The history of the 20th century was turbulent, but it is possible to trace at least one persistent feature present in each of its important moments and periods. As political and military struggles embroiled the powers of the world, there was always an evident ideological subtext present in the events. World War I and the subsequent Second Russian Revolution, the emergence of Nazism and World War II, and, ultimately, the Cold War all had profound ideological implications and dominated the century’s entire span.
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World War I was a conflict of unprecedented magnitude and importance. It lasted from 1914 to 1918 and involved two coalitions: Central Powers and the eventually victorious Allied Powers. Central Powers were traditional multiethnic empires dominated by aristocrats, such as Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. Many of the Allied Powers, such as France, Great Britain, and the USA, which entered the war in 1917, were more liberal and democratically inclined, even though their other allies, such as Russia, Japan, and Italy, also had traditional power structures. The war was a first full-scale conflict between industrial powers and utilized the potential of the Industrial Revolution to make warfare more mechanized, bloody, and destructive than ever before. Traditional empires, such as Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire, proved unable to withstand the war in one peace, and the national minorities in all of them took the opportunity to found states of their own, such as Poland, Finland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and others. Ambitious politicians also viewed the war as an opportunity to change the world: Woodrow Wilson sought to promote democracy worldwide, while Vladimir Lenin wanted to ignite a worldwide Socialist revolution.
The first stepping stone in Lenin’s striving to create a Socialist world was Russia. The First Russian Revolution of 1917 overthrew the monarchy and installed an unstable Provisional Government, but Lenin and his Bolshevik Party rejected it as “capitalist” and “oppressive.” They launched a second revolution in the fall of 1917 and overthrew the Provisional Government. To solidify their power, Bolsheviks introduced new political policies, such as founding secret police to crack on their opponents, holding show trials to discriminate them, and creating the USSR as the first self-proclaimed Socialist state. To strengthen their power base, they introduced new economic policies: nationalization of banks to control the finances, nationalization of the industry to control energy and durable goods production, and nationalization of land to control agriculture. When the peasants, who hoped to own the land rather than surrender it to the government, rebelled against Bolsheviks, the latter confiscated food supplies and closed borders to punish the peasants with famine. Still, some Western intellectuals appreciated the rhetoric of a classless society, and Walter Duranty, a New York Times reporter, even won a Pulitzer Prize for denying the aforementioned terror famine.
Apart from Bolshevik Socialism, another ideology was on the rise in Europe – Fascism. Many people considered the horrors of World War I a sign that older ideologies and practices were fundamentally flawed. Consequently, Fascism, with its emphasis on youthfulness, energetic action, and especially the sense of community and belonging, appeared progressive and appealing. In Italy, where Benito Mussolini became a prime minister in 1922, Fascists introduced new policies. They banned political parties as “outdated” rudiments of ineffective democracy and created a state-led corporate economy, but also provided social benefits, such as healthcare and old-age pensions, to improve the sense of community. The leader of German Fascists, also known as Nazis, was Adolf Hitler, and his policies after he seized power in 1933 were similar but not identical. They also included the guarantees of pensions and education but aimed for a more state-centered economy that would eliminate the “unearned” income from investment and interest. Another policy crucial for the Nazi agenda was their fierce opposition to the Jews, whom they viewed as a corrupting influence on society that had to be destroyed.
To create a prosperous society, Nazis aimed to establish a German empire in Central and Eastern Europe by conquering new territories. Nazi expansionism eventually led to World War II that lasted from 1939 to 1945 and put the Axis (Germany, Italy, and Japan) against the Allies (Great Britain, France, USSR, China, and the USA). Nazi determination to achieve the “Final Solution” of the Jewish question by herding European Jews into extermination camps and killing them made WWII a racial war. However, it was also an ideological war, because fundamentally internationalist Socialism represented a dangerous competition for the nation-centered Nazism and, thus, also had to be destroyed. However, after initial successes against USSR, Germans suffered a crippling defeat at Stalingrad in 1942 and were driven out of the Soviet Union by late 1944, after which the Soviets advanced into Germany. USA and Britain launched a D-Day invasion in 1944, liberating France and much of Western Europe and then marched into Germany as well. World War II ended with the defeat of first Germany and then Japan in 1945, leaving the Allies victorious.
Yet the end of World War II did not mean the end of ideological struggles between the great powers, as the new conflict named the Cold War began soon after. This conflict put the USA as a leader of the democratic countries against the USSR as the leader of the socialist bloc and lasted from 1945 to 1991. It started immediately after World War II, when the Soviet military installed revolutionary Socialist regimes in Eastern Europe, contrary to Stalin’s earlier promises to support democratic elections there. In response, President Truman announced the policy of “containment” designed to counter Soviet expansion. Thus, the Cold War began with the separation of Europe into Socialist and democratic parts.
However, it soon expanded to other continents, such as Asia and South America. In 1949, the Soviet-supported Chinese Communist Party won the Civil War in China, thus bringing a major Asian power to the Socialist camp. The USA aimed to contain the spread of Revolutionary Socialism in other parts of Asia, and though the attempt to do so succeeded in the Korean War, it failed in Vietnam. Fidel Castro’s revolution of 1959 spread Revolutionary Socialism to Cuba and, in a broader sense, Latin America, introducing it to the state-run economy and harsh political repressions. Thus, the Cold War quickly became global in nature.
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Still, for all the efforts of the Socialist camp, the USA and the free world emerged victorious in the Cold War. The inadequacies of the Soviet planned economy hurt economic development and the standard of living in the USSR. Plagued by economic difficulties and internal disagreements between its 15 constituent republics, USSR dissolved in 1991, putting an end to the Cold War.
As one can see, the 20th century had seen many ideological conflicts. The fall of the old empires in World War I provided new opportunities for liberal democracy as well as Revolutionary Socialism. Fascist ideology soon joined the competition, promoting generous social benefits and the sense of community at the expense of individual rights. While World War II led to the decisive defeat of Fascism, the conflict between liberal democracies led by the USA and Socialist countries led by USSR continued as the Cold War. The Cold War began with the installment of Socialist regimes in Eastern Europe, expanded into Asia and Latin America, but ended after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 for economic reasons.