The 20th century was the period between January 1, 1901 and December 31, 2000, inclusive. It was the tenth and last century of the 2nd millennium. It is distinct from the century known as the 1900s, which began on January 1, 1900 and ended December 31, 1999.
The century had the first global-scale wars between several world powers across multiple continents in World War I and World War II. Nationalism became a major political issue in the world in the 20th century that was acknowledged in international law with the acknowledgement of the right of nations to self-determination, official decolonization in the mid-century, and many nationalist-influenced armed conflicts - including both World Wars.
The century saw a major shift in the way that vast numbers of people lived, as a result of changes in politics, ideology, economics, society, culture, science, technology, and medicine. It has been theorized that the 20th century saw more technological and scientific progress than all the other centuries combined since the dawn of civilization. Terms like ideology, world war, genocide, and nuclear war entered common usage. Scientific discoveries, such as the theory of relativity and quantum physics, drastically changed the worldview of scientists, causing them to realize that the universe was fantastically more complex than previously believed, and dashing the strong hopes (or fears) at the end of the 19th century that the last few details of scientific knowledge were about to be filled in. Accelerating scientific understanding, more efficient communications, and faster transportation transformed the world in those hundred years more rapidly and widely than in any previous century. It was a century that started with horses, simple automobiles, and freighters but ended with high-speed rail, cruise ships, global commercial air travel and the space shuttle. Horses, Western society's basic form of personal transportation for thousands of years, were replaced by automobiles and buses within the span of a few decades. These developments were made possible by the large-scale exploitation of fossil fuel resources (especially petroleum), which offered large amounts of energy in an easily portable form, but also caused widespread concerns about pollution and long-term impact on the environment. Humans explored outer space for the first time, taking their first footsteps on the Moon.
Mass media, telecommunications, and information technology (especially computers, paperback books, public education, and the Internet) made the world's knowledge more widely available. Many people's view of the world changed significantly as they became much more aware of the struggles of others and, as such, became increasingly concerned with human rights. Advancements in medical technology also improved the welfare of many people: the global life expectancy increased from 35 years to 65 years. Rapid technological advancements, however, also allowed warfare to reach unprecedented levels of destruction. World War II alone killed over 60 million people, while nuclear weapons gave humankind the means to annihilate or significantly harm itself in a very short period of time. The world also became more culturally homogenized than ever with developments in transportation and communications technology, popular music and other influences of Western culture, international corporations, and what was arguably a true global economy by the end of the 20th century.
Early arms races of the century escalated into a war which involved many powerful nations: World War I (1914–1918). Technological advancements changed the way war was fought, as new inventions such as machine guns, tanks, chemical weapons, grenades, and military aircraft modified tactics and strategy. After more than four years of trench warfare in western Europe, and 20 million dead, those powers who had formed the Triple Entente (France, Britain, and Russia, later replaced by the United States and joined by Italy) emerged victorious over the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire). In addition to annexing much of the colonial possessions of the vanquished states, the Triple Entente exacted punitive restitution payments from their former foes, plunging Germany in particular into economic depression. The Tsarist regime of His Imperial Majesty Nicholas II was overthrown during the conflict and Russia was transitioned into the first ever communist state, and the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires were dismantled at the war's conclusion.
At the beginning of the period, Britain was the world's most powerful nation; having acted as the world's policeman for the past century. Fascism, a movement which grew out of post-war angst and which accelerated during the Great Depression of the 1930s, gained momentum in Italy, Germany and Spain in the 1920s and 1930s, culminating in World War II (1939–1945), sparked by Nazi Germany's aggressive expansion at the expense of its neighbors. Meanwhile, Japan had rapidly transformed itself into a technologically advanced industrial power. Its military expansion into eastern Asia and the Pacific Ocean culminated in a surprise attack on the United States, bringing it into World War II. After having had several years of dramatic military success, Germany was defeated in 1945, having been repelled and invaded by the Soviet Union from the east and invaded from the west by the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Free France. The war ended with the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan. Japan later became a U.S. ally with a powerful economy based on consumer goods and trade. Germany was divided between the Western powers and the Soviet Union; all areas recaptured by the Soviet Union (East Germany and eastward) were essentially transitioned into Soviet puppet states under communist rule. Meanwhile, Western Europe was influenced by the American Marshall Plan and made a quick economic recovery, becoming major allies of the United States under capitalist economies and relatively democratic governments.
