrender on September 28, 1939. The Soviet Union had also invaded Poland in the east carving a section which was secretly agreed upon in the non-aggression pact with Hitler. To Hitler’s dismay, the British and French declared war when he invaded Poland. But with a quick victory Hitler enjoyed a relatively short winter break until April 9, 1940 when he let loose the Blitzkrieg again on Europe but this time against Denmark and Norway. A month later he moved into the Netherlands, Belgium and France. Hitler invaded France through Luxembourg and by June 1940 the French army capitulated. Germany controlled almost all of Western Europe.

When Hitler made the decision to invade Britain, it was obvious that the Germans would have to exercise absolute control of the air and the seas to be successful. So in August 1940 the German Luftwaffe (air force) started an aerial attack on British war industries, ports, air, and naval bases. The British Royal Air Force fought back and with the assistance of their radar system they were able to pick up early warnings of an approaching German attack. A change in British tactics forced the German Luftwaffe to make adjustments on their British targets. Despite the heavy losses by the British, the Germans could not win, and Hitler faced his first major retreat in the war as he was forced to postpone any amphibious invasion of Britain.

After the British impasse, Hitler’s attention turned to Russia. Although he had signed a non-aggression pact with Russia, Hitler hated what he considered to be the Jewish-Bolshevik leadership and was set to crush them. Hitler also believed that the British had refused to surrender because they expected Russian support, so if Russia could be defeated there would no hope for the British. He also contemplated the possibility of defeating the British in Egypt and closing their access to the Suez Canal thereby cutting off their supplies from the Mediterranean. Eventually Hitler left this plan in the hands of his ally, Benito Mussolini, but the Italian army was weak as they were swept aside by the British. Hitler’s initial plan to invade Russia in the spring of 1941 was delayed because of the ineffective Italian army which in October 1940 invaded Greece. The German war machine had to come to the rescue of Mussolini when Hitler invaded Yugoslavia and Greece in April 1941. It was only after he had completely secured these areas that Hitler turned his undivided attention to Russia.

Adolf Hitler reserved his largest attack on the Soviet Union. With more than 3200 war planes, the Luftwaffe rained bombs on Russia while 180 army divisions and 8,000 tanks blanketed Russia. Although Hitler believed that the Soviet Union could easily be defeated, he could not have been more incorrect. Joseph Stalin mobilized 160 infantry divisions with another 300 in the reserves. The Germans made quick advances with remarkable successes and by November they had come within 25 miles of the Russian capital of Moscow. But the winter weather in Russia has always been known to be unfriendly to foreign invaders. While his commanders on the ground wanted a retreat during the severe weather, Hitler rejected their demand. What happened next caught the Germans off guard. A severe winter and a major counter-offensive by the Russian army in December 1941 broke the invincibility of the German army. Across the Atlantic at this same time, the United States in December 1941 was brought into the war by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Germany’s declaration of war against the U.S.

Things started to turn against the Germans when the U.S. entered the war and formed the Grand Alliance with Britain and the Soviet Union. These powers decided on the unconditional surrender of the Axis Powers (Germany, Italy and Japan) to avoid the mistakes of World War I. The Allies decided to ignore their political differences and focus first on the defeat of Germany. In the meantime, the Germans were still making headway as their invasion of North Africa broke British defenses by fall of 1942. That was the last major victory for the German Afrika Korpsdivision. A combined assault by British and American soldiers defeated the Germans and forced them to surrender in May 1943. Hitler still held on to his belief that he would defeat the Soviet Union. His soldiers captured Crimea and advanced on Stalingrad. But this situation did not last for too long as the Germans were cornered and ultimately retreated to the 1942 positions.

The Allies opened an invasion in 1943 from North Africa and then advanced on Italy. Despite support from the Germans, Rome fell on June 4, 1944. By this time, the Allies had been planning an attack on German positions in France from the English Channel. Stalin believed that such a plan would force Hitler to fight a war on two fronts and reduce the severity of German attacks on Russia. The British and the Americans initially disagreed as they supported the invasion of Italy from North Africa. This delay in opening the “second front” became an issue in the period after the war, as it complicated the relationship between the Russians on one hand and their British and American allies on the other. On June 6, 1944 the greatest naval invasion the world had seen was launched on the beaches of Normandy in France. From this position, the Allies advanced and liberated France and then started the move into Germany. The Soviets also mounted attacks on Hitler as they advanced westward. The days of the German Reich under Adolf Hitler were numbered. On May 7, 1945 the Germans surrendered. What would the world have looked like had the Germans won?

