36. The Two World Wars and the Cold War (1914 – 1991)
Summary In the first half of the 20th century Germany and its allies lost two World Wars against Great Britain, France, the United States and Russia/the Soviet Union. This was followed by the Cold War in the second half of the 20th century, which was a decade-long rivalry between the capitalist United States and the communist Soviet Union. The latter time was marked by a nuclear arms race, widespread peace, the emergence of a wealthy and large middle class in the western countries, the first manned Moon landing, the setup of large-scale electrical power grids and by the extensive use of petroleum.
Keywords Moon Landing; Nuclear Bombs; Pax Atomica; World Wars
The Trinity detonation in July 1945. It was the first detonation of a nuclear bomb and was realized by the Manhattan Project, an arms project of the United States during World War II. Robert Oppenheimer, a leading scientist in the Manhattan Project, later recalled his thoughts during the detonation by citing the Hindu god Vishnu from the book Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” (© United States Department of Energy / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)
After a century of relative peace among the major European powers since 1815, the Central Powers – these were the German Empire, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire – clashed with the Allied Powers – the British Empire, France, Italy and the Russian Empire – in World War I (1914-1918), which is also known as the Great War. The United States joined the Allied Powers from 1917 on. During this war, as a result from new warfare techniques such as tanks and gas warfare, by-products of the Industrial Revolution, vast parts of Europe were devastated on a then-unparalleled scale. The war ended with a victory of the Allied Powers, the fall of the German and Austrian emperors, and the fall of the Turkish caliph. Also the Russian tsar was overthrown during the communist October Revolution in 1917, and from 1922 on Russia and neighboring states formed the Soviet Union.
World War II (1939-1945) erupted soon after, when Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler, together with Fascist Italy and the Empire of Japan, fought against the Allies Britain, France, the United States, the Soviet Union and the Republic of China. This war turned out to be even more devastating than World War I, with increased aerial bombings and at least 70 million casualties, many of them being Russian and Chinese civilians. In addition, the Germans committed terrible atrocities against the Jews, and the Japanese against the Chinese and Koreans. While the Germans unconditionally surrendered in May 1945, the Japanese only surrendered in August of the same year, after the United States had destroyed their cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki by two nuclear bombs which were developed by physicists just three weeks before, with roughly 100,000 casualties for each bomb. After the war the Allies established the United Nations with the aim to promote international cooperation and to avoid future wars. Not only did Germany and Japan lose the war, also the western European powers lost their colonial empires in the following years: In 1945 Vietnam became independent from France and Indonesia from the Netherlands; Britain lost the Indian subcontinent in 1947, which splitted into India and Pakistan; and Nigeria, Congo and other African states gained their independence from European powers in 1960.
After 1945 the two global superpowers were the capitalist United States and the communist Soviet Union, with the western European states being allied with the United States and the eastern European states with the Soviet Union. Soon after the war, these two superpowers began to alienate themselves from each other, with the following time period of alienation being called the Cold War, and Germany was divided among them. After the Soviet Union had developed nuclear bombs in 1949, they competed with the United States in a nuclear arms race, and both states soon became able to destroy each other multiple times. The most powerful nuclear bombs became a thousand times more powerful than the bombs which had destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While the two superpowers have been on the brink of a nuclear world war during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, ultimately no large war occurred since 1945, with a primary reason for this being the terrible prospect of exactly such a nuclear war. The relative worldwide peace since 1945, resulting from the developed nuclear bombs, is such called the Pax Atomica.
The first manned Moon landing in 1969. (© NASA / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)
During the Pax Atomica in the second half of the 20th century human societies prospered, and the human population rose from 2 billion in 1927 to 5 billion in 1987. Humans reached for the first time the South Pole in 1911, the North Pole in 1926, Earth’s highest mountain (Mount Everest) in 1953, and Earth’s deepest underwater trench (Mariana Trench) in 1960. The first satellite into outer space was launched by the Soviet Union in 1957, and the first manned Moon landing was achieved by the United States in 1969. In 1973 Jupiter, the closest and biggest of the outer planets, was visited for the first time by an unmanned fly-by mission. The laser was invented in 1960. Nuclear energy was not only used to build deadly bombs, but also served civilians by nuclear power plants. In western countries many people joined the middle class which acquired wealth and technical possibilities which were unprecedented in human history: By large-scale electrical power grids and the general technical progress they could soon afford color televisions, telephones, refrigerators and washing machines. They could go shopping in multistory shopping malls, and imported foods from all over the world became available in supermarket chain stores. In the wake of the oil-based energy bonanza they could buy mass-produced cars which greatly improved individual mobility. Since the 1950s they could take high-speed trains which reached up to 300 kilometers per hour, or they could fly in an airplane to another continent in a few hours. Also West Germany and Japan, who had been defeated during World War II, thrived and enjoyed economic prosperity. Symbols for this prosperity were the skyscraper skylines of New York, which was the biggest city of the world from about 1925 to 1965, or of Tokyo, which is the biggest city since then.
While the consumption of resources rose worldwide, there were also warning voices which urged the societies to put more efforts into the protection of the enrivonment, such as the Club of Rome in 1972 or various green parties which were established in the 1970s. As the communist Soviet Union was economically not very successful, it dissolved in 1991. The Cold War ended, Germany was unified, and the United States became the only remaining global superpower.