World War II left about 60 million people dead. When the conflict ended in 1945, the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as very powerful nations. Allies during the war, they soon became hostile to one other as the competing ideologies of communism and democratic capitalism occupied Europe, divided by the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall. The military alliances headed by these nations (NATO in North America and Western Europe; the Warsaw Pact in Eastern Europe) were prepared to wage total war with each other throughout the Cold War (1947–91). The period was marked by a new arms race, and nuclear weapons were produced in the tens of thousands, sufficient to end most human life on the planet had a large-scale nuclear exchange ever occurred. The very size of the nuclear arsenal on both sides is believed by many historians to have staved off an inevitable war between the two, as the consequences of any attack were too great to bear. The policy of unleashing a massive nuclear attack, knowing a massive nuclear counterattack would be forthcoming, was known as mutually assured destruction (MAD). Although the Soviet Union and the United States never directly entered military conflict with each other, several proxy wars, such as the Korean War (1950–1953) and the Vietnam War (1957–1975), were waged as the United States implemented its worldwide "containment" policy against communism.
After World War II, most of the European-colonized world in Africa and Asia gained independence in a process of decolonization. This, and the drain of the two world wars, caused Europe to lose much of its long-held power. Meanwhile, the wars empowered several nations, including the UK, U.S., Russia, China and Japan, to exert a strong influence over many world affairs. American culture spread around the world with the advent of Hollywood, Broadway, rock and roll, pop music, fast food, big-box stores, and the hip-hop lifestyle. British culture continued to influence world culture, including the "British Invasion" into American music, leading many top rock bands (such as Swedish ABBA) to sing in English. The western world and parts of Asia enjoyed a post-World War II economic boom. After the Soviet Union collapsed under internal pressure in 1991, the communist governments of the Eastern bloc were also dismantled, followed by rocky transitions into market economies.
Following World War II the United Nations was established as an international forum in which the world's nations could get together and discuss issues diplomatically. It has enacted resolutions on such topics as the conduct of warfare, environmental protection, international sovereignty, and human rights. Peacekeeping forces consisting of troops provided by various countries, in concert with various United Nations and other aid agencies, have helped to relieve famine, disease, and poverty, and to suppress some local armed conflicts. Europe slowly united, economically and, in some ways, politically, into what eventually became the European Union, which consisted of 15 European countries by the end of the 20th century.
In approximately the last third of the century, concern about humankind's impact on the Earth's environment caused environmentalism to become a major citizen movement. In many countries, especially in Europe, the movement was channeled into politics partly through Green parties, though awareness of the problem permeated societies. By the end of the 20th century, some progress had been made in cleaning up the environment though pollution continued apace. Increasing awareness of global warming began in the 1980s, commencing several decades of social and political debate.
Due to continuing industrialization and expanding trade, many significant changes of the century were, directly or indirectly, economic and technological in nature. Inventions such as the light bulb, the automobile, and the telephone in the late 19th century, followed by supertankers, airliners, motorways, radio, television, antibiotics, frozen food, computers and microcomputers, the Internet, and mobile telephones and many other things, affected the quality of life for great numbers. Scientific research, engineering professionalization and technological development was the force behind vast changes in everyday life.
At the beginning of the century, discrimination based on race and sex still existed in general society. Although the Atlantic slave trade had ended in the 19th century, the fight for equality for Africans in the white society of North America, Europe, and South Africa continued. During the century, the social taboo of sexism fell. By the end of the 20th century, women had as many rights as men in most parts of the world and not only did general society accept equal rights for members of other races but most people frowned at racism. In the 1970s, the term speciesism was coined as people began to question humans' natural discrimination against other species. In the latter third of the century, movements for equality gained significant ground in the Western world.
The number of people killed during the century by government actions could be as high as 400 million. This includes deaths caused by wars, genocide, politicide and mass murders. The deaths from battles, fire bombings and nuclear bombs used during the two world wars alone have been estimated between 50 and 80 million. Political scientist Rudolph Rummel estimated 262,000,000 deaths caused by democide, which excludes those killed in war battles, civilians unintentionally killed in war and killings of rioting mobs. According to Charles Tilly, "Altogether, about 100 million people died as a direct result of action by organized military units backed by one government or another over the course of the century. Most likely a comparable number of civilians died of war-induced disease and other indirect effects." It is estimated that approximately 70 million Europeans died through war, violence and famine between 1914 and 1945.
