World History Lecture Eleven

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The Modern era is from 1900 to today. We learn it beginning with this lecture.

The relationship among European nations was strained and tense around 1900, also known as the turn of the (20th) century. The nations had much to disagree about. Imperialism caused conflicts to arise. Economic competition intensified, and the quest for raw materials like gold, oil and agriculture heightened the tension.

Nationalism was increasing at this time, whereby the countries of Britain, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, France and Italy began to feel pride in themselves and dislike for each other. The balance of power that was set up after Napoleon was no longer effective. It seemed inevitable that a future Napoleon-like dictator would try to rule the world again.

Nations built up massive military might, and bragged about it. Germany sought to have the largest navy to compete with Britain’s claim that it had the best navy. Rulers found it popular to have a huge "standing army" (army in peacetime) that could be mobilized at any time.

In sum, at the turn of the century there were increased rivalries among European nations for three reasons: nationalism, militarism and imperialism. Keep those three issues in mind throughout this lecture.


You may recall that European nations entered into many alliances beginning as early as the fall of Napoleon (such as the “Concert of Europe,” which was established at the Congress of Vienna).

New alliances were formed in the late 1800s, some of them kept secret at the time. German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck entered into the Dual Alliance with Austria-Hungary in 1879 as a way of protecting those countries against possible aggression by France. Italy joined this alliance against France in 1882, making it the Triple Alliance.

Bismarck was a very skilled statesman and diplomat, one of the most influential in all of world history. He is credited with unifying Germany as a nation in the 1860s (ironically, while the United States was torn by the Civil War). Bismarck even arranged for wars against other nations (first against Denmark, then against Austria and finally against France) in order to help unify the German people against outside enemies. Ultimately unified as a nation in 1871, Germany made Bismarck its first Chancellor, whereupon he consolidated Germany’s power in Europe by entering into the above alliances with other countries. After nearly two decades of rule, Bismarck was eventually forced to resign in 1890 because of a policy dispute with Wilhelm II, who as the “Kaiser” (or Caesar) of Germany wanted more power for himself.

Kaiser Wilhelm II immediately ended Germany’s alliance with Russia, which caused Russia to form an alliance with France in 1891. In 1907 Great Britain, feeling threatened by Germany’s growing navy, joined France and Russia in their alliance, or entente, and this became the Triple Entente. Under the terms of this alliance, Britain was not expressly required to defend France and Russia, but Britain did promise not to fight against them.

Thus by 1908 one powerful group of three nations (Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary), known as the Triple Alliance, stood against another powerful group of three nations (Britain, France and Russia), known as the Triple Entente. It was like one football team standing on a field opposite another football team, with both teams fully suited up. It doesn’t take much for someone to shout, “let’s play,” and the battle will begin. The “battle” became the first world war in history.

And what a devastating war it was. Never before in the history of the world was a war fought in such a deadly manner. With Christians on both sides, one might wonder how this could have happened. But this was long past the feudal times when fighting stopped on every Christian holiday.[1] By 1914, leaders in both Germany on one side and Britain on the other had embraced deadly beliefs like the evolutionary survival-of-the-fittest, and many educated people felt that war was an essential, inevitable part of the improvement of the human race.

Igniting World War I

It was only a matter of time before something would ignite a conflict and cause one alliance to fight against the other. The Balkans in Eastern Europe was where the war began. The Ottoman empire had declined, leaving a power vacuum that European nations tried to fill. The Slavs in Serbia, with Russian support, wanted to unite all the Slavs in the Balkans. Austria-Hungary, which has a very small Slavic population, opposed this. Instead, Austria-Hungary wanted to control the Balkans.

In 1908 Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia (and Herzogovina), a region adjacent to its southeast (and east of Italy across the Adriatic Sea). But Bosnia was mostly Slavic while Austria was not, and this greatly angered the Slavic Serbia, which wanted to take Bosnia back. Why did Austria act at this particular time? Because there was a rebellion by the Committee of Union and Progress (the so-called “Young Turks”) that overthrew the Ottoman government, and the Austrian foreign minister Baron Aloys von Aerenthal saw a rare opportunity to act. He knew that Russia, which was Austria’s main adversary, was weak at this time due to its defeat in the Russo-Japanese War and an internal revolution in 1905. In January 1909, the chief of staff of the Austrian army approached his German counterpart and asked what Germany would do if Austria next invaded Serbia and caused Russia to intervene on behalf of Serbia. Despite the original defensive nature of the Austria-German alliance, the Germany army officer said Germany would back Austria and Germany would also invade France because it was Russia’s ally. This is how it played out a few years later in the summer of 1914, as the struggle in the Balkans exploded into the First World War.

The War itself ignited on June 28, 1914, when the heir to the Austrian throne (Archduke Franz Ferdinand) was visiting the Bosnian capital city of Sarajevo along with his wife Sophie. It was an official visit, not a vacation, and crowds gathered to greet the couple. But a 19-year-old member of a youthful Bosnian resistance movement, Gavrilo Princip, shot the couple to death as they rode in an open automobile through the streets of Sarajevo. The killer was part of a large conspiracy and a bit earlier that day another member of the conspiracy had thrown a hand grenade at the Archduke. Princip was quickly captured and imprisoned, where he died of tuberculosis a few years later.

Austria was obviously furious about the assassination and, with Germany’s support, demanded that Serbia end all resistance to Austria. Serbia agreed to some of the demands and offered to submit other demands to arbitration (decision) by an impartial international panel. But Austria would not wait; on July 28, 1914, it declared war against Serbia. Russian responded by mobilizing its army towards Austria and Germany.

This triggered the alliances. Germany responded to Russia’s mobilization of troops by declaring war on Russia four days later (on August 1st) and then Germany declared war on France another two days later (on August 3rd). Germany decided to invade and defeat France first before it had to fight Russia, and thereby avoid fighting a war on two fronts at the same time. This was the "Schlieffen Plan" to avoid a two-front war.

But Belgium, which was neutral, would not allow Germany to pass through its borders to invade France. So Germany invaded and defeated Belgium. Britain had a relationship with Belgium and Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914.

In summary, in a mere week an isolated act of violence between Austria and Serbia (sparked by a teenager) escalated into a world war between Britain, France and Russia (the Allied Powers) and Germany and Austria-Hungary (the Central Powers). Italy left the German side when it invaded the neutral Belgium, and later Italy joined the Allied Powers along with Japan. The Ottoman empire and Bulgaria eventually joined the Central Powers.

Initial Stages of the Great War

The fighting in the “Great War,” as it was called then (it is now called World War I), was savage and brutal. Army casualties totaled more than 37 million people, and there were another 10 million civilian deaths. For weeks armies fought in trenches (deep, long ditches in the ground), spending day after day trying to kill their opponents lined up in an opposite trench several hundred feet away. This was known as trench warfare. Movement of ten or twenty feet in advance of a trench was a big success. Barbed wire marked off an area known as “no man’s land” between the two trenches, where anyone who went into this area would be shot on sight. Also, a deadly flu virus spread among the soldiers and infected the world, killing millions more. The late 1910s was a dreadful time.

