Last modified on 14 June 2009, at 19:02

COSTP World History Project/A New Millenium

Twentieth Century


Ascendance of Technology

The 20th century in review

The twentieth century saw the domination of the world by Europe wane, at least partly from the cost and internal destruction of World War I and World War II, and attendant rise of the United States and the Soviet Union as superpowers. Following World War II, the United Nations was founded in the hopes that it could prevent conflicts among nations and make future wars impossible. After 1990, the Soviet Union collapsed and the United States became the sole superpower, termed by some a "hyperpower." (See "Pax Americana.")

The century saw the rise of powerful secular ideologies. First, after 1917 in the Soviet Union, was communism, which spread to Eastern Europe after 1945, and China in 1949, and to other, scattered nations in the Third World during the 1950s and 1960s. The 1920s saw militaristic fascist dictatorships gain control of Germany, Italy, Japan and Spain.

These transitions were evinced through wars of unparalleled scope and devastation. World War I destroyed many of Europe's old monarchies, and weakened France and Britain. World War II saw most of the militaristic dictatorships in Europe destroyed and communism advance into Eastern Europe and Asia. This led to the Cold War, a forty-year stand-off between the United States, the Soviet Union and their respective allies. All of humanity and complex forms of life were put into jeopardy by the development of nuclear weapons. At the start of the 1990s, the world witnessed the collapse and fragmentation of the Soviet state, with some of its former republics re-joining Russia in a commonwealth, others reaching out toward western Europe. The same century saw vast progress in technology, and a large increase in life expectancy and standard of living for the majority of humanity. As the world economy switched from one based on coal to one based on oil, new communications and transportation technologies continued to make the world more united. The technological developments of the century also contributed to problems with the environment, though urban pollution is lower today than in the days of coal.

The last exploration of the moon, Apollo 17, 1972. The latter half of the century saw the rise of the information age and globalization dramatically increase trade and cultural exchange. Space exploration reached throughout the solar system. DNA, the very template of life, was discovered, and the human genome was sequenced, promising to eventually change the face of human disease. The number of scientific papers published each year today far surpasses the total number published prior to 1900[3], and doubles approximately every 15 years.[4] Global literacy rates continue to increase, and the percentage of the global society's labor pool needed to produce society's food has continued to decrease substantially over the century (Kurzweil 1999).

The same period raised prospects of an end to human history, precipitated by unmanaged global hazards: nuclear proliferation, the greenhouse effect and other forms of environmental degradation caused by the "fissile-fossil complex," international conflicts prompted by the dwindling of resources, fast-spreading epidemics such as HIV, and the passage of near-earth asteroids and comets.

The development of states had always taken impetus from hope of gain and fear of loss. The sense of national identity had always been forged in conflicts with outsiders who were perceived as a threat. As the 20th century closed, the world witnessed the rise of what some saw as a new superstate, the European Union. Tentative steps were also taken, at emulating the European Union, by states in Asia, Africa and South America. The growth, life and collapse of states, organized around various human populations and for the purpose of achieving various human goals, continued to be a trigger for wars, with their accompanying loss of life, physical destruction, disease, starvation and genocide.


Globalization and westernization

The neutrality of this article is disputed.


Globalization and Westernization The world was politically united by Europeans, who established colonies in most parts of the world outside Europe. Western culture modernized rapidly due to the industrial revolution and began to dominate the world in the 19th and 20th century, but was greatly influenced by other civilizations. There are still enormous cultural differences between world regions, although the trend is towards unification with a Western dominance.

The mercantile empires of Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, France and Great Britain in the 15th to 19th centuries dominated the seas. The industrialization and the social and political changes in the Western World of the 18th and 19th century led to a feeling of superiority among western thinkers and politicians. Africa and most of Asia became European-controlled, while European descendants ruled in the Australia and the Americas. New ideologies emerged aimed at reshaping the world. Social Darwinists and imperialists generally believed that white people were superior and that they should civilize the primitive peoples (other cultures) by introducing Western ways of production (economics) and Western ideologies, such as Christianity. This way, the primitive people could have a 'better', 'more moral' lifestyle, although it was assumed that they could never be as cultivated as the whites. Socialists and liberals wanted to civilize the working classes in western countries as well. Socialists and American liberals believed (and continue to believe) that the society is, in large part, responsible for the behavior of its citizens and that the society should be changed in order to make the world better. American Conservatives, European liberals, and all Libertarians believed (and continue to believe) in freedom and market forces and want individuals to take responsibility for themselves and hold that a society should guarantee freedom in order for individuals to develop fully. Christians, regardless of political ideology, believe that the individual's relation to their Church and/or God is the critical factor in a satisfactory life. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and other religions have religious concepts of their own.