After gaining political rights in the United States and much of Europe in the first part of the century, and with the advent of new birth control techniques, women became more independent throughout the century.
Rising nationalism and increasing national awareness were among the many causes of World War I (1914–1918), the first of two wars to involve many major world powers including Germany, France, Italy, Japan, Russia/USSR, the United States and the British Empire. World War I led to the creation of many new countries, especially in Eastern Europe. At the time, it was said by many to be the "war to end war".
Civil wars occurred in many nations. A violent civil war broke out in Spain in 1936 when General Francisco Franco rebelled against the Second Spanish Republic. Many[who?] consider this war as a testing battleground for World War II, as the fascist armies bombed some Spanish territories.
The Cold War had caused an arms race and increasing competition between the two major players in the world: the Soviet Union and USA. This competition included the development and improvement of nuclear weapons and the Space Race.
The Soviet authorities caused the deaths of millions of their own citizens in order to eliminate domestic opposition. More than 18 million people passed through the Gulag, with a further 6 million being exiled to remote areas of the Soviet Union.
The two world wars led to efforts to increase international cooperation, notably through the founding of the League of Nations after World War I, and its successor, the United Nations, after World War II.
Nationalist movements in the subcontinent led to the independence of India and Pakistan.
Gandhi's non-violence and civil disobedience influenced many political movements around the world, including the African American civil rights movement in USA, and freedom movements in South Africa and Burma.
The creation in 1948 of Israel, a Jewish state in the Middle East, by the British Mandate of Palestine fueled many regional conflicts. These were also influenced by the vast oil fields in many of the other countries of the mostly Arab region.
The end ofcolonialism led to the independence of many African and Asian countries. During the Cold War, many of these aligned with the United States, the USSR, or China for defense.
After a long period of civil wars and conflicts with European powers, China's last imperial dynasty ended in 1912. The resulting republic was replaced, after yet another civil war, by a communist People's Republic in 1949. At the end of the 20th century, though still ruled by a communist party, China's economic system had transformed almost completely to capitalism.
The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, culminating in the deaths of hundreds of civilian protesters, were a series of demonstrations in and near Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China. Led mainly by students and intellectuals, the protests occurred in a year that saw the collapse of a number of communist governments around the world.
European integration began in earnest in the 1950s, and eventually led to the European Union, a political and economic union that comprised 15 countries at the end of the 20th century.
Culture and entertainment
As the century began, Paris was the artistic capital of the world, where both French and foreign writers, composers and visual artists gathered.
Movies, music and the media had a major influence on fashion and trends in all aspects of life. As many movies and much music originate from the United States, American culture spread rapidly over the world.
Computer games and internet surfing became new and popular form of entertainment during the last 25 years of the century.
In literature, science fiction, fantasy (with well-developed fictional worlds, rich in detail), alternative history fiction gained unprecedented popularity. Detective fiction gained unprecedented popularity between the two world wars.
Tango was created in Argentina and became extremely popular in the rest of America and Europe. Blues and jazz music became popularized during the 1910s and 1920s in the United States. Blues went on to influence rock and roll in the 1950s, which only increased in popularity with the British Invasion of the mid-to-late 1960s. Rock soon branched into many different genres, including heavy metal, punk rock, and alternative rock and became the dominant genre of popular music. This was challenged with the rise of hip hop in the 1980s and 1990s. Other genres such as house, techno, reggae, and soul all developed during the latter half of the century and went through various periods of popularity.
The modern art movement revolutionized art and culture and set the stage for both Modernism and its counterpart postmodern art as well as other contemporary art practices.
Art Nouveau began as the most advanced architecture and design but went unfashionable after World War I. The style was very dynamic and highly inventive, however the depression of the Great War made it difficult to keep up such a high standard.
In Europe, modern architecture departed radically from the excessive decoration of the Victorian era. Streamlined forms inspired by machines became more commonplace, enabled by developments in building materials and technologies. Before World War II, many European architects moved to the United States, where modern architecture continued to develop.
