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What “Made” the Twentieth Century?

Above: United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British prime minister Winston Churchill, and their advisors in Casablanca, 1943.

The verb “made” in the title is meant to describe the main activity or set of related events that were responsible for the chief accomplishments of the time period.

The Twentieth Century is almost universally recognized as the “greatest” period of time in world history, for several reasons.

First, it represents the first time in history (6,000 years of recorded time) that events transpired on a truly “global” basis. Prior to then, almost all extraterritorial movement was, in fact, “regional” in scope. The Roman Empire, considered the most elaborate in history, in fact covered a rather concentrated spot on the globe, stretching from Britain in the north, to Italy in the south, to Egypt in the east. Other empires, China, India, Byzantine, Turkish, Zulu, Spanish, Aztec, Portuguese, Islamic, etc., covered pointed areas of the globe but little more. The largest land empire, Mongol, covered parts of Asia, the Middle East, to central Europe. The largest sea empire, British, truly covered the globe but not until the late nineteenth century and, as such, can be considered as a “prelude” to the Twentieth Century itself.

Second, almost all of the political structures of the world were in fact truly “imperial” (“empires”) and it wasn’t until the Peace of Westphalia (Germany, 1648) that the modern entity, “nation-state,” came into being. That makes the political entities, “country, sovereignty, territory,” truly “modern” phenomena, approximately 5% of world history. This, in turn, makes the Twentieth Century all the more remarkable since it developed under the modern jurisdiction, the “nation-state.”

Third, the political-strategic events of the Twentieth Century occurred in an amazingly short time frame, especially compared to the past. The sheer magnitude of the events, including “world” wars from beginning to end, occurred within time periods that earlier would occupy centuries, if not millennia.

Fourth, the Twentieth Century stands out, compared to the past, as the “Age of Ideology.” From the very beginning, the time period was nearly fully occupied with political “movements” that were truly “ideological.” That is, they were unique insofar as they represented aspirations of mankind that were both comprehensive and revolutionary in concept and design. The political origins behind the Twentieth Century came, it is true, from history, but the effects were not pronounced until the next century. The American and French Revolutions, the impact of socialism, internationalism, nationalism, militarism, and other modern movements came in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but were not fully realized until the Twentieth. Communism, Fascism, Liberalism, and Progressivism were modern products that originated from the minds of historical figures. In effect, the modern age is the battleground between the thoughts of Thomas Jefferson vs. Karl Marx and the later personalities of Vladimir Lenin, Woodrow Wilson, Adolf Hitler, and Winston Churchill.

Fifth and last, the technology of the Twentieth Century was so swift and even terrible that, in 100 years it may have surpassed the sum total of all technology that preceded it. From the airplane to the A-Bomb, from penicillin to the cell phone, the technology of the previous century is still developing and represents the heights of mankind’s aspiration for new ways to do old things. It also allowed human society to wage wars that, in six years (1939-1945), would kill 76 million human beings (estimate) without, as they say, “blinking an eye.” It would also allow a “normal” human being (President Harry Truman) to incinerate over 100 thousand plain people in seconds to end one of the century’s wars.

But technology, terrible or benevolent, is not what “made” the Twentieth Century. It was “people,” but which ones?

Even a cursory summary of the Twentieth Century’s major events (“achievements”?) would reveal the answer. The main events that “made” the period were all consumed by conflicts (wars, “Cold War”) that, literally, defined the nature of the political globe. They were not called “world” wars for nothing. Even Napoleon, considered the greatest military genius of the old period, was confined principally to Europe.

The conflicts of the last century were global both in geopolitics and sociological effect. They crippled old empires, from Asia to the Middle East, to Africa, and even Europe itself. There is practically not a single colony remaining, when colonial regimes once saturated the globe. The rise of totalitarian regimes, the Kaiser, Hitler, Lenin, Mussolini, Mao Tse-tung, and all the others have long since disappeared from the earth.

But what remained for the century? The answer may be found in Churchill’s Diary, December 8, 1941, the morning after Pearl Harbor. After laboring for years to get America involved in the war, he confided this in the privacy of his own bedroom: “Now at this very moment I knew that the United States was in the war, up to the neck and to the death. So we had won after all!”

The answer to the original question of what “made” the last century: the consistency and solidarity of the English-speaking people, around the globe.

That’s what, after all, made the last century.

Where do we stand in this one?