The 20th Century: A Retrospective

The 20th Century: A Retrospective

The 20th Century: A Retrospective

The 20th Century: A Retrospective


Three grand themes characterized the twentieth century: crises on a scale that outstripped any in human history; revolutionary ideology and action that brought social and political transformations on a global scale; and new technologies breathtaking in their pace and innovation. It was a century of triumphant creativity and achievement, yet it witnessed violence and destruction of appalling, even cataclysmic, intensity. How can such contradictions be captured so that those who live in the twenty-first century may understand, and perhaps learn from, the varieties of human experience in the twenty-first century may understand, and perhaps learn from, the varieties of human experience in the twentieth century? The authors go back to 1880 to present a thematic history of the tumultuous 20th century organized in fifteen chapters that stress cultural, social, and material issues as well as major political developments. Carefully selected case studies bring to life in ordinary experience the themes of each chapter. Themes with a temporal orientation are featured in Part One on the "Early Century" (Modernization, Imperialism, Materialism, Socialist Revolution, and Fascism); and in Part Two on the "Later Century" (Decolonization, Peasant Movements, 1960s' Radicalism, and Islamic Fundamentalism). Part three takes up larger themes that encompass the whole century (Feminism, War and Peace, Science, Population, and Economic Inequality). Illustrations and suggestions for further reading, films, and videos, enhance this innovative text.


The modern period trumped the more distant past in several ways, all of which complicate the historian's task In no century before the twentieth did so many people live and die, prosper and suffer. The world population in 1900 totaled 1.6 billion, and in 2000 more than 6 billion. In the century between those two dates, more than 50 million people died in famines and more than 100 million in warfare. By the century's end, annual economic activity surpassed the 1900 level by twenty times or more, holding prices constant. Telegraphs, radios, and steamships were joined and partly replaced by the Internet, television, airplanes, and rockets. Never before had so many inventions, books, or works of art been produced; never before had so many facts been accumulated, to be weighed and interpreted. The mass of humankind, which had been governed by monarchs, chiefs, and autocrats, increasingly shared in making decisions. Mere literacy and numeracy gave way, for most people, to mastery of complex literary and mathematical tasks and a degree of specialization not before attained.

Yet, at the century's end, nearly a billion people could not read, and many more could not read well enough to cope with the intricate literary and numerical tasks of daily life. More than a billion people remained poor, unable to claim so much as a dollar a day in resources, while a few people counted incomes of more than $150,000 a day. Surgeons could replace a human heart and scientists could clone a large mammal, but no one could deliver lifesaving vaccinations to all the world's children or explain how best to safeguard individual health to a public rabidly keen to know. In the twentieth century humankind learned how better to make war, efficiently killing millions of people and slaying tens of thousands with a single bomb or a single night's firebombing. People idealized peace but struggled with the problem of how to foster it. It was, in sum, a century of contrasts, of unprecedented achievements and of grotesque and gigantic failures. It was a century in which to take pride, and it was a century of shame.

Most of all, and for most of its course, it was a century of hope. The failures more than the achievements motivated people, propelling them into ever more hopeful attempts to better the human condition. Even so, as we shall argue in this book, confidence in this endeavor waxed in the early decades of the century but waned in the last decades, even though the conditions of life and health had improved so much in the interim. In 1900 most people believed that they could come to understand the operation of nature, that they could discover how to improve the institutions by which people were governed, and that they could advance human society, bringing about prosperity, longevity, and contentment. By 2000, ironically, more had been learned in each of these realms, but less seemed to be known. Confidence in human progress had given way to uncertainty. The belief in linear movement toward the goals of education, prosperity, happiness, and good government for all had been displaced by the sense that change might incorporate large elements of chaos, with no discernable trend—or perhaps circular movement, with peoples and cultures always reliving familiar hopes and disappointments.

The promise of a bright future is captured by the idea of the "modern," a term that the first cultures to achieve markedly greater wealth, more responsive government, broader education, and longer lives used to define themselves in contrast to the past and to those cultures and societies . . .

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