Prelude to the Short Century

To understand the 20th Century, it is important to look briefly at a few key developments in its lead up. This prelude will only delve superficially into some European, American and East Asian events.


1848 and The Communist Manifesto

The revolutions of 1848 were a seminal event for Europe, as unrest spread to nearly every major European city. The uprisings related to the disruptions caused by mass industrialization and dissatisfaction with a tone-deaf elite.

In this context, the philosophers Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels published a pamphlet called The Communist Manifesto in an attempt to define what the disparate uprisings were gunning for: better economic representation within societies that have historically enriched landowners and factory bosses over the actual working classes that were the producer class. Marxist thought did not advocate for bloody revolution, but rather saw history as inevitably leading to a recalibration of wealth division in an undefined future time. Marx fleshed out his philosophy in great detail two decades later in Capital, and his work had a profound effect on the revolutions of the following century.

The Scramble for Africa

European technological leaps did not only lead to mass industrialization, but to developments in medicine that allowed its conquest of mass swaths of the world. The presence of malaria in the African interior forced European colonizers to stay in the coastal ports of the continent due to a lack of immunity to the disease, and to rely on the local populace on the ground for trade. The adoption of Quinine as an anti-malaria drug in the 1830s allowed for European expeditions into the interior of the continent without risk of death. Almost the whole continent was parsed out within a few decades by European powers.


German Unification and French Humiliation

In the 1860s, during the Wars of German Unification, Prussia set the founding blocks for forming a German national state. Notably, at the end of the third conflict, the Franco-Prussian War, Germany was declared as unified state in Paris. The German victory over France was in large part due to war by timetable. The Prussian military used railways to their utmost capacity in order to outrun and flank French forces, and then laid siege to Paris. The city’s population rebelled against the government and formed The Parisian Commune along Marxist ideals. The remnant of the French military petitioned the German forces to enter Paris to put down the insurrection, half of the city was burned to the ground, the French forces left the city, the siege resumed, and France surrendered Alsace-Lorraine to Germany. This was a catastrophic humiliation for the French that would be a defining cause for France’s enmity towards Germany for the next 45 years.

A New Balance

The new German state was headed by Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck, a highly charismatic leader who redesigned the balance of power in Europe to guarantee German security. The alliance system he fostered with Austria-Hungary and Russia isolated France, and he guaranteed British interests in Europe. This system would unravel in the 1890s, when the new German Emperor Wilhelm II sacked Bismarck and let the alliance with Russia lapse. The French quickly stepped into the breach and won over the Russians to their side in 1892. A decade later, France and Great Britain entered into an alliance that undid centuries of mutual hatred and put behind a long bloody history of warfare. Wilhelm II’s diplomatic incompetence and sabre-rattling rhetoric helped create the Triple Entente between France, Russia and Great Britain. Wilhelm II did manage to preserve the alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary, and Italy joined the bloc, which came to be known as the Triple Alliance. The arms race of the early 20th Century, coupled with frequent Balkan unrest, created the perfect storm for the outbreak of the First World War.

The United States

The United States stayed on the sidelines during European conflicts and expansion around the world. It focussed its energies on the American continents. The Monroe Doctrine of the 1830s dictated that the United States had the right to intervene in Latin American countries to guarantee its interests. The U.S. government was also aggressively expanding westwards, with settlers founding towns and villages ahead of State formation.

Western Expansion

The Western U.S. was founded on warfare against Mexico in the 1840s that saw the latter’s abdication of the territories of Texas, California, New Mexico and Arizona. Western expansion was in full swing even during the Civil War, and by the 1890s, the West was conquered in its totality. It was a conquest based on the subjugation and elimination of Aboriginal people. The Massacre of Wounded Knee in 1890 South Dakota was the last major battle between American and Aboriginal forces.

The Spanish-American War

As the conquest of the West ended, American expansionism did not. In 1898, the United States declared war on Spain and a swift victory made the U.S. the proprietor of new colonies, namely Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippines. Despite American rhetoric to the contrary, it had become an empire not unlike those of Europe.

East Asia

West Brutalizes East

In 1839, China declared war on Great Britain over illegal British opium smuggling from India. Up to this point, European powers were confined to select ports on the Chinese coast. China’s defeat in 1842, however, opened the country to further exploitation by Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia and even the United States.

In 1853, the Commodore Matthew Perry sailed his fleet to Tokyo harbour and demanded that Japan enter into trade with the United States. Japan did not have a navy, and acceded to his demands. France, Russia, Great Britain and Holland subsequently sent fleets to force Japanese trade.

A powerful Japan

The Japanese understood that this was only the beginning of foreign interest in the country, and began an era of quick modernization based on the European model. They bought technology, built modern rail infrastructure, got rid of the Samurai system, and built a navy. In 1894, Japan and China went to war over Korea. The Japanese, with a modernized army, won easily over the Chinese and Japanese expansionism on the East Asian mainland began.

Japanese ascendance in East Asia was startling: in 1906, they defeated the entirety of the Russian navy over a land dispute. This shocked Europe: a non-white people managed to best a white European Empire.

