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Historical Legacy of the Twentieth Century Essay

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Updated: Sep 11th, 2021

Twentieth-century Europe underwent a series of significant events that were bound to alter the continent. Hence, on the eve of the millennium, Europe was quite different from what it had looked like at the beginning of the 20th century. Numerous wars, revolutions, changes in political and economic spheres – these and other circumstances were decisive factors for many nations’ future. The end of the century was marked by more positive happenings, such as the collapse of the communist regime and gaining of independence by many countries. However, it is crucial to view these occurrences through the prism of the century’s start.

Generally, historians tend to take sides when talking about the level of importance of 1900s-1990s events. As Paxton and Hessler note, the “incommensurability of the century’s two halves” is the main obstacle to interpreting the 20th-century Europe in unity.1 Between 1914 and 1945, Europeans participated in two of the cruelest wars in the world’s history. Also, they had to survive the cases of political extremism and economic volatility. Furthermore, the German nation initiated a systematic genocide of the Jewish people. All of these aspects were bound to undermine the stability of the countries situated in Europe.

Meanwhile, the second part of the century was quite different. Europeans were forced to give up dominance in world affairs. However, at the same time, they were able to set up the grounds for economic growth, democracy, social welfare, and peaceful relationships with neighbors.2 While the events of the two parts of the century were disparate, it is not possible to view them separately since there was a causative-consecutive relation between them.

The most prominent characteristics at the 20th century’s start were militarism, imperialism, and nationalism. The first and second World Wars involved the majority of European countries, which led to considerable financial and human losses. The aftermath of World War I was the signing of the Versailles Treaty in 1919.3 After the Paris Peace Settlement, where the treaty was endorsed, the military and imperialistic ideas of several European countries became considerably limited. As a result, nationalistic ideas of such states as Italy, Germany, and some others emerged. These views evolved into fascism, which became the predecessor of World War II. Further, the aftermath of this war caused major misunderstanding between the opposite fighting parties, and the Cold War broke out between the Soviet Union and the USA, involving their allies. Since the development of contemporary European institutions was influenced by the events happening throughout the 20th century to a great extent, it is necessary to analyze the aftermath of the Cold War keeping this fact in mind.

One of the prominent occurrences of the late 1980s–early 1990s was the striving for unity and cultural expansion among European states. First of all. It is relevant to note that these events became possible due to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Because this disintegration happened after the end of the Cold War, it is viable to say that the course of the 20th-century history was associated with such a result. In 1989, the whole world was surprised at the fall of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party’s loss of monopoly.4 In two-year time, the Soviet Union was broken apart into many separate independent states. What was different between these events and those occurring at the century’s beginning was their character: while the latter were military, the former were mostly peaceful.

However, whereas former Soviet Union members relished their independence, there were many problems demanding immediate solutions. One of such problematic issues was the low level of absence of the economic system and the poor development of international relations. Hence, the newly formed states, as well as Russia, were caught up in the conditions when the old economic system was already destroyed, and the new one was not yet created.5 Due to such terms, there was a great decrease in net income, and various reforms were accepted and canceled over a short time. The fall of the Soviet Empire gave way to a new wave of relations between Eastern and Western European countries. The word “Europe” “once again awakened enthusiasm,” particularly among the countries that had just become independent.6 New opportunities opened for these states’ democracy and freedom, and Europe became the symbol of such positive changes.

Along with hopeful strategies, people did not understand that the process of cultural expansion would not be easy. The newly formed European Union was the source of inspiration for Eastern countries and the guarantee of high quality of life for Westerners. However, caught up in “the euphoria and the historical acceleration,” citizens of different states did not realize that the European Union’s partnership would be rather uneven.7 The Berlin Wall was falsely considered as the main reason for the dissimilarities between Europeans. Meanwhile, nearly six decades of entirely different history had been experienced by people living on the opposite sides of the Wall. The Eastern part had been governed by a “tyrannical authority” whereas the Western part was under American guard that promised “freedom, democracy, and protection.”8 Therefore, people living on the opposite sides of the wall had different cultures and mentalities, sharing which became one of the opportunities at the end of the 20th century.

Despite the increased opportunities for many countries that emerged by the end of the past century, there are many pessimistic views pertaining to the continent’s development. Specifically, economic relations in the European Union are reported to be in crisis.9 Europe’s ambitions are rather humble in comparison to the USA’s ones. One of the probable explanations is the balance of power theory.10 The application of this approach allows concluding that the members of the Union are concerned too much with other members’ possibilities and too little with their potential as a unity.

Finally, it is necessary to discuss the opportunities for cultural expansion and immigration that emerged at the end of the 20th century. The main reason for such positive changes is the absence of major military actions in Europe. Even though the collapse of the Soviet Union brought about many problems,11 the 1990s marked a point when no considerable military campaigns were led in Europe. This fact is considered as “quite remarkable” and allows opening new windows of opportunities for people from different countries.12 Thus, there were more positive than negative implications of the events happening at the end of the 20th century.

The legacy of the 20th century cannot be viewed from one angle since the events spanning over that period were rather diverse. The characteristics of the century’s beginning had a profound effect on its development and ending. As a result of lessons learned from wars and harsh political regimes, European countries discovered new opportunities for trade, cultural exchange, and immigration. It is possible to say that the negative aspects had altered Europe and allowed it to meet positive changes.

Bibliography

Cox, Michael. “Why Did We Get the End of the Cold War Wrong?” The British Journal of Politics and International Relations 11, no. 2 (2009): 161–176.

Mearsheimer, John J. “Why Is Europe Peaceful Today?” European Political Science 9, no. 3 (2010): 387–397.

Paxton, Robert O., and Julie Hessler. Europe in the Twentieth Century. 5th ed. Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2012.

Rosato, Sebastian. “Europe’s Troubles: Power Politics and the State of the European Project.” International Security 35, no. 4 (2011): 45–86.

Schneider, Peter. “The Other Europe.” Salmagundi 166–167 (2010): 22–37.

Footnotes

  1. Robert O. Paxton and Julie Hessler, Europe in the Twentieth Century, 5th ed. (Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2012), 702.
  2. Paxton and Hessler, Europe in the Twentieth Century, 702.
  3. Paxton and Hessler, Europe in the Twentieth Century, 113.
  4. Paxton and Hessler, 657.
  5. Paxton and Hessler, 665.
  6. Peter Schneider, “The Other Europe.” Salmagundi 166–167 (2010): 23.
  7. Schneider, “The Other Europe,” 23.
  8. Schneider, 24.
  9. Sebastian Rosato, “Europe’s Troubles: Power Politics and the State of the European Project,” International Security 35, no. 4 (2011): 45.
  10. Rosato, “Europe’s Troubles,” 48.
  11. Michael Cox, “Why Did We Get the End of the Cold War Wrong?” The British Journal of Politics and International Relations 11, no. 2 (2009): 161.
  12. John J. Mearsheimer, “Why Is Europe Peaceful Today?” European Political Science 9, no. 3 (2010): 387.
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IvyPanda. 2021. "Historical Legacy of the Twentieth Century." September 11, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/historical-legacy-of-the-twentieth-century/.

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