We compiled this piece to explain the key global events of the last 100 years to coincide with the centenary of World War One. We’ve used a variety of graphics, timelines and data visualisations to explain the chain link of events that lead us to global politics as they are today. If you want to make further suggestions on what we can work in, let us know on the comments.
By 1914 Europe was divided by two major Alliance systems: The Triple Alliance between Germany, Austria Hungary and Italy and the Triple Entente, between France, Russia and Great Britain. The balance of power was delicate, with tension building in a pot of nationalistic fervour, militarism and Imperial ambition. In June 1914 the spark was lit to fuel the fire:
Heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip on 28th June 1914. This led to a diplomatic crisis during July, with Russian support for Serbia and Germany’s alliance with Austro Hungary causes the major European nations to take sides. The stage was set for four years of war.
World War One Western Front Battle Timeline
While fighting in World War One spanned continents, the longest action was to be seen on the Western Front where trench warfare led to a grinding stalemate. Millions of men fell to their deaths for minuscule gains until mobile warfare once again broke out in 1918.
The Costs of World War One
World War One was not the bloodiest conflict ever to engulf the Earth, nor the first ‘global war’, but it was undoubtedly the most intense and expensive war the world had seen up to that point. It was initially called ‘The Great War’ in Europe, but later became ‘World War One’ in relation to ‘World War Two‘, which had many of its roots in the 1914-18 conflict.
Political Consequences of World War One
The First World War totally altered the political landscape of Europe. The fall of four empires – German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman – meant a more fragmented continent.
In Russia, the war effort brought immense hardship on the population, including severe casualties. In February 1917 the Tsarist regime collapsed and was replaced by a Provisional Government headed by Alexander Kerensky. The Provisional Government’s failure to negotiate peace led to growing support for the anti-war Bolshevik Party, whose membership swelled into the Autumn. In October, the Bolsheviks co-ordinated a takeover of the government. The Communists would remain in power for more than 70 years.
The Treaty of Versailles blamed German aggression as a key cause of the war. Germany’s economy, already hit hard by the costs of more than four years of fighting, now had to meet ‘the diktat’ of reparations – a total of $31.4 billion. Germany’s economy struggled through the 1920s, encountering hyperinflation in 1923, followed by a heavy slump as the world fell into depression from October 1929.
The Rise of Extremism
The collapse of the German economy led to a polarisation of German politics, with both extreme left and right wing parties gaining votes in elections. By 1933, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party was the largest party in Germany.
Graph denotes rise of Nazi party as % share of votes (four main parties) May 1928 – March 1933:
Against the backdrop of forcible seizure of political control at home, from 1935 onwards Hitler began an aggressive, expansionist foreign policy. This was a key element of his domestic appeal as an assertive leader.
Anxiety over another widespread war led many leaders to appease aggressive policies from expansionist states. As Germany grew in strength, she began to swallow German speaking lands around her, culminating in the invasion of Poland, leading to another European war. In the Far East, Japanese military expansion was largely unopposed until Pearl Harbour in 1941.
Full list of participant nations in World War Two.
Gif Map of Axis Expansion and Collapse in Europe – 1939 – 45:
Leading Nazis were sentenced at at Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal, November 1945 – July 1946. Many of them were executed for their involvement. In the wake of the Holocaust and Zionist movements throughout the early 20th Century, the state of Israel was formed in May 1948.
The Second War devastated so many traditional powers that two states were left with inordinate influence on the future course of international affairs – the United States and the Soviet Union. As the only two countries to emerge strongly from the Second World War, they each marshalled a coalition of allies with themselves at the centre.
War had stimulated industrial and technological development: building more weapons and bringing more citizens under their sphere of influence. When US President Harry Truman and Soviet General Secretary Josef Stalin met in Potsdam, Germany in July 1945 most observers recognised that the decisions of these two men would determine the future course of world history.
The Nuclear Arms Race
The US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 initiated a new, terrifying phase in warfare. The potential to devastate an entire city with one bomb was now within the grasp of belligerent nations, and helpless fear of this fate underpinned Cold War tensions.
Nuclear weapons represented both a deterrent and a final resort to successive Presidents and Soviet leaders who sought to outmanoeuvre each other in building more and more warheads. It was felt that, should one dominate the other in this regard, then the war was effectively over. Had it not been for nuclear weapons, it is conceivable that the USA and the Soviet Union would have fought a direct, all-out war.
Number of Nuclear Warheads per Superpower:
The only way that armed conflict could be conducted in cold warfare is through ‘proxy conflicts’ – a conflict between third parties with backing by powerful countries. Typically, the USA and Soviet Union would hi-jack an existing or nascent conflict, backing one side. The USA claimed to fight in proxy wars to prevent the forcible expansion of communism.
Amidst the backdrop of proxy conflicts and the threat of nuclear annihilation, Western society saw major cultural upheaval during the 1960s (or more specifically from 1956 – 74). Liberalising laws like the 1964 American Civil Rights Act were passed alongside the appearance of new technologies that allowed a new kind of social freedom: white goods like washing machines, the birth control pill and popular music all contributed to a so called ‘Age of Affluence.’