At the end of the war, the nations signed a peace agreement that was so misguided that it caused another great war to occur (World War II). So this World War I was bad news all around. Nothing was achieved by it. World War I was even pathetic in terms of military strategy. The first year and a half (1914-15) is known as “Entrenchment,” during which there were terrible casualties without either side gaining the upper hand. The next year, 1916, is known as “Continued Stalemate.” Get the idea? The following year, 1917, is known for the entrance by the United States and the withdrawal by Russia due to its communist revolution. In 1918 more nations withdrew from the war, and the major remaining nations of Britain, France, Germany and the United States ended the war with an armistice in November of that year.

The Colonies and the Great War

The colonies were not much help to the European powers, and attempting to use them for World War I left some bitterness. For example, Britain drew upon its colonies of Canada, Australia and New Zealand to supply a failed Gallipoli campaign, which sought to forge a supply line to Russia. But these three colonies suffered heavy losses that left them bitter about Britain, and desirous of independence from the British empire.

Britain was successful in enlisting troops from the colonies of Egypt, India, Australia and New Zealand to defeat the weakened Ottomans. An Arab revolt against the Turks (German allies) was led by a British soldier named T. E. (Thomas Edward) Lawrence, known as “Lawrence of Arabia.” His guerrilla warfare campaign against the Turks kept large numbers of troops tied up trying to suppress it, and it helped the British capture Aqaba and Damascus. Meanwhile, the Indian Mohandas Gandhi encouraged support of the British in the war as a way of building goodwill towards the Indian cause for independence. French colonies also lent some support to its efforts.

The German colonies could not help the Germans, because these colonies were captured by Allied Powers.

World War I

The “Great War,” which we now call World War I, lasted in Europe from 1914 to 1918. It was the first global war in world history. It was the first war that used aircraft, including airplanes and blimps. The “Bloody Red Baron,” made famous later by a humorous song featuring the dog “Snoopy”, was a German ace fighter pilot named Manfred von Richthofen (1892-1918). Considered the greatest fighter pilot ever, Richthofen shot down 80 enemy aircraft during the war before being killed by anti-aircraft fire from the ground.

World War I saw the first use of other weapons: machine guns, poisonous gas, large artillery and armored tanks. This war was a “total war” because the governments involved took control over the economy and factories, giving first priority to the goods needed for war. Wage and price controls were imposed, there was rationing of consumption of goods by civilians, and free speech was limited. Governments put out propaganda to maximize support for the war and dislike of the enemy.

With nearly all the young European men sent to battle, the women filled the factory jobs previously filled by men. Women tested munitions in factories, for example, and performed other strenuous jobs. Historians cite this shift in the workforce as being instrumental in changing attitudes about the proper role for women in society.

World War I was so deadly that it killed an entire generation of men. In 1918, a fatal strain of the influenza called the “Spanish flu” killed 20 million people, including both civilians and soldiers. In addition another 9 million soldiers were killed in battle, and 21 million injured. Hundreds of thousands of Christian Armenians were slaughtered by the Ottoman Turks as a “genocide” or racial cleansing. The Ottomans also deported nearly two million Armenians in retaliation for their support of the Allies.

As great as this cost of war was, the irony was that the war settled nothing and simply set the stage for another terrible world war about twenty years later. The Communist Revolution, which threatened the entire world for most of the 1900s, also occurred during World War I.

The Two Sides

On the side of the Central Powers were Austria-Hungary, Germany, Bulgaria and the Ottoman empire. On other side were the Allies of Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Japan and, beginning in 1917, the United States.

Germany was still a very young country at the time of World War I. Recall that Germany became a nation under Otto von Bismarck in 1871, so it had only been in existence for a mere 43 years when hostilities broke out in 1914. But Germany had marvelous technology and a nationalistic spirit that did not expect to lose. Germany had a population of 68 million people in 1914, and had the best science and technology also. Germany feared no other nation, and had no reason to. It had every expectation to be able to defeat any European opponent.

Great Battles of World War I

This is easy, because there were not many great battles of World War I. It was mostly trench warfare, but highly deadly. Horrific poisonous gas was even used.

There were five great battles before large numbers of American soldiers reached Europe in 1917.

First Battle of Marne

Germany's Schieffen Plan, foiled by the First Battle of Marne

The First Battle of the Marne was a key conflict from September 6-12, 1914, which halted the German effort to capture France quickly and forced Germany to fight on two fronts afterward. Known to the French as the "Miracle of Marne," this battle saved the nation and Paris from German capture near the outset of the war. But the French losses were horrific: 250,000 men. German losses were similar. Still it was a victory for the Allied Powers in halting the German advance on the Western Front and thwarting the German Schlieffen Plan for winning the War.[2] Russia, meanwhile, was not doing as well holding its own on the Eastern Front.[3]


In April 1915, an amphibious Allied force landed on the Turkish peninsula of Gallipoli in a misguided attempt to knock Turkey out of the war. Though the Allies greatly outnumbered the Turks, Turkish fighters are extremely tenacious and they held their ground. The Allies did not properly understand the terrain and suffered from inadequate intelligence about the enemy. Nine months later the Allies had to withdraw, after suffering 46,000 deaths among over 250,000 casualties.


In 1916, the Battle of Verdun between the French and Germans was perhaps the most demanding battle in all of world history. The struggle started when the Germans attacked Verdun, France, a city surrounded by a ring of underground forts. At least 220,000 soldiers died, and at least 480,000 were wounded in this 10-month struggle that accomplished nothing. At the end the front lines were in nearly the same locations as at the beginning.


Also in 1916, and also in France, the British and French armies met at the Somme River to begin a massive attack on the Germans in order to distract them from Verdun. This became the Battle of the Somme, and the fighting was even heard across the British channel in England. First the Allies “shelled” (fired many shots and bombs) at the Germans to weaken them, and then 100,000 British soldiers charged the enemy. But the shelling did not have its intended effect, as the Germans were dug in too deeply to be affected by it. On July 1, 1916, the Germans killed 20,000 of the British soldiers and wounded over 40,000, making it the single worst day for the British in their history. This battle, which did not succeed in moving trench lines, eventually involved over 2 million men along a 30-mile front. The British and French lost nearly 750,000 men.

Third Battle of Ypres

(Also known as the Battle of Passchendaele)

For 18 months the British hid 19 huge land mines underneath the German lines southeast of Ypres, Belgium, a location that had already seen battles in 1914 and 1915. The British then detonated those massive mines, and charged the German positions in July 1917. At first the strategy worked, as the Germans were confused and disorganized. But the British did not pursue the Germans as quickly as they should have. Rain began to drench the area in one of the wettest fall seasons there in years. Soon the British forces were stuck in a mountain of mud, and this Allied plan was yet another failure.