Post War Conferences

In the period after World War I, we discussed the problems of the Paris Peace Conference, the vision of Woodrow Wilson and the Anglo-French need to punish the Germans. Hitler subsequently used these problems to justify militarism. Therefore, the big question after World War II was would the same mistakes be made? World War II was the most devastating war in history with more 21 million soldiers killed and over 40 million civilian casualties. Of these the Soviet Union had more than 29 million of the dead. Unfortunately, despite the unconditional surrender by the Axis Powers, the post-World War II period was followed by another major confrontation known as the Cold War.

The leaders of the Grand Alliance: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill of Great Britain, and Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union met at a conference in Tehran (capital of Iran) in November 1943 to plan their strategies against Hitler, Mussolini and Japan. It was at this meeting that they agreed that the defeat of Germany in Europe was of vital necessity in this global war. As a result they prepared plans for the Anglo-American invasion of Germany in France in the Second Front. This plan implied that the Soviet Union would liberate Eastern Europe while the Americans and the British took care of the west.

The next conference was held in the southern Russian city of Yalta in February 1945. Germany was on the verge of being defeated, but significant differences were emerging between the Allies. Stalin was suspicious of the west, and his plan for a post-war Europe was not the same as that of Roosevelt. Roosevelt wanted the liberated countries from Nazi occupation to hold free elections and decide their own futures. Roosevelt also made deals with Stalin as he needed Russian help in defeating Japan. Finally, Roosevelt shared some of Wilson’s goals as he championed the creation of the United Nations to replace the ineffective League of Nations. His plan included giving the Big Three powers the opportunity to discuss important issues, but Stalin wanted to create a buffer zone between Germany and Russia to prevent a repeat of history. The Russian leader was not keen on the idea of “free and democratic elections” in Eastern Europe because he wanted to control the resource rich areas while maintaining Soviet-friendly governments along the border.  They all agreed on the need for Germany to pay reparations which were set at $20 billion and for Germany to be divided into four occupation zones with each quarter going to Russia, Britain, France and the U.S.

Grand Alliance leaders at the Potsdam Conference: Clement Attlee, Harry Truman, & Joseph Stalin

The last of the postwar conferences took place in Potsdam, Germany in July 1945. The Russians and their western Allies had come together to defeat the common threat of fascism, but this wartime alliance was possible only because they had a common enemy. There were insurmountable ideological differences between them. It was obvious that the west detested communism while Communist Russia wanted to spread its philosophy to the world. Added to this complicated picture, President Roosevelt had died in April and by July Harry Truman, the new American president, attended the conference. The British wartime leader Winston Churchill was replaced by Clement Attlee in July 1945. The U.S. had also tested the atomic bomb, a secret they shared with the British but withheld from Russia. This further complicated the relationship between these men, although Russian spies had notified Stalin about the existence of the American weapon. Stalin was absolutely opposed to the idea of free elections in Eastern Europe. It was now clear that no sooner had World War II ended, new battle lines between communism and capitalism were being drawn in what became known as the Cold War.

The Cold War

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World War II has been considered to be the most destructive war in recorded human history with over 50 million deaths. As that war ended another type of conflict rose out of its ashes known as the Cold War. It seems the world could never operate without problems. From World War I, Communist Revolution, Great Depression, Fascism, World War II and now the Cold War, the twentieth century had its own share of global issues.  In this unit, the focus will be to identify the milestones in the development of the Cold War.

Distrust between the Soviet Union as the leader of the Communist bloc and the United States could be traced as far back as the period of the Russian Civil War when the West supported the Whites. The Cold War was a series of conflicts fought between the Communists led by the Soviet Union and the Capitalists led by the United States. It was fought across continents (Africa, Asia, Europe, Americas) in the old and newly independent countries and even in space. Sometimes the Cold War broke out in military battles, but it also took the form of economic conflicts, propaganda, espionage, and diplomatic entanglements.