The automobile vastly increased the mobility of people in the Western countries in the early-to-mid-century, and in many other places by the end of the 20th century. City design throughout most of the West became focused on transport via car.
The popularity of sport increased considerably—both as an activity for all, and as entertainment, particularly on television.
Science and mathematics
Science advanced dramatically during the century. There were new and radical developments in the physical, life and human sciences, building on the progress made in the 19th century.Big Science flourished, especially after the Second World War, as funding for science increased. Mathematics became ever more specialized and abstract.
While some pioneering experiments about internal structure of atoms had been made at the end of the 19th century, it was only in the 20th century that their structure was clearly understood, followed by the discovery of elementary particles.
A much better understanding of the evolution of the universe was achieved, its age (about 13.75 billion years) was determined, and the Big Bang theory on its origin was proposed and generally accepted.
The age of the solar system, including Earth, was determined, and it turned out to be much older than believed earlier: more than 4 billion years, rather than the 20 million years suggested by Lord Kelvin in 1862.
The planets of the solar system and their moons were closely observed via numerous space probes. The planet Pluto was discovered in 1930 on the edge of the solar system, although in the early 21st century, it was reclassified as a plutoid instead of a planet proper, leaving eight planets.
No trace of life was discovered on any of the other planets in our solar system (or anywhere else in the universe), although it remained undetermined whether some forms of primitive life might exist, or might have existed, somewhere. Extrasolar planets were observed for the first time.
American Buzz Aldrin during the first moonwalk in 1969.
One of the prominent traits of the 20th century was the dramatic growth of technology. Organized research and practice of science led to advancement in the fields of communication, engineering, travel, medicine, and war.
The number and types of home appliances increased dramatically due to advancements in technology, electricity availability, and increases in wealth and leisure time. Such basic appliances as washing machines, clothes dryers, furnaces, exercise machines, refrigerators, freezers, electric stoves, and vacuum cleaners all became popular from the 1920s through the 1950s. The microwave oven became popular during the 1980s. Radios were popularized as a form of entertainment during the 1920s, which extended to television during the 1950s. Cable television spread rapidly during the 1980s. Personal computers began to enter the home during the 1970s–1980s as well. The age of the portable music player grew during the 1960s with the development of 8-track and cassette tapes, which slowly began to replace record players. These were in turn replaced by the CD during the late 1980s and 1990s. The proliferation of the Internet in the mid-to-late 1990s made digital distribution of music (mp3s) possible. VCRs were popularized in the 1970s, but by the end of the 20th century, DVDs were beginning to replace them.
The first airplane was flown in 1903. With the engineering of the faster jet engine in the 1940s, mass air travel became commercially viable.
The assembly line made mass production of the automobile viable. By the end of the 20th century, billions of people had automobiles for personal transportation. The combination of the automobile, motor boats and air travel allowed for unprecedented personal mobility. In western nations, motor vehicle accidents became the greatest cause of death for young people. However, expansion of divided highways reduced the death rate.
In addition to human spaceflight, unmanned space probes became a practical and relatively inexpensive form of exploration. The first orbiting space probe, Sputnik 1, was launched by the Soviet Union in 1957. Over time, a massive system of artificial satellites was placed into orbit around Earth. These satellites greatly advanced navigation, communications, military intelligence, geology, climate, and numerous other fields. Also, by the end of the 20th century, unmanned probes had visited the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and various asteroids and comets. The Hubble Space Telescope, launched in 1990, greatly expanded our understanding of the Universe and brought brilliant images to TV and computer screens around the world.
A stamp commemorating Alexander Fleming. His discovery of penicillin had changed the world of modern medicine by introducing the age of antibiotics.
Cocaine/crack and heroin were found to be dangerous addictive drugs, and their wide usage had been outlawed; mind-altering drugs such as LSD and MDMA were discovered and later outlawed. In many countries, a war on drugs caused prices to soar 10x-20x higher, leading to profitable black marketdrugdealing, and to prison inmate sentences being 80% related to drug use by the 1990s.
Contraceptive drugs were developed, which reduced population growth rates in industrialized countries.
The development of medical insulin during the 1920s helped raise the life expectancy of diabetics to three times of what it had been earlier.
