Modern History in Pictures: A Visual Guide to the Events that Shaped Our World
The history of the past century is a history of extraordinary contrasts, of incredible achievements and tragic disasters. The past century was the most violent in history, but it also saw the most rapid progress in medicine, science, welfare, and economic security. It was the century of women’s emancipation, but one in which many women lived in poverty or were forced to follow standards of dress and behavior dictated by men. In the greatest paradox of all, nuclear weapons were a triumph of man over nature, but possess the power to wipe out human civilization.
It was also a century of rich discovery. In 1900 the most technologically advanced communities in Europe and North America were using telephones, driving the first cars, and waiting for powered flight. In parts of South America, Africa, and Polynesia, however, isolated tribes still used stone tools. Today, cell phones, computers, and mass air travel are widespread, while the tribes that worked in stone live on the poorer fringes of the new world of consumption. Progress brought new ideologies and new conflict. The German socialist Karl Marx observed that modern industrial capitalism contained a remarkable imperative to spread itself all over the world. Soviet and Chinese leaders attempted to prove Marx wrong and establish global communism. At its peak in the 1960s and 1970s, communism represented perhaps half the world’s population. It was seen as so dangerous that, in 1941, Hitler mounted the bloodiest military campaign of all time to destroy the Soviet Union, while after 1945 the USA and its allies fought to prevent its spread. In the end, Marx was proven right. The Soviet bloc collapsed due to economic as well as military and political pressure, while China adopted its own form of aggressive capitalism.
The 20th century was the most violent in history, but it also saw rapid progress. Consumer capitalism perhaps proved so irresistible because it was often linked to liberal politics. Civil rights and modern citizenship went hand-in-hand with rising living standards. Freedom to choose a government is also freedom to choose a job, what to buy, how to be educated. Countries in which these choices were not available saw cycles of dictatorship and repression, profiting the few at the expense of an impoverished majority. The last decades of the century saw a series of campaigns to overturn such oppressive regimes, most recently in the Middle East. Attempts by outside forces to intervene often caused more harm than good, and it was popular resistance that proved most successful. Among the many heroes of this process, Nelson Mandela stands out as a remarkable example in recognizing that, whatever crimes the apartheid regime may have committed, vengeance and hatred would not build a better South Africa. There has been no shortage of hatred in the history of the past century. This book contains a great many images of violence, discrimination, and coercion that seem to define the age. But before we write off the last hundred years as a disaster, it is important to recall the long periods of peace, the communities that have seen self-government, security, and economic success, the advances in medicine and agriculture that have saved so many lives, and the growth of mass culture, which has enlivened and enriched our world.
The end of the 20th century promised international cooperation to extend political freedom, broaden economic opportunity, and preserve the global environment. If these lessons are learned, the images of the 21st century may tell a brighter story.
Professor of History, University of Exeter, UK
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|June 27, 2019|
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