Monday, June 06, 2011

The history of the twentieth century

I have not posted much recently about what I have been reading. That is because I have been reading a very thick book, Martin Gilbert's History of the Twentieth Century, Volume 1 1900-1933.

I knew very little about when my parents and grandparents were alive. What tumultuous times!

AT the start of this period history was dominated by the machinations of the Great Powers - Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Austro-Hungary, Turkey, the United States and Japan. Between them they owned practically the whole world. There were small Portuguese and Belgian Empires, but the Spanish Empire had been lost to the United States. The sick man of Europe was undoubtedly Turkey. The Ottoman Empire, which included the Arab lands and the Balkans had once extended to the Gates of Vienna, but nationalistic fervor in Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Albania had meant that it had to withdraw its hegemony in the Balkans. Serbia, in particular, protected as it was by Russia as a fellow Slav state, was keen to gain its independence. Roumania did not involve itself in the first Balkan war but managed to mop up territory when it ended. The Greeks were the biggest gainers winning part of Macedonia, Thrace and many of the islands.

Austro-Hungary was itself beset by nationalist uprising. Poland and Czechoslovakia were weary of being part of the Empire. Meanwhile the Empire saw itself as protector of Roman Catholics outside its borders, so that Croatia and Slovenia sought protection from Turkish Muslims and Serbian Orthodox alike. They have long memories in the Balkans so that after the death of Tito the same towns involved in the 1900s were again prominent in the news; towns like Pristina and Sarajevo.

In Africa, the German colonies continued to be a drain on their economy, the British colonies were well controlled apart from South Africa, which was now running itself and had adopted racist policies of which Britain did not approve. Gandhi had emerged as a champion of both black and Indian races in South Africa, but after the Boer war Britain was reluctant to send troops on behalf of the Blacks. France had its own troubles in North Africa. While Egypt was under control, the same could not be said for the rest of North Africa. Morocco saw a succession of assassinations requiring French troops to restore order. In Libya the Italians sought an Empire of their own by fomenting discontent in both Tripoli and Benghazi, then as now, the centers of two different tribes.

In Russia the attempted revolution of 1905 left the Tsar in autocratic power. The Duma was a talking shop without much influence. It allowed subject nations like Poland, Finland, and the Baltic states to have their say without anybody listening.

Meanwhile the United States was growing in power so that its manufacturing output by 1913 exceeded that of Britain, France and Germany combined.

Then came the First World War. It was a time when people thought of war as a time of glory and honor. They reckoned without the Maxim machine gun. Millions were mown down in the trenches of Normandy and northern France. There were four years of stalemate while the European powers wore themselves out. The United States waited them out, lending them money, growing more powerful and richer. Eventually, the Russian, German, Turkish and Austro-Hungarian empires collapsed, America came in on the side of the democracies losing a lot of men, almost as many as were killed in two years in America in traffic accidents.

Germany and Austria were humiliated by France at the Treaty of Versailles. Reparations were crippling. Woodrow Wilson set up the League of Nations which outlawed war even though new weapons of war were now available - the airplane and the tank. All European nations were bankrupt and even though Britain cheered itself up that it still had its Empire and the Royal Navy, these things were more handicap than a power base.

Then America withdrew into isolationism, failed to join the League of Nations and left the world safe for communism.

The Twenties and Thirties were terrible years. In America prohibition gave rise to criminality. It wasn't just Al Capone. In Chicago there was graft and corruption amongst those who were supposed to be running things let alone amongst those who weren't. Before long the Stock Market collapsed and kept on collapsing. The financial woes spread throughout the globe until deficit spending became respectable in 1933.

The rest of the world was worse. By 1933 Europe had descended into dictatorships, which were the form of government in Italy, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Poland, Russia, Yugoslavia and Turkey. Russia was by far the worst, not only subjecting the nations of the Baltic but also those of the Caucasus and western Asia. Even its own people were subject to the Great Terror. Show trials on trumped up charges, whole groups of citizens sent into slave labor because of their social class, even good and faithful communists executed to encourage the others. Stalin was terrifyingly mad, but so powerful that he went unchallenged. Famously even Beria did not disturb him when he was alone in his room sitting in an armchair dying of a stroke.

In China the young Emperor had been deposed. The Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek were ruling in Nankiing but were opposed by the Russian supported communists under Chou En-lai and rather more effectively by the guerrilla warfare of Mao Tse-tung. Meanwhile the Japanese had annexed Manchuria. The League of Nations was not pleased, but having abolished war, found that they had nothing they could do about it except send a stiff note.

The British Empire persisted, but had already relinquished Ireland and was making plans to give up India, Egypt and the Sudan. The League had given it part of the old Ottoman Empire to administer. Britain took it on as part of the white man's burden. Who would want Palestine, Iraq and the Yemen? Britain thought of itself as an enlightened colonial power and so it was as colonial powers go. Can you imagine how Stalin would have treated Gandhi? But the wind of change was already in the air. The only reason for staying a colony was for the largess of the colonial power, which is why Puerto Rico stays one until this day, eschewing statehood when it was offered. Britain had run out of largess, but there was to be one final gesture of loyalty to the colonial power.


BelfastChild said...

A fascinating period. 1933-1945 is quite interesting too!

Suggested further reading which I have enjoyed immensely:

Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 by Christopher Clark

The First World War by John Keegan

Both are beautifully written, erudite, (reasonably) concise and a shocking good read. I thoroughly recommend them.

Anonymous said...

Just a reminder... today is the anniversary of D Day. My Dad flew over Utah Beach to drop bombs on the Nazis and my uncle landed in Normandy a few days later. Sadly they are both gone as are so many men & women of that generation.


Terry Hamblin said...

It was known as the 'good generation'.