HONOURS GEOGRAPHY
20th Century European History

*The early twentieth century saw Europe try to destroy itself in the First World War.  Nationalism (both its arrogant form and its nation-state building form), militarism, and a desire for glory led Europe into a terrible war that destroyed ancient empires.

*Towards the end of WWI, Russia was in such bad shape (some soldiers were sent into battle without guns, being told to pick them up from dead men once they had the chance) that the workers, led by a vanguard of dedicated communist revolutionaries (with Lenin at their head) overthrew the Tsar of Russia in 1917, and killed him and all his family in 1918 after a period of imprisonment.

*Russia fell into a period of civil war, between monarchists, republicans, communists, and Ukrainian nationalists.  Russia also suffered a loss in World War I, surrendering much of their land, and then another loss to the newly independent Poland.  In the end, the Bolsheviks (a faction of the Communists) won, with Vladimir Lenin as their leader.  He died in 1924, and the Communist Party was taken over by Stalin, who ruled until 1953.

*The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (as Russia and its dependent territories were now called) took over industry, collectivised the farms (by force when necessary), and instituted a totalitarian government with a command economy.  Dissenters could be imprisoned in gulags or killed, and often were, as the secret police—the NKVD and later the KGB were everywhere.  Among those killed were many of the officers in the army, who Stalin feared were plotting against him (which left the USSR unprepared for WWII).  Overall, Stalin ruled through a secret police state, and through terror.  While he ruled the USSR, perhaps as many as 20 million people died from his purges, and from famines brought on by poor economic planning.  As Stalin himself said, ‘the death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.’

*In Europe, the map was changed by the Treaty of Versailles which ended World War I.  Austria-Hungary was broken up into Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and parts of other new countries (also created out of Germany and Russia):  Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.  Germans particularly resented the loss of land in what became Poland, especially as it left part of Germany cut off as East Prussia.  They also disliked the fact that some ethnic Germans ended up in non-German majority countries (like the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia or Alsace-Lorraine in France), or that Austria was not allowed to join Germany.

*The treaty also laid a huge indemnity on Germany, requiring them to pay for the War, limited the size of their military, took away their few overseas colonies, and forced them to sign the ‘War Guilt Clause,’ in which Germany claimed that all of World War I was its fault.  The purpose of the treaty was to crush Germany, and to humiliate it.

*The German and Austro-Hungarian Kaisers also abdicated, and were replaced by republics, notably the Weimar Republic in Germany.

*The late 1920s and 1930s saw a worldwide depression, which hit all the US and Europe, but got Germany particularly hard.  There, money became so worthless that marks had to be printed in billion-mark denominations, and people needed wheelbarrows to haul their daily wages.

*The Depression, combined with fears of Communist uprisings across Europe (which were seen as very possible) led to the rise of Fascist governments in Italy, Germany, Hungary, Spain (following the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), and Portugal. 

*Extreme nationalism, racism, and militarism are the major underpinnings of fascism; so fascist leaders told their peoples that they were the greatest nations on Earth, and planned to build or rebuild their glory (this worked particularly well in Italy, where Mussolini offered to restore the glory that was Rome, and in Germany, which felt cheated at the end of WWII).

*Hitler also used the Jews as a scapegoat, blaming them for the problems of the Aryan race, and eventually offered a ‘final solution’ to the ‘Jewish question,’ by killing about 6 million of them, along with about 5 million other ‘social deviants’ in the Holocaust.

*In the name of nationalism, Hitler, the leader of the NSDAP and of Germany (he had been legally appointed chancellor in 1933), rebuilt the military to illegal levels, annexed Austria and demanded (and got) the return of the Sudentenland.  This was permitted by Britain and France as part of the policy of appeasement, which was expected to provide ‘peace in our time.’

*In 1939, Hitler tried again, invading Poland on 1 September.  He doubted anyone would stop him, partly because he had already signed the secret Nazi-Soviet Pact, in which Germany and the USSR would jointly invade and then split Poland (and the Baltic Republics).  However, Britain and France declared war on Hitler this time (but did not send Poland much real help).

*Hitler used blitzkrieg, or lightning war, in which dive-bombers shattered enemy defences and morale, then rapid-moving tanks, motorised infantry, and paratroops moved through the disrupted enemy lines.  It was an excellent tactic as long as it could achieve victory in less than six weeks, after which it would bog down into a lengthy ground war.  Fortunately for Hitler, Poland fell in less than a month, as Hitler and Stalin divided it up between themselves.