The most immediate causes of the Cold War could be identified in World War II with the Russian perception that although they were allies with the West, the West was reluctant to open a Second Front against Hitler which led to a significant increase in Russian casualties in the hands of the Germans. Stalin believed that had the Allies launched an attack against Hitler earlier in France, Hitler might have been forced to retreat from Russia sooner and thus some lives may have been spared. The Americans and British, on the other hand, believed that the best place to first attack Hitler was in his weakest underbelly in Italy.

By the end of the war after Russia had successfully pushed back the Germans, the Russian need for a buffer zone between Germany and Russia was understandable. While the West called for open and democratic elections for these countries to decide their future, the Russians who liberated these areas from Nazi Germany argued that Germany had invaded Russia twice through these same spaces in less than 30 years, therefore there was no possibility of giving up these territories.

The Iron Curtain, as this dividing line across Europe was known, separated the areas under Communist and Western rule. Ambassador George F. Kennan developed the U.S. policy towards Russia which was called Containment. The goal was to check or limit the spread of communism anywhere in the world. What was the Russian policy towards the U.S. during the Cold War and what evidence can you cite to support your ideas?

Confrontations in Europe

The Berlin Blockade of 1948-1949 was the first international crisis of the Cold War. Germany had been defeated by the Allies and partitioned among them into four zones. The German capital of Berlin, was located in the Russian zone, but Berlin itself was also divided into four zones among the Allies. In June of 1948, Russia blocked all land access to the Western zone of Berlin. In response to this aggression, the Western powers decided to airlift all their supplies to West Berlin.

The United States created the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) which like the alliance system in Europe before World War I, was basically a military umbrella for Western democracies in which members were guaranteed each other’s support in the event of an invasion. Russia also created its own rival military bloc known as the Warsaw Pact which was made up of countries in the Eastern bloc. In Yugoslavia, Josip Tito, who took power in 1945 with Russian help, extended his support to Greek communists who were also trying to gain control of their country. President Truman stepped in and asked Congress for help. The U.S. responded to the crisis in Greece with a promise to support “free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures.” President Truman confirmed the Marshall Plan(named after Secretary Marshall) which was an aid package to help rebuild European economies after the war. Josef Stalin rejected an invitation to join, but created his own rival bloc in 1949 known as COMECON (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance).

After the colossal damage wrought by World War II, it is important to discuss here the rapid economic recovery of Europe in the period from 1945-1960. There were some major changes implemented by the new governments in Europe which favored and prioritized government intervention in the economy, increased global trade, scientific and technological advances, and finally foreign aid from the United States. After the war, many European governments rejected the economic policies of the fascists as they adopted free market and laissez-faire policies. As they opened their markets, they balanced this with government stimulation of the economy. Governments in these countries invested in welfare services, heavy industries, transportation, public utilities, and farming industries.

The disastrous effects of the protectionism which happened during the Great Depression made many European countries favor trade and a reduction of tariffs. Inter-European trade increased as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development together with the European Economic Community fought to reduce barriers to trade and lower tariffs.  There was an upsurge in the demand for raw materials from Africa and Asia and, in return, an increase in the demand for finished goods from Europe.

Some scholars hold that American aid after World War II may have been the most significant factor in the economic recovery of the continent. The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), founded in 1943 and dissolved in 1948, provided the most immediate aid to Europe. In 1944, at the Bretton-Woods Conference in New Hampshire, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the International Monetary Fund were set up with the specific mission to finance the reconstruction of Europe. After President’s Truman’s commitment to support Greece, the United States announced the Marshall Plan which was a massive $12 billion aid to sponsor the recovery and reconstruction of Europe. Europe had money for industrial and agricultural investment which stimulated their economies. As a result, barely two years after the program was launched, the productivity rate exceeded by 25 percent what it had been in 1939. This massive aid also engineered greater cooperation among European countries with the creation of other entities such as Organization for European Economic Cooperation, the European Coal and Steel Community, and ultimately European Economic Community.


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The Cold War in China and Korea


The U.S. used all the tools at its disposal to contain the spread of communism. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was employed to overthrow any governments that were perceived to be sympathetic towards communism or socialism.