The 20th century witnessed a strong polarization between these ideologies. Social Darwinism suffered a great loss when Nazi Germany was defeated during World War II. The United States and the Soviet Union enforced decolonization. The Civil Rights movement and the hippie counter culture of the 1960s led to a worldwide domination of a humanist ideology which persists in Westernized countries today.

Socialists attempted to change society with different methods. The two most powerful movements were social democracy and communism. Social democrats tried to reach a socialist society by changing society in cooperation with other political parties. The welfare state was created in many western countries. Left-wing Christians and liberals also shared a belief in the welfare state. Today the welfare state is unpopular because it withholds economical progress due to inefficient investments. Communists attempted to create a socialist society by destroying the old society, the old elites and all competing ideologies. It led to genocide and substantial poverty, and was widely viewed as unsuccessful. Soviet and Chinese leaders and intellectuals discovered that the 'western' style of production with self-responsibility led to continuing progress, while the communist societies were in a continuous economic depression, so they were forced to become capitalistic.

Non-Western civilizations were first dominated by Western colonizers, who generally treated the local population with extreme harshness. Nationalist and communist movements that swept through these countries inspired the local populace to begin thinking of and initiating independence movements, wanting equal shares in the world. Many African and Asian colonies became independent in the 1960s. Eventually, there was much optimism that the new underdeveloped countries could become developed, but their economic situation generally grew worse after becoming independent. Civil wars and dictatorships wrecked the local societies and economies - the cause of which is sometimes attributed to neocolonialism and particularly that of the United States (see Jingoism, and the Dependency theory). Today, many Latin American and Asian nations are beginning the transition to first-world status; Most of Africa and the Middle East, however, is stagnating.

Conservatives and nationalists around the world were afraid that their societies would collapse due to modernization and new ideologies so they tried to turn the tide of change. Conservatism is popular in many parts of the world, with neo-conservatism dominating the United States government. Islamic fundamentalists try to stop secularization by waging war against Western culture. Many state leaders and intellectuals in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa criticize the West for its "immoral" lifestyle. Conservatism is fed, for a large part, by a religious belief in the afterlife with its attendant fears of retribution forever after.

Attempts to unite the world by military conquest or revolution met with no success. The nation state became the most important institute in the (western) world. Colonial empires in the 19th century were based on nation states, which controlled large territories containing 'aboriginal' populations. Nation states united in federations during the twentieth century. During the interbellum between World War I and World War II, the League of Nations tried to prevent wars. After World War II, the United Nations tried to solve many problems that could not be solved by individual nation states. The League of Nations and United Nations were dependent on the voluntary contribution and desire to cooperate of individual member states. These organizations cannot function without the support of large countries, as was apparent during the 1920s and 1930s and during the Cold War. Many states are not (ethnic) nation states, but exist as multiple nations (sub-Saharan Africa), or only have a small portion of a nation within their boundaries (as in Arab countries).

The number and size of free market economies have increased dramatically since the 19th century, but state-controlled economies were still seen as viable alternatives, until the fall of the USSR in 1989. Free-market economies led to an enormous growth in standards of living. A global free market has, so far, met with mixed success. The free transfer of goods and information led to a growing interdependence of states that are bound by self-interest to cooperate with other states. This process is called globalization.

Overpopulation has been identified as one of the largest worldwide problems. This problem was identified much earlier by thinkers such as Malthus and Max Weber. Weber was afraid that India and China would develop their economies at the cost of Europe, and advocated German imperialism to prevent poverty for the German masses. The technological and economical development of the 20th century proved that the western countries could have economical growth through internal development. The European countries at the time of Max Weber could be seen as Third World countries compared to the wealth they have now. China, India and Latin America have been developing in recent decades, which has consequences for employment in western countries. Increasing population is also linked with the rapidly increasing demand for a share of limited resources and for the increasing destruction of the environment as these resources are used.

American culture has made a huge impact on the world. Hollywood movies and jazz music dominated the whole western world from the 1920s. Youth culture started in America. Jeans, T-shirts, the American style of advertising and pop music gained worldwide dominance in the 1960s and 1970s.