The United States

For three years (1914-1916) the United States stayed out of the war. Europe had been having internal fights since the ancient time of the Greek empire, and the United States had friends on both sides of World War I. Many Americans were of German descent and sympathetic to the Central Powers, although most Americans were of British descent then (and now). If the United States were to intervene, then it was clear that it would enter the war on the side of the British, but most Americans were initially against getting involved.

The Germans were using submarines to patrol the Atlantic in order to intercept British ships. The German submarine was known as the “U-boat”, and it terrorized everyone. In 1915, still relatively early in the war, a U-boat sunk a massive British passenger liner known as the Lusitania, killing 1,198 people, including 128 U.S. citizens. A member of the prominent Vanderbilt family, known for its railroad empire, was among the fatalities. The overall number of casualties was only a few hundred less than those who died on the Titanic when it hit an iceberg in 1912.

Americans were outraged by this German sneak attack on the Lusitania, but still did not support joining the war. Germans claimed that the ship was carrying ammunition, and historians agree. Nevertheless, to avoid the loss of civilian life the Germans announced that it would stop attacking passenger liners and other neutral shipping.

By 1917, and after nearly three years of brutal war, the Germans were not so friendly any more. When the British implemented a naval blockade of Germany, preventing ships from entering or leaving its ports, the Germans announced they would sink any ship entering or leaving Britain. The U-boats went back into action and quickly sunk three American ships.

But many Americans, and the influential William Randolph Heart newspapers, were still against the United States entering this bloody European conflict. True, the Germans had sunk several American ships, but the Germans were simply doing what they must in response to the British blockade of Germany. Besides, the Germans warned the United States beforehand.

Another incident outraged Americans more. German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann sent an encrypted (secretly coded) telegram to the German ambassador to Mexico, which sought to induce Mexico to declare war on the United States. The British intelligence intercepted and deciphered (decoded) the telegram and gave it to the United States to help the British cause. President Woodrow Wilson made the contents of the telegram public.

The telegram promised that Germany would help Mexico regain land it had previously lost to the United States in the Mexican War (in the 1840s) if Mexico would declare war against the United States during World War I. Americans were outraged, and some newspapers doubted that the British self-serving version of the telegram was true. But then Zimmermann himself was foolish enough to confirm the promise (pledge) by Germany to Mexico in a public speech.

This news, plus the sinking of American ships by German submarines, swung American opinion towards entering the war against the Germans. Even though President Woodrow Wilson had campaigned six months earlier for reelection on his promise to keep America out of World War I, he spoke to a joint session of Congress on April 2, 1917, and it declared war a few days later. The addition of the United States to the Allies tipped the power in their favor.


As the United States was entering the war on the side of the Allies, changes were occurring in Russia that would later cause it to withdraw from the side of the Allies and leave the war altogether. In 1917 Russia was having an internal revolution known as the Communist Revolution (discussed further below), which would alter the world for the rest of the century.

The losses and hardship of the war had weakened Russian Czar Nicholas II. He abdicated the throne in March 1917 in favor of a provisional government, which intended to continue fighting in the war. But in November 1917 Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870-1924), the leader of the Communist Party, overthrew the government. In July 1918, the communists executed every member of the czar’s family. (The bodies of two of the children have never been found, and years later a woman claimed to have been a girl in the family, but historians doubted it and DNA evidence did not support her claim.)

Lenin was one of the most influential persons in all of history. He was both a thinker and a revolutionary, which is a rare combination. An atheist, he personally converted in 1889 to Marxism (as previously formulated by Karl Marx). He obtained a law degree shortly afterwards, and by 1895 was a subversive who was arrested and sent to the frigid Siberia as punishment. Once he served his time he left for Western Europe, where he developed his ideas further and became a leader of the Bolsheviks. He returned to Russia after tsarist (czarist) rule ended in March 1917, and then Lenin led the Bolsheviks to power in the “October Revolution” (which was really in November under our Western calendar). He subsequently ruled the Soviet Union and imposed a system of Marxism-Leninism (communism) that remained in force there until the 1990s.

Lenin quickly arranged for peace with Germany to end Russia’s support of the Allies in the war. In March 1918, Lenin signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, by which Russia gave to Germany much territory, including what is now Poland, Finland, Lithuania, Ukraine, Estonia and Latvia. This was a humiliating defeat for Russia, but it was simply too weak to fight the Germans further.

The Western Front

The exit of Russia allowed Germany to shift all of its troops to the western front, saving Germany from having to continue a two-front war. Almost immediately it appeared that Germany would win, as it unleashed all of its power against France in March 1918.

The Germans launched five major campaigns in a four month period in 1918 on the Western Front. The Germans had technology and lots of energy. They had elite storm-troopers with automatic rifles, light machine guns, flame-throwers and artillery fire. They used poisonous mustard gas lavishly. They easily defeated the British Fifth Army. The Germans were advancing and taking property.

But fresh American troops entered the scene. In the Second Battle of the Marne in July 1918, the Allies started winning. Nine American divisions fought in this battle about 75 miles northeast of Paris. The Germans started this battle on another one of their offensives, but the Americans turned the tables and enabled the Allies to win it. Casualties were enormous for everyone, including the Americans. Former President Teddy Roosevelt’s son was killed in this battle.

American Capt. Jesse Woolridge, 38th Inf., 3rd Division described the battle as follows:[4]

“It’s God’s truth that one Company of American soldiers beat and routed a full regiment of picked shock troops of the German Army ... At ten o’clock ... the Germans were carrying back wounded and dead [from] the river bank and we in our exhaustion let them do it - they carried back all but six hundred which we counted later and fifty-two machine guns... We had started with 251 men and 5 lieutenants...I had left 51 men and 2 second lieutenants ....”

As the Americans and the Allies advanced toward Germany, the Ottoman Turks and Bulgarians surrendered. There was a revolution in Austria-Hungary that overthrew its government, and Germany would not recognize that new government. Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated his throne in Germany on November 1918, and the Germans formed a new republic. Members of the German republic signed an armistice (agreement to stop fighting) on November 11, 1918. The Great War was over.

Terms of Peace

The war ended in the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, but the terms of peace remained unresolved. The Allies convened at the historic Palace of Versailles outside Paris in January 1919 to discuss peace terms. The representatives at the Paris Peace Conference included Woodrow Wilson from the United States, David Lloyd George from Great Britain, Vittorio Orlando from Italy, and Georges Clemenceau from France.

President Wilson wanted his “Fourteen Points” adopted as the peace treaty. His proposal included moving national borders, creating new nations, and allowing ethnic groups to choose their own governments. His main point (#14) was to create a new entity known as the League of Nations to resolve international conflicts in the future. The American people never supported the League of Nations and the U.S. Senate never ratified the treaty establishing it; President Wilson died thinking he was a failure. But less than 30 years later the United States did join a similar entity known as the United Nations, though it remains controversial and many Americans oppose it.