A Struggling China

China learned a lot from observing the Japanese rise to prominence. After the failed anti-colonialist Boxer Rebellion of 1898 and Japan’s victory over Russia, Chinese statesmen claimed that China needed to follow the Japanese model of modernization to achieve power over their own country. Traditional Chinese customs and economics began to be regarded as grossly inadequate to competing with European technological supremacy. The death of the staunchly conservative Dowager Queen in 1908 paved the way for the foundation of the Chinese Republic in 1911. It was a united, secular and pro-European Republic, but one that brought Chinese thinking into the modern era. European-style education was valued, and Marxism came in vogue in University circles.

Next Post: The Great Cataclysm

Montréal, July 8, 2018


The Short Century Project

Welcome to my first blog post!

I’ve been going through quite a few life changes recently, as I chose to switch career paths and focus my energies on teaching. For the time being, I’ll mainly focus on teaching English as a Second Language since it will allow me to travel and explore parts of the world that I have only read about: the streets of Hanoi and the countries of Southeast Asia. I’m still debating whether to teach High School or CEGEP in the longer term, but time and a few extra experiences will hopefully make the decision easier to come by.

This blog, outside of its initial paragraphs, will not be about me. It is, in fact, meant to be a teaching tool that is accessible to all, and not just academics or people familiar with the subjects at hand. Hopefully, I’ll be able to register a few entries about Hanoian and Vietnamese culture, as well as the surrounding countries. For now, however, the blog will serve to create lessons about 20th Century world history!

The Short Century Project

A few years back, while I was wandering through the mostly empty streets of Ottawa, I was coming to terms with my choice to work as a civil servant rather than a teacher. The idea of the Short Century Project went through my mind, I spoke about it to a few people, and then promptly forgot about it. But it would pop up once in a while as an idea worth seeing to fruition, and so here it is.

It’s a CEGEP-level 20th Century world history course in the form of a blog, consisting of a prelude and then two entries for each decade of the 20th Century starting with the 1910s. The first entry of each decade consists of a top-down view of the events that shaped the decade and how these reverberate in the modern day. The second entry looks at the decade’s art and culture, so there’s a certain highly imperfect balance achieved between politics and war on one side and the development of 20th Century thought and modes of living on the other.

“Why the hell did you decide to call it the Short Century Project?!,” you might wonder. “Simple, really,” I could lie. But I don’t wanna lie so here’s an explanation. In some historian circles, centuries are viewed more by what defined a period in history rather than an arbitrary start and end date. This makes sense since the whole concept of centuries is entirely man-made. For instance, many would argue that the European 19th Century really began with the French Revolution in 1789 and ended with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. This makes sense since the French Revolution represented a significant break from the past with the birth of classical liberalism, and the First World War ended a long period of relative stability in Europe (no conflicts on the scale of the Napoleonic Wars.) 125 years. A very long century, but one held together thematically through politics and culture. In China, one could argue that the 19th Century only began in 1839 with the outbreak of the First Opium War, which saw China’s defeat at the hands of the British and set the stage for the division of the country by multiple European powers in the following decades. The century arguably ended in 1911, with the founding of a unified Chinese Republic. 72 years. Pretty damn short for a century. These are just two examples of two very different centuries in two parts of the globe. And the divisions are highly subjective.

The short 20th Century runs from 1914 to 1989.  This short century was born in the ashes of the First World War just about everywhere in the world. For Europe, the trenches of France and the Russian Revolutions of 1917 commenced a completely new epoque. In the United States, the break from isolationism in 1917 and President Woodrow Wilson’s vision of a world composed of people who determined their own national futures[1] set the stage for a fully interventionist United States later in the century. The Chinese Republic failed during the First World War and splintered into 700 Kingdoms. In this chaos, a young Mao Zedong participated in the May 4th 1918 anti-colonial uprisings in Beijing and joined the Nationalists in reconquering the country. Japan was granted nearly the same respect by European countries as reserved for white empires because of its alliance with the winners of the First World War and was further emboldened to pursue its expansionist ambitions in the Far East. The stage was set for the major developments of the 20th Century.

The short century ended in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent extinction of the Soviet Union. It was a bloody century, defined by two world wars, a cold war that only stayed cool because of assured mutual destruction by nuclear warheads, and countless proxy wars and wars of independence. It was a century of brutal experimentation in Fascist and Communist thought, and a of new imperialism that turned former colonies into client states. The short century was also defined by a significant burst of technological innovation and the flourishing of the arts and cultures of the world. From the mass popularization of blues and jazz in Chicago in the 1920s to an anti-modernist streak in Europe defined by Dadaism, from the rise of the anti-war song to 4’33”,[2] from the music of nationalism in Latin America to a rejection of the deferential ideals of the past, the short century brought as much culture and new modes of thinking to existence as lives it destroyed.

I welcome all comments and corrections. These posts are meant to be CEGEP-level, so I’m sure that some of my historian friends will be aghast at my oversimplification of complex events. But if you are not well-versed in history and found the posts too dense or complex, do let me know. I’m mainly aiming for clarity of thought and accessibility, and hope you enjoy the Short Century Project!

“Ok, I get why Short Century, but what’s the deal with adding Project at the end of the title,” you might wonder. Answer: because it sounds good.

The next post will be “Prelude: Setting the stage for the Short Century.”


                                                                                                                         Montréal, June 27, 2018

[1] It was for white people only. His ideas about national self-determination did not include the nations in Africa or Asia.

[2] 4’33” was a 1952 composition by the pianist John Cage where he sat in front a grand piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds without striking a single piano key. A new form of art!