The Communist Revolution which took place in Russia had succeeded in a period of less than a year. Communism in China, on the other hand, was a longer struggle which started in 1921 and only triumphed in 1949. Communism was relatively unknown in China. The last of the Chinese dynasties collapsed in 1911, and after a period of chaos, China fell under the leadership of Chiang Kai Shek who promoted a series of reforms. The Chinese Communist Party led by Mao Zedong championed the resistance against the Japanese intrusion into China and thus gained popularity among the countryside farmers. In Russia, the Bolshevik Revolution had its greatest popularity among the workers. Despite American support and aid to the Chinese Nationalists led by Chiang Kai Shek, the peasant army of Mao increasingly mounted effective guerrilla warfare against the Nationalists, appealed to women, and because Mao was considered transparent, he ultimately prevailed over the American-backed Nationalists. Mao also addressed the long history of imperialist exploitation of China, and many Chinese saw American intervention as a continuation of that humiliation. China fell to the Communists in 1949 as the defeated Nationalists fled to Taiwan. Mao then consolidated his rule over the mainland with a distinct brand of Communism.


Japan controlled Korea during the period of World War II, but as the tide turned against Japan, so too did its control over all its colonies. In Korea, the country was temporarily partitioned along the 38th parallel after the Japanese defeat in the hands of American and Soviet forces. The Soviet forces were in the north while American forces were in the south. After the fall of China as a capitalist nation in 1949 and with increasing support from Russia, the North Koreans believed they could unify the island under communist rule. They crossed the 38th parallel to launch an attack aimed at unifying the island under communist rule. Following its policy of containment, the U.S. got the U.N. (which replaced the League of Nations after World War II) to declare North Korea an aggressor and send in U.N. troops to liberate the South. General Douglas MacArthur commanded the UN forces in Korea. When he completely repelled the North Koreans, MacArthur threatened to invade the rest of China which provoked China into entering the war. After a complicated war, an armistice was signed in 1953 recognizing the 38thparallel line as the divider between the two Koreas. No peace treaty has been signed by either party and this remains a hot zone even today.

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Khrushchev, Cuba, and Guatemala

Joseph Stalin died in 1953 of a stroke and was succeeded by Nikita Khrushchev who brought in a wave of fresh air by criticizing Stalin. When Poland and Hungary mistook his words as hopes for reforms, the uprising in Budapest was crushed by Russian troops. Under Khrushchev the Soviet Union was the first to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and the world’s first orbiting satellite named Sputnik into space. By 1961, Russia also sent Yuri Gagarin, the first cosmonaut, into space and subsequently sent the first woman as well. These developments frightened the U.S. and under the Eisenhower administration, the U.S. by 1958 also launched its satellite, Explorer I and its own ICBM. The Cold War had entered into space with an arms race.

Starting during the Eisenhower administration, the U.S. attempted to counteract Khrushchev’s appeal to national liberation movements in Africa, South America and Asia. Allen Dulles, as head of the CIA, ran a secret program which trained and supported anti-communists throughout the world. In 1959, the guerilla nationalists in Cuba had successfully overthrown a pro-U.S. government. The CIA trained Cuban dissidents in Guatemala with the goal to invade and overthrow Fidel Castro. President Kennedy inherited this program and supported it, but the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961 turned out to be a fiasco.

A major confrontation during the Cold war happened in 1962 when US reconnaissance planes spotted over Cuba what looked like missile launching pads planted by the Russians. Russia had planted these medium range and intermediate range nuclear ballistic missiles in Cuba in retaliation for American missles in Turkey. Kennedy promptly demanded that they be destroyed and Cuba to be quarantined to prevent any future shiploads. Khrushchev defied Kennedy and ordered Russian ships to transport some more missiles to Cuba. As the ships headed for Cuba, the world stood still at the real possibility of nuclear obliteration. In the last minute, Khrushchev blinked. He recalled the ships. Although America agreed to remove its own missiles from Turkey, the world had been on the precipice of a nuclear annihilation.  The Cuban Missile Crisis boosted Kennedy’s reputation, especially coming after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. It also helped the two superpowers to create a direct communication line to prevent the escalation of any future conflicts. A telephone line known as the “Hotline” was installed linking the White House to the Kremlin. Finally, because of the real threat of nuclear annihilation, there was a move to limit nuclear weapons. Kennedy and Khrushchev both signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963, limiting testing above ground of nuclear weapons.