France wanted to punish Germany for the war, while Britain wanted to disarm Germany. The Treaty of Versailles, signed on June 28, 1919, did both. It imposed limits on the size of the German army and prohibited it from having submarines, an air force, or factories to make weapons. It could not import weapons either. A “war guilt” clause placed all the blame for the war on Germany, and it was required to pay reparations of $33 billion over a 30-year period. Germany lost its colonies in Africa and the Pacific. Germany had to give its territory of Alsace-Lorraine to France. The Allies and neutral nations created the League of Nations, which the United States never joined, and Germany and Russia were initially prohibited from joining.

It is said that hindsight is always 20/20 (which describes perfect eyesight), and the mistake of the above approach seems so obvious today. No matter how wrong Germany was in World War I, it was an even bigger mistake to humiliate it and try to force it to pay far more than it could afford. Germany suffered huge losses like everyone else, and simply could not satisfy those financial obligations. In short, the peace treaty was too harsh on Germany, and it would rise again in anger to try to destroy its enemies.

The Allies negotiated separate treaties with each of Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman empire. These treaties created new countries of Austria, Hungary, Poland, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia out of the old Austro-Hungarian empire. Russia lost Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Finland and Latvia, which it had ceded to Germany in withdrawing from the war. Russia also lost Romania. All these territories became independent countries. The Allies took away territories in the Middle East (Southwest Asia) from the Ottoman empire, reducing it to present-day Turkey. The Middle East territories were then organized as mandates, such that France controlled Jordan and Syria and Britain controlled Palestine, Transjordan and Iraq.

The Treaty of Versailles angered many countries in addition to Germany. The U.S. Senate never ratified the treaty, and instead chose to sign a separate treaty with the Central Powers later. Italy and Japan were unhappy that they did not receive new territory the way that France and Britain had. Colonies of European powers had sent soldiers to the Allied cause, and were upset that they did not receive independence. New countries were created by the Treaty of Versailles without regard to language or ethnicity, angering peoples affected by the arbitrary new borders. Most of the original members of the League of Nations were non-European countries, making it ineffective in its goal. But most of all, Germany was furious at the “guilt clause” and the massive reparations that it could not pay.

The United States and Japan emerged the strongest economically after the war, as their involvement was much less than for the other combatants, and the war was not fought on their soil. Business opportunities for these two nations were enormous after the war.


The taking root of communism in Russia during World War I was perhaps the single most important political event of the entire 1900s (the 20th century). It deserves greater study.

Communism, like it or not, is a powerful concept. It embodies this basic complaint known to every child: “That’s not fair.” Communism takes advantage of the very powerful human emotion of envy or jealousy. By forcing everyone to have the same wealth (or lack of wealth), communism creates a superficial equality for everyone.

Even Jesus’ Apostles complained about perceived advantages among each other, reflecting their human side. In one passage, Peter complained about what would become preferential treatment for John. In another passage, several Apostles complained about the request of James and John to sit next to Jesus in Heaven. But in many parables (like the Parable of the Talents), Jesus taught inequality rather than equality. It is clear that demands for equality in wealth are not based on Christianity, but are based on non-Christian materialism. Put another way, trying to require a superficial equality is based on man’s incomplete view, not God’s.

Why and how did communism begin in Russia in 1917? We learn that next.

Pre-Revolution Russian Policies

Russian czars were harsh on the peasants for decades before 1917. The Romanov czars who ruled Russia in the 1800s allowed severe shortages in fuel and bread for the peasants, and highly unequal land distribution. Russia did not convert quickly from a farming (agrarian) economy to an industrial one, and feudalism bound serfs to nobles far longer than in the West. Russian defeats in wars, such as the Crimean War, were hurtful. One of the reasons Russia kept losing wars was its inadequate industrialization and transportation for soldiers and supplies.

Czar Alexander II rose to power after the Crimean War and attempted to modernize the country. He freed the serfs in 1861, but then made them pay the Russian government for land, which the government was buying from nobles. Alexander II was assassinated in 1881.

Alexander III next became czar and continued the modernization of Russia. But he used a secret police to solidify his own power, and censored the press. He exiled political dissidents to the frightfully cold Siberia. He also oppressed ethnic minorities, such as the Jewish people, and made them live in segregated areas subject to “pogroms”, which was organized violence against them. Alexander III also forced everyone to speak Russian rather than ethnic languages.

Czar Alexander III’s son was Nicholas II, who became czar in 1894 and is now recognized as a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church. As autocratic as his father, Nicholas II continued the attempt to modernize (industrialize) Russia. He used government to create railroads and factories. His regime built the Trans-Siberian Railway. But all this industrialization brought some problems, such as low wages and harsh working conditions.

Early Signs of the Communist Revolution

By the late 1800s the views of Karl Marx had reached Russia, and by 1903 there were two Marxist groups: the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks. The Mensheviks sought more industrialization before seeking support from the proletariat (working class) for a revolution. The Bolsheviks were more extreme, wanting a violent revolution by a small group of people as soon as possible. Their leader was Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, who was exiled in Europe but still in charge of his followers in Russia.

Russia next lost another war, this time humiliated by the small islands of Japan in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. The credibility of the czar was weakened. Then, in January 1905, workers and their families marched on the czar’s Winter Palace in St. Petersburg to present a petition for improve working conditions in factories and to request a national elected legislature as in western countries. Czar Nicholas II was not there, but his soldiers responded by shooting the protesters, killing up to 1000 of them.

More violent protests ensued, and Czar Nicholas II allowed the creation of the first-ever elected Russian parliament, called the Duma. It met initially in May 1906, when it was led by moderates trying to imitate the constitutional monarchy of Britain. But Nicholas dissolved the parliament after it met for only ten weeks. It did occasionally meet again in the future, but never seemed to have any power.

Once World War I broke out, Nicholas moved to the front lines and left his wife, Czarina (Tsarina) Alexandra, in charge of running the country. Alexandra’s son Alexis, however, developed a bleeding condition known as hemophilia, which means blood has difficulty clotting. A small cut just bleeds and bleeds in a frightful manner. His mother, the czarina, understandably was beset with worry about his condition. She increasingly relied on the only person who seemed able to stop her son’s bleeding: a peasant-turned-monk named Rasputin. Rasputin took advantage of this trust and began making decisions for the country, granting government positions to friends, and causing everyone (especially the nobles) to fear him. Rasputin had a mystical quality that has inspired many books and stories about him. He had converted to Christianity at the age of 18 and when everyone else failed to help the boy’s bleeding disorder, Rasputin claimed healing powers that would help. The nobles hated Rasputin because he was a peasant who now had power over them, and the nobles plotted to assassinate him.