Decades of cumulative economic stagnation combined with simmering ethnic tensions created a huge body of discontent in the Soviet states. When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1990, he instituted two new broad policies – glasnost or ‘openness’ and ‘perestroika’ – designed to revitalise the Union. However, they had the effect of unshackling nationalist movements, and the furious popular response to an attempted communist coup in January 1991 soon indicated the impossibility of further communist rule. As a concept the Soviet Union failed to adequately address the economic needs of its population, and also overestimated the extent to which loyalty to the Union would override ethnic or national loyalties.
Conflict in the Middle East Timeline
Superpower involvement in the Middle East had a significant impact in numerous wars between Israel (backed by USA) and the surrounding Arab states (backed by the Soviet Union). In the 1967 Six Day War Israel occupied the Gaza strip and the West Bank, which it still holds today. This is a continuing source of tension in the region, particularly as there are now numerous Jewish settlements on occupied land.
After the 1979 Israel – Egypt peace agreement, there have been no more wars between Israel and Egypt, Syria or Jordan. However, due to the occupancy of Arab land, the enemy has come from within, with numerous terrorist attacks and insurgencies against Israel from the Palestinian population from 1987. Most recently, Israel has been conducting air strikes on the Gaza strip in order to deter Hamas rocket attacks.
Iraq ended the war with Iran in significant debt to Kuwait. Additionally, Kuwait regularly exceeded its OPEC oil quota, driving the price per barrel down resulting in a loss of $7 billion a year to Iraq. Territorial claims and accusations of slant drilling into Iraq’s Rumailia oil field led to Iraq occupying Kuwait in August 1990.
With the fourth largest army in the world, Iraq now posed a significant threat to Saudi Arabia. The US sent troops at the request of its monarch, King Fahd, in what George H.W. Bush called a ‘wholly defensive mission.’ However, this doctrine was abandoned when Iraq declared Kuwait to be its 19th province. The UN Security Council gave Iraq a deadline of until 15th January 1991 to withdraw from Kuwait. With no withdrawal forthcoming, a US led coalition of 34 nations drove the Iraqis from Kuwait, but did not overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime.
The American presence in Saudi Arabia embittered the founder of extremist organisation Al-Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden, who had offered his own Mujahideen forces to protect Saudi Arabia. US troops remained in Saudi Arabia throughout the 1990s, despite an initial promise to withdraw once Iraqi forces were dealt with. In 1996 Bin Laden issued a fatwa against the United States, entitling it a ‘Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places.’
Bin Laden was exiled from Saudi Arabia in 1992, and set up base in Sudan, before moving headquarters to Afghanistan in 1996. Al-Qaeda executed numerous terrorist attacks throughout the 1990s, notably funding the Luxor massacre of November 17th 1997, the US Embassy bombings throughout East Africa on August 7th 1998 and the suicide attack on USS Cole on 12th October 2000.
September 11th 2001
19 Al-Qaeda operatives hi-jacked four passenger airliners and flew two into the World Trade Center in New York. Another plane struck the Pentagon in Washington DC and the fourth crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania after its passengers overcame the hi-jackers. The World Trade Center collapsed and almost 3,000 people were killed. It remains the deadliest terrorist attack in history.
In reaction to September 11th, the US invaded Afghanistan in order to destroy Al-Qaeda training camps and force regime change. The ruling Taliban collapsed, but later regrouped and has remained an insurgent threat ever since.
In his Presidential address to congress, President George W. Bush highlighted the ‘Axis of Evil’ – states which support terrorism and aim to build weapons of mass destruction. The speech soured relations with Iran and highlighted the Bush administration’s ambitions to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq.
A US led coalition invaded Iraq without support from the UN Security Council, achieving the deposition of Saddam Hussein’s regime in three weeks. However, the ensuing power vacuum was filled by a violent insurgency and sectarian conflict. The US finally withdrew after nine years of occupancy in 2011.
The Arab Spring
From 2010 a revolutionary wave of protests and demonstrations occurred throughout the Arab world, in a general movement against authoritarian governments. In four states, the government was overthrown, while in Syria there is an ongoing civil war.
Major Conflicts in 2014
Most of the globe’s major conflicts (over 1,000 deaths per year) are limited to the Middle East and Africa. However, Pro-Russian unrest boiled over in the Ukraine after the 2014 revolution, and remains the major point of unrest in Europe. In the Middle East, the hardline ISIS has made rapid gains in Syria and Iraq, and now controls a territory larger than Great Britain, while the Syrian Civil War continues to rage.
We know that we’ve left out quite a few events. We’ve had to do this for the sake of the narrative, which we wanted to keep focused and relevant to the most pressing global issues one hundred years ago and today. Some major events are not included in much depth:
- The rise of communism in China. Except from being related to the Cold War.
- Detail of the Vietnam War, since it is part of the Cold War.
- The Balkans conflicts of the 1990s.
There will be many more. There is no such thing as a complete historical narrative, so while we have included what we feel is important, many people will have their own suggestions on what else to add. You can do so by leaving a comment. We can always add more to it.