As a result of some of the above developments, most notably antibiotics and vaccines, child and young people's mortality decreased drastically.
An influenza pandemic, the Spanish Flu, killed anywhere from 20 to 100 million people between 1918 and 1919.
Sedentary lifestyles, due to labor-saving devices and technology, contributed to an "epidemic" of obesity, at first in the rich countries, but by the end of the 20th century, increasingly in the developing world, too.
Energy and the environment
Oil field in California, 1938. The first modern oil well was drilled in 1848 by Russian engineer F.N. Semyonov, on the Apsheron Peninsula north-east of Baku.
Widespread use of petroleum in industry—both as a chemical precursor to plastics and as a fuel for the automobile and airplane—led to the vital geopolitical importance of petroleum resources. The Middle East, home to many of the world's oil deposits, became a center of geopolitical and military tension throughout the latter half of the century. (For example, oil was a factor in Japan's decision to go to war against the United States in 1941, and the oil cartel, OPEC, used an oil embargo of sorts in the wake of the Yom Kippur War in the 1970s).
By the end of the 20th century, more technological advances had been made than in all of preceding history. Communications and information technology, transportation technology, and medical advances had radically altered daily lives. Europe appeared to be at a sustainable peace for the first time in recorded history. The people of the Indian subcontinent, a sixth of the world population at the end of the 20th century, had attained an indigenous independence for the first time in centuries. China, an ancient nation comprising a fifth of the world population, was finally open to the world in a new and powerful synthesis of west and east, creating a new state after the near-complete destruction of the old cultural order. With the end of colonialism and the Cold War, nearly a billion people in Africa were left with truly independent new nation states, some cut from whole cloth, standing up after centuries of foreign domination.
The world was undergoing its second major period of globalization; the first, which started in the 18th century, having been terminated by World War I. Since the US was in a position of almost unchallenged domination, a major part of the process was Americanization. This led to anti-Western and anti-American feelings in parts of the world, especially the Middle East. The influence of China and India was also rising, as the world's largest populations, long marginalized by the West and by their own rulers, were rapidly integrating with the world economy.
Terrorism, dictatorship, and the spread of nuclear weapons were some issues requiring attention. The world was still blighted by small-scale wars and other violent conflicts, fueled by competition over resources and by ethnic conflicts. Despots such as Kim Jong-il of North Korea continued to lead their nations toward the development of nuclear weapons.
Disease threatened to destabilize many regions of the world. New viruses such as SARS and West Nile continued to spread. Malaria and other diseases affected large populations. Millions were infected with HIV, the virus which causes AIDS. The virus was becoming an epidemic in southern Africa.
The geographic distribution of surface warming during the 21st century calculated by the HadCM3 climate model if a business as usual scenario is assumed for economic growth and greenhouse gas emissions. In this figure, the globally averaged warming corresponds to 3.0 °C (5.4 °F).
Based on research done by climate scientists, the majority of the scientific community speculate that in the long term environmental problems may threaten the planet's livability. One argument is that of global warming occurring, and that it may be due (at least partially) to human-caused emission of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide produced by the burning of fossil fuels. This prompted many nations to negotiate and sign the Kyoto treaty, which set mandatory limits on carbon dioxide emissions.
World population increased from about 1.6 billion people in 1901 to 6.1 billion at the century's end. Some[who?] believe that a significant driver of many of the problems of the 20th century was overpopulation. Overpopulation has been a fascination of many, including economic theorist Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus whose "An Essay on the Principal of Population" was first published in 1798. Some demographers[who?] have predicted that the population will reach a plateau of 9 to 10 billion around 2100.
^"Total radiative forcing is positive, and has led to an uptake of energy by the climate system. The largest contribution to total radiative forcing is caused by the increase in the atmospheric concentration of CO2 since 1750." (p 11) "From 1750 to 2011, CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion and cement production have released 375 [345 to 405] GtC to the atmosphere, while deforestation and other land use change are estimated to have released 180 [100 to 260] GtC." (p 10), IPCC, Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis - Summary for Policymakers, Observed Changes in the Climate System, p. 10&11, in IPCC AR5 WG1 2013.
Szulc, Tad (1990). Then and Now: How the World Has Changed since W.W. II. First ed. New York: W. Morrow & Co. 515 p. ISBN 0-688-07558-4