In a Russian tradition that continues to this day, the method of choice for assassination was poisoning. The nobles laced some pastries with enough poison to immediately kill a horse, and many times more what was necessary to kill a human immediately. Rasputin ate several of the pastries and seemed to enjoy it. He drank some wine. Nothing happened to him. His assassins watched and waited for hours. Rasputin was completely enjoying himself and showed no ill effects whatsoever from the massive dose of poison. Finally, after distracting Rasputin by pointing to a crucifix, a noble shot him point blank. Rasputin fell to the floor and appeared to die. His assassins left him there. But later, when one returned to make sure Rasputin was dead, he sprung to his feet and began shaking his assassin by his shoulders. Then Rasputin ran out, promising to tell the czarina. The assassins shot him again and again, and then beat him with a dumbbell, and he still was not dead. Then they tied him up and tossed him into the half-frozen river. He eventually died from drowning, on Dec. 17, 1916.

Meanwhile, peasant life was becoming more difficult. The war was taking its toll. Inflation was severe, and fuel and food were hard to find. Riots began in March 1917 to protest the hardship. A large protest against Czar Nicholas in March 1917 (the March Revolution) forced the czar to abdicate the throne (and not allow his heir Alexis to take it either). A provisional government was then established with Alexander Kerensky as the leader instead of a czar.

Kerensky continued the war despite the protests against poor conditions. Revolutionaries formed “soviets”, which were local groups of peasants or laborers, and which sometimes included soldiers. The Germans sent Lenin back to Russia in the hope of dividing Russia further and causing it to withdraw from the war. The German strategy worked, but at a huge price to the world.

The Communist Revolution


Lenin arrived in St. Petersburg (Petrograd) in April 1917, and he quickly seized control for the Bolsheviks in the largest Russian cities. Then, in November 1917, he organized armed factory workers known as the Red Guards to march on the Winter Palace in Petrograd. There Lenin’s Red Guards arrested the leaders of the Russian provisional government.

Soon Lenin took ownership of the factories and gave control to the workers, and redistributed land among the peasants. He also ended the war with Germany, as described above.

The West was alarmed by these developments and supported a “White Army” to fight Lenin’s “Red Army.” Civil war resulted in Russia that lasted from 1918 to 1920, killing ten million people during the war, and another five million due a famine that followed the war. But the Red Army, headed by Leon Trotsky, won.

Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) had been a participant with Lenin in the communist revolution in Russia in 1917. Trotsky had joined the Bolsheviks and was part of the October Revolution. But when Lenin later died, Trotsky had a power struggle with Joseph Stalin. Trotsky took the view that socialism in the Soviet Union must await a revolution in Western Europe and even worldwide. Stalin wanted power immediately, and expelled Trotsky in 1927 from the political party and then exiled him entirely from Russia in 1929. Trotsky eventually settled in Mexico in 1937, where he was hunted down and murdered by a Stalin assassin posing as a gardener. Whereas the Englishman Captain John Smith famously stated in the early days of the Jamestown settlement, “He that will not work shall not eat,” Trotsky’s famous criticism of the communist regime that ultimately developed was this: “Those who do not obey do not eat.”

Communism and the Russian Civil War from 1918 to 1920 left the country in economic ruin. In March 1921, Lenin announced his New Economic Policy (NEP) to restore trade and industry to the country. The NEP permitted some capitalism to create incentives, and it allowed for some foreign investment. Peasants could sell surplus crops. Profits by merchants were allowed. But government still controlled all major industries. This small amount of private ownership applied only to small factories, farms and stores. Still, it helped improve the economy by 1928.

Politically, Lenin established the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1922, allowing Lenin’s central government to control many socialized republics. In 1924, the Bolsheviks began calling themselves “Communists” and established a constitution. There was only one political party, and it held all the power. It was the Communist Party.

Joseph Stalin

As noted above, Joseph Stalin won the power struggle when Lenin died in 1924. Stalin established a brutal totalitarian state, whereby he dictated all aspects of life and used violence to destroy any opponents. A secret police aided Stalin in his vicious execution of all opponents.

Stalin was one of the worst murderers in the history of the world. He starved to death perhaps 20 million Ukrainians. He conducted the Great Purge from 1934 to 1939, in which he executed all opponents. He established youth groups to brainwash other youths in how great Stalin was, and how great communism supposedly was. He persecuted all religious groups and destroyed houses of worship. He controlled the press.

Stalin had women work in factories just like men, in addition to the women’s chores of homemaking and raising children. Stalin converted all schools into instruments of propaganda to teach students to love communism and worship the state. Abortion increased enormously in Russia, at rates many times the rest of the world. Alcoholism was rampant too.

Stalin continued to industrialize the Soviet Union, which included the former country of Russia along with many surrounding “soviets”. Stalin established a command economy whereby the government made all economic decisions. Under such a regime, shortages became widespread and people had to wait in line for hours to obtain basic necessities. Stalin announced a Five-Year Plan to try to increase production of industrial items like electricity, oil, steel and coal. This was a failure, although production did increase a bit. Stalin next tried a second Five-Year Plan to make up for the failure of the first one.

This was how the communist Stalin killed perhaps 20 million in the Ukraine. In 1928, Stalin seized millions of private farms, and combined them into large, government-owned farms. Stalin did this to punish the Ukrainian kulaks, who were wealthier peasants who had done well (through their own hard work) during Lenin’s NEP. Stalin’s enforcement of collective farming against the kulaks caused a huge famine in the Ukraine, and the famine resulted in the death of an estimated 20 million victims. In sum, the communist Stalin was one of the most brutal dictators in world history, and perhaps one of the dumbest, too.

Nationalism in Eastern, Southern and Southwestern Asia


The British did not grant independence to its colony of India immediately after World War I, as many Indians hoped. Great Britain had no intention of relinquishing its control over this vast subcontinent in Asia, which was valuable strategically. To control rebellions in India, Britain passed a law in 1919 allowing imprisonment for two years without a jury trial. Hindus and Muslims alike sought independence, and formed a peaceful demonstration at Amritsar, which was the capital of the Punjab area. But a panicked British commander instructed his troops to fire on the Hindu and Muslim protesters, killing 400 in what is known as the Amritsar Massacre. Indians nationwide were outraged and demanded independence.

A Hindu spiritual Indian leader emerged who was ultimately able to win Indian independence: Mohandas K. Gandhi, known as the Mahatma (“Great Soul”). He urged peaceful civil disobedience against the British, calling on Indians to refuse to pay taxes to Britain and to refuse to attend British schools. He also called on Indians to stop trading with Britain, particularly with respect to clothing. Britain, which was itself being weakened by socialism and evolutionism, was not as strong economically as it used to be. Gandhi also campaigned for the Indian National Congress to change from an elite or wealthy group into more of a people’s voice that could advocate independence. Gandhi’s approach drew upon Christian concepts as well as his native Hinduism.