In Guatemala, a democratically elected government led by JacoboArbenz Guzman was overthrown with help from the CIA. Guzman won primarily on promises to renegotiate Guatemalan land from the American-owned United Fruit Company, which monopolized many areas of life in the country. There was no evidence that Jacobo was a communist besides the support he may have received from some communists, but his support for populist policies led the CIA to believe that he was a communist. The CIA orchestrated a coup which removed Jacobo from power and replaced him with a repressive military regime in 1954. A similar process led by the CIA had also successfully removed a democratically elected leader Mohammed Mossadegh of Iran and replaced him with an American-backed autocratic monarch. It was not until 2013 (sixty years later) that the U.S. publicly acknowledged the role it played in this Iranian coup.


Vietnam was perhaps one of the most significant proxy battles for the Cold War. Initially colonized by the French, Indochina as it was called was seized by Japan during its expansionist period. After World War II ended, Indochina was fighting to gain independence, but the French wanted to continue their colonial rule. Led by the indefatigable Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese fought bravely against the French. By 1954, the French were exhausted especially because of the capture of their military base at Dien Bien Phu by the Vietnamese nationalist communist forces known as Viet Minh. So France agreed to a meeting in Geneva in which Vietnam was to be partitioned along the 17th Parallel with free elections to be held in two years to unify the country. The U.S. rejected this plan because they believed if elections were held the alleged “Communist” Ho Chi Minh would win. Therefore, the U.S. decided to prop up a new government in South Vietnam with substantial funding to prevent Vietnam from going Communist.

Concerned that a “domino effect” would ensue in Asia if any more countries were allowed to go communist, the U.S. defied all odds to defend South Vietnam. China and Russia supported North Vietnam.

In 1964 an incident (Gulf of Tonkin incident) in which a US destroyer clashed with a North Vietnamese craft, prompted Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution granting the president power to build troops on the Vietnamese peninsular. The U.S. escalated the war, and the North Vietnamese responded with the Tet Offensive which was expected to capture South Vietnam. Although the Tet Offensive did not achieve its stated goal, it won the war of public opinion as it convinced many in the U.S. that winning the war in Vietnam was not possible. South Vietnam was captured in 1975 and the war ended with a unified Vietnam under communist rule.

The Non-Aligned Movement

During the height of the Cold War in the 1960s, many African, South American, and Asian countries were fighting to gain independence from their colonial powers. The newly independent states did not want to be caught in the middle of the Cold War rivalry, so they created a non-aligned movement in which they did not formally align with or against any bloc. The organization was born in 1961 with Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Abdel Gamer Nasser of Egypt, and Josip Tito of Yugoslavia. They worked to grow their economies and develop their nations by avoiding being drawn as pawns into the Cold War.

The Non-Aligned Movement developed four main criteria for membership which became the official policy of the group. Members had to adopt the policy of coexistence between states with different political and social systems, demonstrate consistent support for independent movements, be a member of the multilateral military agreements without necessarily supporting the conflicts of the Great Powers, and could not accept military bases in support of one power over the other.

The Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev saw the Non-Aligned Movement as an opportunity to support the decolonization of Africa and Asia and to spread communism. He worked with various countries in the movement including in South America to seek support or provide communist help. This approach by the Soviet Union was not welcome in the U.S. where Kennedy was already concerned that the Soviets were meddling in too many places including Central Africa, Cuba, and Indochina.

In September 1954, the U.S., Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Philippines, and Thailand formed the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization known as SEATO. Surprisingly, despite its name, there were only two Southeast Asian countries who served as members. The rest were mostly European countries who had an interest in the region. The stated purpose of this organization was to prevent the spread of communism into the region, but most of the countries in that region were less concerned about communism than they were on domestic or foreign instability.

It is evident that despite attempts by the Movement to steer clear of the Cold War, there were many tensions and sometimes conflicts which affected its members. The Movement (representing more than half of the global population) decided to refocus itself on fighting for the core needs of its members on issues of ending colonial rule, economic development, and finding a way forward after the end of the Cold War in 1992.


In this unit we have reviewed the challenges faced by the world in the twentieth century. From the many wars, economic depressions, rise of communism and fascism to the non-aligned movement, these problems marked the collapse of an old order and the birth of a new led by the two superpowers (USA and USSR). In what areas did the League of Nations fail and how did the United Nations overcome such weaknesses? Based on the information covered so far, how different was Russian Communism from the Chinese? Finally, how did the Cold War play out in Africa and the Middle East?

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