*From there, the rest of the world was next.  After a period of preparation, during which he claimed he wanted peace, Hitler began to move again.  On 9 April 1940 the Germans conquered Denmark and invaded Norway, which was betrayed by one of its own, Vidkun Quisling.  On 10 May, the Nazis invaded the Low Countries.  Luxembourg fell in a day, the Netherlands in five days, and Belgium in three weeks.

*On 14 June, the Germans captured Paris.  On 22 June the French officially surrendered.  Northern France was occupied, and Southern France was ruled by collaborators from the new capital city of Vichy.  Other Frenchmen did resist, the most famous of whom was their eventual leader, Charles De Gaulle.

*Britain stood alone, and only the RAF in the Battle of Britain in August and September 1940 prevented the Germans invading.

*The British and French also had a new and powerful ally.  On 22 June 1941, Hitler, now that he had knocked France out of the war and had Britain isolated on their island, thought he could take the Soviet Union.  German troops, assisted by Finnish and Rumanian soldiers, poured across the entire Soviet border.  Initially the blitzkrieg worked.  The Red Army was poorly trained, poorly led (partly because Stalin had killed so many of his generals in his purges), and for the moment easily defeated.

*Furthermore, many Soviet citizens, especially in Lithuania and the Ukraine, were so tired of Stalin’s cruelty that they welcomed the Nazis as liberators.  In most cases, these Slavic subhumans would be proven wrong, as they were made to do forced labour and those who resisted were executed.

*On Sunday morning at 7 o’clock, the Japanese launched an attack on the US Naval base at Pearl Harbor just outside Honolulu, Hawaii and the United States Congress declared war on Japan on 8 December 1941.  On 11 December 1941, Germany and Italy, to help their ally Japan, declared war on the United States.  

*In fact, Russia shouldered most of the burden during the war, losing 50 men for every one that America lost.  Suffering terribly, Stalin begged the Allies to attack Hitler somewhere more important that Africa in order to open up a two-front war and take some of the pressure off the Red Army.

*Stalin wanted America and Britain to attack France, but Churchill thought it would be too tough.  Instead, he suggested the ‘soft underbelly’ of Europe, taking Italy and from there, hopefully, moving into the rest of Europe.

*The soft underbelly had proven not to be so soft, but the beaches of France did not look too inviting either.  The US Army Air Corps and the Royal Air Force tried to open a front in the air.  By 1943, the US and Britain were, at least in theory, following Churchill’s promise to ‘bomb the devils ‘round the clock.’  This was called strategic bombing, an attack on German factories, roads, and other facilities to   The Air Corps, with good sights, bombed specific targets during the day.  The RAF, who could not aim as well, practised carpet bombing at night, dropping bombs indiscriminately on large areas.  They also used firebombs, which do not need to be aimed too well.  In Hamburg, fires raged out of control to the extent that they sucked all the oxygen out of the air in places, and the Hamburg fire department invented the term ‘firestorm’ to describe this type of massive, out-of-control fire.  More than 40,000 civilians died in four firebombings of that city alone.  To the British, though, this was just revenge for the Blitz, as the British called the years-long bombardment of London.

*On 6 June 1944 the D-Day invasion began.

*Americans attacked Utah Beach, not actually landing where they were supposed to, and Theodore Roosevelt, junior, led a quick and easy landing.  Americans also landed at Omaha beach, where over 2,000 were killed or wounded in minutes, making it the worse part of the invasion.  The British attacked Gold and Sword beaches, and Canadians attacked Juno beach.

*Although casualties were heavy, half a million troops landed within a week, and by late July there were 2 million Allied troops in Europe.

*After landing in Normandy in June 1944, the Allies began to move across France.  Although initially slowed down by the bocage, American troops, especially George Patton’s Third Army, which used tactics very similar to those of the German blitzkrieg, moved so fast that their biggest problem was getting so far ahead of their supply lines that they could not get fuel for their tanks.

*In Paris, the French Resistance started an uprising that threw the Germans out on 25 August, 1944.  After over four years of occupation, Paris was free.