Gandhi supported peaceful protests. He led the Salt March in 1930 for 240 miles to the sea, to symbolize how Indians could obtain salt from evaporated salt water rather than buy it from (and pay taxes to) Britain. A law required Indians to buy salt from the British government, but Gandhi’s march peacefully disobeyed that law and created much publicity. Gandhi and many of his supporters were eventually arrested for some of their protests.

At one point a British leader agreed to meet with Gandhi, who then attended wearing the simple Hindu clothing of a single cloth gown. Offended by this, some British demanded an explanation for what appeared to them to be disrespectful clothing for a formal meeting. Gandhi responded that the British official, who was dressed up in a formal suit and tie, was wearing enough clothes for both of them!

Eventually Gandhi’s protest efforts paid off, as the British Parliament enacted the Government of India Act in 1935. This established self-rule at a local level and allowed some democratic elections. Muslims, however, feared majority Hindu rule and requested a separate state for Muslims. The Muslim League endorsed the creation of a new country called “Pakistan” for the predominantly Muslim population of that region. Subsequently India and Pakistan were created, and they are fully independent today. Pakistan is predominantly Muslim and India is predominantly Hindu, and the two countries are not friendly with each other.


China was always independent, but it was not always a unified nation. The unified Qing dynasty ruled from 1664 to 1912, but it was overthrown by the Revolutionary Alliance, led by a doctor named Sun Yixian who had been living in the United States. Perhaps inspired by what he saw in America, Sun led the Nationalist Party (Guomindang) to become the first leader of the new republic China. Sun quickly turned over power (after only 6 weeks) to Yuan Shiakai, who then ruled as a military dictator.

When Yuan died, however, civil war broke out and warlords ruled amid chaos. The opium trade returned, irrigation failed, and World War I added to the general misery. Millions of peasants died due to a famine during the war. Lasting central rule was not achieved.

China sided with the Allies during World War I, and offered some limited assistance. China was hoping to obtain return of land that Germany controlled in China. Instead, the Treaty of Versailles gave that land to Japan. Feeling betrayed, the Chinese angrily demonstrated against that decision with the May Fourth Movement, which Guomindang supported.

Communism began to creep in China, and some abandoned Sun Yixian’s vision of democracy. Mao Zedong, a Marxist, founded the Chinese Communist Party in 1921 in Shanghai. Sun himself then accepted Lenin’s offer of receiving communist military advisers in China.

After Sun died in 1925, he was replaced as head of the Nationalist Party by a businessman named Jiang Jieshi who opposed communism and even executed communist leaders in April 1927. That destroyed the Chinese Communist Party, and Jiang became president of the Nationalist Republic of China in 1928. Britain and the United States recognized his government.

But gradually the Chinese Communist Party made inroads in China, advocating more land for peasants, speaking out against the practice of foot-binding, and seeking a right for women to divorce. The Party itself divided land that it controlled among peasants. Jiang’s government did not improve peasant life and became less and less democratic.

A civil war broke out between the Communists and Nationalists in 1930. Mao Zedong’s communist peasants received training in guerrilla warfare and fought hard. But Jiang’s army surrounded the Communist army, and in 1934 forced the communists to go on the Long March, which was a 6,000-mile retreat back to northwestern China. Few made it back alive.

Meanwhile an aggressive Japan invaded Manchuria, an area of northeast China rich in iron and coal deposits needed by Japanese industry. This Manchurian invasion was the beginning of World War II in Asia. Japan followed this with an invasion of China in 1937 along the Yangtze River. The Chinese civil war stopped temporarily to defend against the Japanese invasion.

Southwest Asia

There were three noteworthy nationalism movements in Southwest Asia in the early 20th century: Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Persia (now Iran). All three are Muslim countries.

Turkey was formed in 1923, soon after the break-up of the Ottoman empire at the end of World War I and an invasion of Turkey by the Greeks in 1919. Mustafa Kemal was the leader who deposed the final Ottoman sultan in 1922, and then became the president of Turkey in 1923.

Although Turkey is nearly 100% Muslim, Kemal established secular rule through reliance on a strong military. He abolished Islamic courts and gave women the right to vote and the right to hold government positions. Kemal established a legal system based on that in the West. Today Turkey is one of the few Muslim countries which use democratic elections. But Turkey is run today more by military control than by democratic self-government; for example, the military bans the wearing of the popular head coverings for Muslim women in government buildings.

The British attempted to rule Persia (now Iran) after World War I, but the Muslims revolted and Reza Shah Pahlavi rose to power in 1925. In 1935 the name of the country changed from Persia to Iran. The shah enjoyed full power, like a king. He built the infrastructure and allowed greater rights for women than under Islam.

There was less modernization in Saudi Arabia, which was unified beginning in 1902 under the leadership of Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud, who named the country “Saudi Arabia” in 1932. Oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia in the 1920s and 1930s, along with discoveries in Kuwait, Iran and Iraq. Western countries provided the technology for drilling the oil, but the Western dependency on that oil has been a source of conflict ever since.

Science and Art in the Early 20th Century

Once World War I ended, there were new achievements in science, technology, literature, music and architecture during the 1920s.


Quantum Mechanics

The most notable 20th century accomplishment in science was the discovery of quantum mechanics by European physicists. This remarkable discovery of subatomic behavior ultimately produced about a dozen Nobel Prizes and is the basis for the entire computer industry today. The leading physicists included Werner Heisenberg, Max Born and Max Planck of Germany, Enrico Fermi of Italy, Niels Bohr of Denmark, Erwin Schrödinger of Austria and Paul Dirac of England. Perhaps the most brilliant of the group was Enrico Fermi, who was a devout Christian and extraordinary in both his experimental and theoretical accomplishments.

The insight of quantum mechanics was that subatomic particles act more like waves, and are never in a specific place at a specific time until they are observed. Quantum mechanics led to the development of small transistors, which today form the integrated circuits in every computer and electronic device, from cell phones to IPods to laptops to radios to digital clocks and to many other examples of technology.

The Theory of Relativity

Though quantum mechanics was the most productive scientific achievement of the 20th century, most people are more likely to have heard about the “theory of relativity,” which was also developed during that century. Unlike most advances in physics, the theory of relativity was proposed based on mathematical theory rather than observation. The theory rests on two postulates (assumptions) that are difficult to test, and then derives mathematical conclusions about what the physical consequences should be. Those two postulates are that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, and that all laws of physics are the same in every (inertial) frame of reference no matter where it is or how fast it is traveling. This theory rejects Newton’s view of gravitation and replaces it with a concept that there is a continuum of space and time, and that large masses (like the sun) bend space in a manner similar to how a finger can depress an area of a balloon. From this proposed bending of space the popular expression arose that “space is curved.”[5]

a drawing of how a signal would dip into a gravity well around the sun according to the theory of relativity

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) and others promoted the theory of relativity. Contrary to public perception, the theory of relativity had nothing to do with the development of the atom bomb or any other technology. Only one Nobel Prize (in 1993) has ever been given for relativity, and the validity of that particular award is questionable. Many things predicted by the theory of relativity, such as gravitons, have never been found despite expensive government projects (like “LIGO”[6]) that search for them. Many observed phenomena attributed to the theory of relativity, such as the bending of light passing near the sun or the advance of the perihelion in the orbit of Mercury, are also predicted by Newton’s theory. The theory of relativity conflicts with quantum mechanics, and Einstein himself never accepted quantum mechanics.

