Introduction | Modern Era | Classical

The Modern Age was characterized by rapid and radical change and political turmoil. By 1918 the Russian tsar, the Habsburg emperor and the German kaiser had lost their thrones. The two Russian revolutions of 1917 resulted in a Communist government led by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire was fragmented to allow self-determination to the newly formed countries of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Romania and a now-independent Hungary.

In Germany, a succession of weak governments, compounded by severe economic difficulties, widespread poverty, rampant post-war corruption and national resentment of crippling war reparations provided ideal conditions for the emergence of right-wing factions. Some were eager to restore Germany’s aristocratic leadership, others, above all the National Socialists, were more intent on appealing to a revived sense of national identity and racial superiority. Eventually the former came to support the latter (the Nazi party), culminating in 1933 with the election of the Austro-German Nazi leader Adolf Hitler as German chancellor. Between 1933 and 1939, Hitler set about recovering lands lost in World War I, ignoring unfavourable treaties, until eventually Europe was at war again.

Moves to the Right

Germany was not the only country to move to the political right. Italy also became ruled by a Fascist party after Benito Mussolini – installed as prime minister in 1922 – became sole ruler in 1925 and dictator in 1926, having suppressed all opposition parties. Mussolini and Hitler also assisted the emergence of another dictator, General Francisco Franco who, in 1936, led a successful military revolt against the Republican Popular Front in Spain.

The most unexpected, but strategically important, alliance Hitler made was with the Soviet Union, which after Lenin’s death in 1924 had been ruled as a dictatorship by Joseph Stalin, one-time general secretary of the Communist party. Stalin imposed extreme restrictions on political opposition and ideological freedom. Keen to avoid involvement in a costly European war, he signed a non-aggression treaty with Hitler, but this was broken when Hitler invaded Russia in 1941. Stalin then allied with Britain and the US, but in the final stages of the war he acquired political dominance over much of central-eastern Europe, parts of Germany and a sector of Berlin. The resulting military stand-off between East and West, known as the ‘Cold War’, lasted from 1945 until 1989.

World War I

The origins of World War I are complex and much disputed. The emergence of Germany as a united country seeking an ever-more powerful position in Europe, and the consequent alliances among the US, France, Britain and Russia, played their part. Austro-Hungarian governments dealt badly with the increasingly bitter aspirations of and disputes between Slavs, Slovaks, Germans and Magyars in their empire. The war was triggered by the assassination by a Serb nationalist in June 1914 of the Habsburg heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo. By the first week of August, Russia had mobilized, Germany and Austria had formed a pact and war was declared on Russia and France. On 4 August, Britain declared war on Germany.

Many thought...

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