*Despite stiff resistance at the Battle of the Bulge, 16 December 1944 to 25 January 1945, Germany was defeated, and on 7 May 1945, Admiral Karl Dönitz offered Germany’s unconditional surrender.  This is known as V-E Day.

*The period after WWII saw Europe’s power decline tremendously, partly because most of Europe was devastated physically and financially by the war, partly because so much of Europe ended up dependent on either the USA or the USSR after the war, and partly because the stresses of the war, or Europe’s poverty afterwards, forced Europe to give up its colonies overseas, or at least most of them—mostly by 1960, although some would be retained longer (and a few remain).

*The proof of Europe’s dependence on the USA—and of the USA’s power in the world—was the Marshall Plan, named after US Secretary of State George Marshall.  To keep Europe from getting so poor that it felt forced to turn to Communism, the US sent $13 billion to Europe (roughly equal to $100 billion today) to Europe starting in 1947.  It was offered to the Soviets, too, but they rejected it.  This rebuilt Europe, and reformed its trade system somewhat, lowering tariffs and taxes, and may have eventually helped lead to the formation of the European Union.

*After the War, the leaders of Britain, France, the USA, and the USSR met at Potsdam in Germany to work out who would control what after the war.  Stalin had occupied most of Eastern Europe, and promised to hold free elections there.  No-one believed him, but he had a massive army, and there was not much that could be done about it.  The French and Soviets wanted to keep Germany down, so it was split into four zones of occupation, for all four major powers, as was Berlin itself (within the Russian zone).  This later formed the basis for East and West Germany.  Some parts of Germany were completely eliminated, given either to Poland or Russia.

*After World War II, Europe would be divided into the western nations that more or less favoured the United States, and the Eastern Bloc that was largely dominated by the Soviet Union.  Most of the western nations eventually joined the USA and Canada in NATO, a mutual defence treaty, while most of the Eastern Bloc was forced to sign the Warsaw Pact, which did the same for them.

*The theoretical dividing line between the two sides was called the Iron Curtain.

*This face-off between the east and the west, in which neither side directly attacked the other, but in which both competed fiercely, was known as the Cold War, and it dominated world politics from 1945 until 1991, and made the world fear it might be destroyed by nuclear war, at least after 1949, when the USSR tested its first atomic bomb.

*Life was hard in much of the Eastern Bloc.  The command economy did not get workers to do their best—everyone got enough to live no matter what, so why work too hard?  This often led to shortages, low quality products, and a lack of freedom to enjoy personal luxuries.  This was also caused by the general depression of the economy required by immense military spending.

*Many people in communist countries tried to flee to the west, which usually resulted in death if they were caught.  To try to stop this, East Germany built the Berlin Wall around West Berlin in 1961—most of it went up overnight on 13 August.  The rest of the country’s border was fortified as well.

*Eventually public dissatisfaction, the inability to provide for their people while keeping up with US military spending, and, ironically, the freedoms allowed by a new openness in the USSR (Gorbachev’s glasnost), led to many of the Eastern Bloc nations relaxing their border restrictions, and in 1989, East Germany removed the Berlin Wall.  On 3 October 1990, Germany re-united.

*The same forces led to a coup in the Soviet Union by the military (who feared the same thing might happen there), which failed, and, in fact, weakened the government so that in 1991 the USSR collapsed into 15 republics.  The Cold War was over.

*The fall of communism in Eastern Europe was not without problems.  Both Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were created at the end of WWI out of several ethnic nations.  Czechoslovakia dissolved itself peacefully into the Czech and Slovak Republics, but Yugoslavia broke up into Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Serbia-Montenegro (also called Yugoslavia).

*The former Yugoslavia, especially the new nation of Bosnia, was ethnically and religiously diverse, and during the Yugoslav wars, in which Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia fought for their independence from Serbia, warfare often had a religious and racist element as well.  Bosnia had it worst, because it was about equally Serbian (Slavic and Orthodox), Croat (Slavic and Catholic), and Bosniak (Slavic and Islamic), and they fought each other, and engaged in ‘ethnic cleansing,’ a nice term for genocide.  Most of this was undertaken by the Serbian Army (which was trying to keep Bosnia as part of Serbia), but some was done by Croats and even by Bosniaks as well.  Trials for crimes against humanity are still ongoing in relation to this, and it is one of the worst instances of mass murder in the past 20 years.



This page last updated 27 September, 2005.