British Historian Paul Johnson declares the turning point in 20th century to have been when fellow Brit Sir Arthur Eddington, the top English astronomer, ventured out on a boat off Africa in 1919 to try to prove the theory of relativity. The theory of relativity predicts twice the bending of light around massive objects compared with Newton’s theory, and an eclipse is required to darken the sun so that the starlight may be seen in proximity to the sun. Eddington liked publicity and probably dreamed of winning a Nobel Prize, and upon his return to England declared that his observations proved the theory of relativity by monitoring the bending of starlight around the sun during a total eclipse. That was good enough for reporters and historians, but the Nobel committee was not impressed and declined to give him an award. More recent analysis of Eddington’s work revealed that he was biased in selecting his data, and that overall his data was inconclusive about the theory of relativity.

Eddington then promoted the theory of relativity to the public in his book entitled the Mathematical Theory of Relativity (1923). As the title suggests, this theory was more a mathematical vision of how the universe should be, rather than what it actually was. When a reporter asked Eddington whether only three people even understood the theory, Eddington comically replied, “Who’s the third?” (as though no one else understood the theory other than Eddington and Einstein). Later Eddington opposed a theory about massive stars known as white dwarfs put forth by Indian physicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, but Eddington was proven wrong and Chandrasekhar won a Nobel Prize for his work. Eddington finally lost all credibility when he first insisted that a physical constant (the fine structure constant), measured to be close to 1/136, must precisely equal 1/136 to make the math easier, but when later measurements suggested a value closer to 1/137 Eddington insisted that it must precisely equal to 1/137 instead. He was wrong both times. When World War II threatened the future of England, Eddington was a conscientious objector and refused to participate.

Just as “social Darwinism” arose from Darwinism, many seized upon the theory of relativity to apply it in a vague way to morality and social issues. “All things are relative” became popular as atheists and others used relativity to attack Christian values. As a law student, Barack Obama was given credit by a liberal professor in an article claiming that the theory of relativity could support a right to abortion. Meanwhile, Congress continues to spend billions of taxpayer dollars unsuccessfully trying to prove the theory.

The Big Bang?

Another scientific controversy in the early 20th century concerned whether there was an origin or initial moment for the universe. Increasingly some physicists insisted in the 1920s that the universe must have always existed in a “steady state,” and that creation was myth. But in 1927 a Belgian Catholic priest, Georges-Henri Lemaître, proposed that the universe must have begun in an initial massive “explosion” like a creation. He was ridiculed for years, with one prominent physicist making fun of his hypothesis by calling it the “Big Bang.” But in 1929, Edwin Hubble, another devout Christian, discovered evidence supporting the “Big Bang” and now most physicists accept this theory (and the name, even though it was first used to make fun of the theory). Research in the 1960s in central New Jersey discovered further support for the Big Bang, for which the Bell Labs scientists received the Nobel Prize.

Other 20th Century Theories

Other thinkers in the early 1900s included Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). He was the atheistic father of psychoanalysis, emphasizing the supposed importance of one’s unconscious mind and symbolic dreams. He was a professor in Vienna, Austria. In 1938 he fled the Nazis by traveling to England, where he was welcomed and became popular due to his atheism. Freud proposed that the human psyche consists of three parts -- ego, super-ego, and id -- and that defense mechanisms are an attempt by the mind to resolve conflicts between the super-ego and the id. A “Freudian slip” is something mistakenly spoken that supposedly reflects a view of one’s subconscious. Critics of Freud point out that he fabricated some of his data in order to make some of his claims. Freud himself lost his way morally: late in life, Freud asked his own doctor to kill him, which his doctor did.


The mass production of affordable cars had a tremendous effect on society, influencing everything from teenage life to families moving to the suburbs with the father commuting to work each day. Arrival of the airplane also had an enormous impact, with Charles Lindbergh flying solo for the first time from New York to Paris in 1927. Amelia Earhart was the first woman to cross the Atlantic by solo flight, in 1932.

In 1920, "KDKA" in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, became the first commercial radio station, and radio quickly developed into the center of entertainment for families. Use of radio spread most quickly in the United States, where there is freedom of speech, and slowly in other countries where speech is controlled or regulated by the government. Movies caught on in the 1920s in silent form and then, with sound, in the late 1930s. The Wizard of Oz in 1939 was the first color movie, and it was immensely popular.

Literature and Philosophy

After World War I several novels deplored the apparent meaninglessness of that war. In All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), World War I veteran Erich Maria Remarque describes the war in an unflattering way from the perspective of German soldiers. American Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929) was also critical of war.

Other literature focused on other topics. Author and attorney Franz Kafka penned several classic stories illustrating how humans are alienated from a hostile, unintelligible and indifferent modern world. Several of his works became classics after Kafka died, including The Trial (1925) and The Castle (1926). In The Trial, an innocent man finds himself a defendant in a trial that he cannot understand, and he is sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit. Kafka’s most famous short story was The Metamorphosis (1915), in which someone awakens to realize that he has been transformed into a massive cockroach that has been fatally injured. Throughout Kafka’s works he expressed and sympathized with the feeling of being an outsider, of being someone who is not in the “in group.” Kafka himself lacked religion and suffered from bouts of insanity as he grew older.

Philosophers increasingly abandoned religion. Frenchman Jean Paul Sartre and the German Karl Jaspers advanced a new philosophy called “existentialism”, which taught that life has no meaning at all and that neither God nor morality exists. Existentialism was a rebellion against all philosophy, seeking freedom for each person to form whatever value system he likes. Rather than "I think therefore I am," an existentialist might absurdly say, "Maybe I exist, so therefore I think!" An atheist, Sartre’s most famous work was L'âge de raison (The Age of Reason) (1945). Towards the end of his life he shockingly expressed sympathy for the terrorists who kidnapped and killed Israelis during the 1972 Olympics, asserting that it was “perfectly scandalous” how the French press criticized the terrorism.

Prior work in the 1800s by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was the basis for the existentialism movement in the 1900s. Nietzsche is famous for his statement that “God is dead.” Nietzsche criticized Western democracy, preferring instead rule by elitist groups who could become almost superhuman through effort and courage. Nietzsche himself went insane later in life, but many Germans promoted his ideas after World War I as Germans struggled to find self-esteem.

Music and Art

Americans made one of its rare artistic contributions to the world in the form of jazz, a new style of music developed in New Orleans in the 1920s. It used irregular tempo and rhythms and combined African American music with European traditions. New dance styles also became popular, including the Charleston dance that featured much movement.

In The Rite of Spring (1913), Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky broke with traditional views of music by having different musical instruments play in different keys simultaneously.

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright became world-renowned for his building design, which emphasized functionalism. Architect Walter Gropius of Germany founded the Bauhaus school to expand on Wright’s work. Both felt that new buildings should feature designs that encouraged movement and facilitated the intended use. Wright’s most famous designs are the Guggenheim Museum in upper Manhattan and the Falling Water house in rural Pennsylvania.

In paintings, expressionism emerged based on distorted forms and bold colors. Pablo Picasso, the most famous artist of the 20th century, had a style that became known as “cubism”, which modified the images of his subjects to fit geometric shapes. Just as existentialism questioned the meaning of life, an artistic movement called Dadaism (1916-1924) consisted of artwork that emphasized meaningless and arbitrary designs. Later Surrealism produced art that appeared dreamlike.

Postwar Europe

After World War I, there were no major monarchies left in Europe. Nations turned to democracy, but were not always well-prepared for it. Numerous political parties formed, and in the parliamentary system of democracy common in Europe, coalitions are required among several political parties to form a majority that can rule. (In a parliamentary system, a coalition of political parties runs both the executive and legislative branches together, and there is no separation of powers like in the United States.) It took time for European people to adjust to a parliamentary democracy in place of a monarchy.

Germany struggled with democracy in its new Weimar Republic. This government was already disliked by the German people for having signed the humiliating Treaty of Versailles. The huge reparations required by that Treaty caused an even bigger problem. Germany simply could not pay.

So Germany began printing money, and lots of it. This made it easier for Germany to pay its reparations, but caused enormous inflation in Germany. People were outraged at the loss in value of their savings, and hardship resulted as the German "mark" (its currency) became almost worthless. The German people disapproved even more of their own government.

An international committee funded by the United States and England intervened to try to save German’s economy. The Dawes Plan, named after American financier Charles G. Dawes, implemented in 1924 the committee’s recommendations that Germany begin paying 1,000,000,000 gold marks in the first year and increasing to 2,500,000,000 by 1928. It also called for a loan of 800,000,000 marks ($200 million) to Germany. The Dawes Plan ignored the original reparations set by the Treaty of Versailles. By 1929 the Dawes Plan was considered a big success and financial controls over Germany were relaxed. Germany factories were producing again at prewar levels and inflation was no longer a big problem.

World leaders made a silly attempt to agree to peace in the future. In 1925, the French and German prime ministers signed a treaty stating that the two countries would never go to war against each other again. Gustav Stresemann was the German prime minister and Aristide Briand was the French prime minister. Germany agreed to honor the current borders of France and Belgium, and as a result was admitted to the League of Nations. This agreement was not worth the paper it was written on, because there was no way to enforce it.

In 1928 Briand then signed a similar agreement with Frank Kellogg, the Secretary of State for the United States. This Kellogg-Briand Pact prohibited war, and was signed by almost every country. But it was silly because it could not be enforced. It would take a war to make a country comply with it!

The Great Depression

The network of political alliances that led to World War I was replaced by a set of financial relations after World War I. The Great War was very, very expensive and there were many debts to pay off after the war. But in order for Britain and France to pay their debts to the United States, Germany had to pay reparations to Britain and France. In order for Germany to be able to reparations, it had to receive loans from American banks and also benefit from a strong global market. Meanwhile, colonies were already beginning to struggle due to a decreased demand in raw materials by industrialized nations, which had learned to make more with less. Any economic downturn in a major country could set off a financial chain reaction that would be hurtful to all. In 1928 American lenders did begin pulling money out of Europe to invest in the more successful American stock market, and that was an early warning sign of potential trouble.

The American economy had been booming during the “Roaring Twenties” (1920s). Everything looked good. In 1920, the politically conservative President Warren Harding was elected president. He favored limited government so that free enterprise could thrive, and his economic policies benefited the nation and the world for a decade.

But President Harding died from an illness in 1923. He was succeeded by his Vice President Calvin Coolidge, who was conservative but not as much as Harding. When Coolidge declined to run for reelection in 1928, Republican Herbert Hoover took office. In his first year in office, on “Black Thursday” Oct. 24, 1929, the stock market in New York crashed. Stock prices plummeted and many lost everything. This was the beginning of the Great Depression in the United States, which then pulled down the economies of European nations also.

Economists debate the possible causes of the Great Depression to this day. There is no consensus in favor of one single cause. There is no apparent reason why a drop in stock market value alone would cause a massive depression. Only those owning the stocks that fell in value were immediately hurt. But many had bought stock “on margin,” which means on a mere promise to pay. When their stocks fell in value, those buyers could not pay their obligations on stock they had already purchased. That means the losses were felt far beyond the stock owners, including many others in the economy, such as banks. Laws changed afterward to guard against this ripple effect. The stock market crash hurt public confidence, and people stopped buying things. It became a vicious cycle.

But perhaps it was an overreaction by government that really caused the Great Depression. Economists criticize the Hawley-Smoot Tariff of 1930, which imposed high trade barriers on imports to protect American manufacturers, as a huge mistake. Foreigners retaliated by refusing to buy American products, and factories, banks and stores closed in increasing numbers. Unemployment that was only 5 million in 1930 skyrocketed to 13 million in 1932. The Great Depression had hit.

The effects of the Great Depression were clearer than its cause. Weaker American banks meant weaker European banks. Leaders were voted out of office worldwide. In the United States, voters replaced Republican Herbert Hoover with Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who instituted the “New Deal” by which government assisted farms and business and created public projects to generate jobs. The program was unsuccessful in pulling the United States out of the depression, and probably delayed economic recovery.

Island countries like Great Britain and Japan were hit hardest because they depended most on trade rather than farming. Voters replaced the liberal Labour Party in Britain with conservatives in 1931, but tariffs and taxes increased anyway. In Japan, its silk export industry collapsed and it struggled to pay for fuel. It turned to a stronger military to acquire what it needed.

For Scandinavia and Latin America, the depression meant more government control. The governments in the socialist Scandinavian countries increased their aid to citizens and protected retirement funds. In Latin America, government increased planning and asserted more independence from the U.S. and Europe.

France was not hurt as badly, due to its strong farming economy. But a coalition of communists, socialists and moderates formed the Popular Front to enact laws to help workers, including pay increases and a maximum 40-hour work week. Inflation took away any gains for workers by decreasing the real value of their earnings, and unemployment remained high.


  1. The first Christmas of the war, in 1914, did have some miraculous truces amid the trench warfare:
  3. Though tenacious in battle, Russia was not as industrialized as the West, and as a result Russia's military was inferior.
  5. Later experiments demonstrated that space is not curved overall, and that it is actually flat.