I. Introduction

According to John Maynard Keynes, “Ideas shape the course of history.”. In other words, humanity encountered ideas which changed the way in which history developed. The Hegelian Dialectic states that the emergence of an antithesis – challenges the conventional thesis – produces a synthesis, which becomes the new ‘idea’. The synthesis created by the process of dialectic becomes the zeitgeist, or the spirit of the time. This very idea acts as the new thesis until a new anti-thesis is proposed. For instance, ideas such as heliocentrism: that the Sun is the centre of the universe, supported by Galileo Galilei dramatically changed human history. Religious institutions were outraged by heliocentrism since it undermined their extant belief system. Supporters of the heliocentric model were even excommunicated from the Catholic Church. Consequently, it could be argued that the emergence of a single idea established by an Italian astronomer triggered a mass-scale debate between the Catholic church during the 17th century resulting into the age of Enlightenment and Renaissance.  During such periods of time, people recalled upon Ancient Greek philosophy and concurrent anthropocentric notions:  that the world exists for mankind, and that human beings are the most important entity in the universe. Therefore, it is inevitable to claim that the rise of anthropocentrism triggered the emergence of one of the most influential philosophical doctrines of the twentieth century such as humanism, existentialism or even nihilism. 

Nevertheless, before the emergence of heliocentrism and enlightenment, i.e. during the middle ages, people depended on spiritual beings and believed them as the absolute ‘good’. Everything changed as a new idea was created. After the initial founding of heliocentrism, the controversial notion proposed by Galileo incited a new wave of debate opening new conflicts and debate throughout the era. For instance, after Galileo challenged its religious doctrines, the Catholic Church tried to prove Galileo’s claim to be incorrect by using any means possible. Those measures included excommunicating Galileo, establishing oppositions against his assertions and later, forbidding Galilei to assert his opinions to the public. The establishment of Galileo’s opposition created more debates and exchange of ideas. One idea enlightened the human race from its deep, sorrow depression of the Dark Ages into a flourishing, colourful Renaissance. It was ‘the idea’ which opened up a new era throughout history. It was ‘the idea’ which made us want to fly akin to a bird, and it was ‘the idea’ which made us possess a desperate craving to go to space. Even in the twenty-first century, our society progresses based on ideas – xenophobic notions due to wide-scale immigration and human trafficking present in the status quo; cosmopolitan, altruistic principles arguing against anti-immigration legislations – Keynes was true when he claimed that sets of different ideas are the crucial factor moving the flow of history. If that were true and humanity lived, are living and are determined to live based on zeitgeist, what has been the zeitgeist of the twentieth century?

To answer this question, one must understand the relationship between events in history and ideas. New ideas are able to form only because there is an outbreak of events leading to the contemplation and discussion of such events. That is, events contribute to the evaluation of actions resulting in either the acceptance or the rejection of ideas related to the event. 

Despite some events that happened during the twentieth century resulted in both progress and decline of humanity, events which occurred during the twentieth century are especially important because many of these main events are also closely interconnected with current affairs. Due to such events, there was especially a massive influx of ideas which drove the course of the twentieth century such as racial purity, fascism, communism and capitalism. Among such ideas, this paper will focus on ideas derived from events which occurred during the twentieth century through dividing them into two overarching themes. The first theme, ‘The century of total war’ covers the factors, legacies and processes of the two world wars while the second theme, ‘The century of economic change’ contends the rise of macroeconomics, economic blocs and post-colonial economic structures. Prior to analysing the individual events which happened during the twentieth century, one must have a clear understanding to what human progress is. For the purpose of this essay, human progress is defined as the increase of individual liberty since liberty has become the sole driver of human progress (Levin, 1999). Moreover, since liberty should be a universal right all individuals must enjoy, as witnessed through numerous democracies around the world, the paper will evaluate each event’s contribution towards humanity by assessing whether the impact each event posed onto society was beneficial or harmful and how universally the idea or the event increased the freedom of individuals around the world. In the end, this paper will evaluate how these events contributed to the progress of humanity as a whole.

II. The Century of Total War

The twentieth century was a century of warfare. Two major wars: World War 1 and 2 happened during the twentieth century. Evident by their names, nations all over the world participated in these two wars. Both wars were devastating in every aspect of humanity: economically, politically and in humanitarian aspects. Therefore, this chapter will discuss how both wars started and the legacies of such wars.

II. I World War I

II. I. I The Dawn of World War 1

The factors which led to the outbreak of the first world war are complex. There were many reasons to why the first world war happened, but one of the main reasons was the intensified colonial race. The rise of colonialism was due to religious conversion and its doctrines; royal expectation for power displays; demands for both human and natural resources; and the inclination of expressing military and technological might. Moreover, since the amount of land that was available for European nations for development were limited, many European nations craved colonies, inevitably leading nations to face conflicts with each other such as events which occurred during the ‘Scramble for Africa’ in the 1890s. As a result, to decrease tension between nations, nations formed alliances. Renown mutual defense alliances that took place during the first world war were alliances made by Britain, France, Ireland and Russia: The Triple Entente, while Germany aligned itself with Austria-Hungary: The Central Powers. Member states of these alliances were obliged to defend other nations when they were attacked by another nation. Despite its superficial purpose of maintaining peace in the region, it had a potential of dragging more nations into conflict, thereby increasing the scale of warfare and the number of casualties. Moreover, the unification of Germany and increased power in the 19th century acted as an important factor in creating an asymmetrical power structure within the international community.

Different factors such as the rise of colonialism, alliances and nationalism in the Balkans due to constant colonialism were accumulated until the immediate cause of the war unfold. Also known as the Sarajevo incident, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo by Gavrillo Princip, a Serbian nationalist, this immediately served as a catalyst towards the first world war. 

II. I. II The Scale of World War 1

Starting from the battle of the Mame which started in 1914, there were many major battles such as the battle of Ypres and Battle of The Somme and the impact it left to the world was tremendous. Roughly 15 million casualties occurred during the 1st World War (Casualties of the Great War, 2018). This is an enormous amount considering the fact that previous wars such as the US Civil War which horrified many people at the time only created 620 thousand casualties (American Battlefield Trust, 2012).

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There were reasons for these astronomical sums of casualties. The first was that the First World War implemented the all-out war also known as total war the first time in human history. All-out war is a type of warfare where the entire population is involved in warfare, regardless of an individual being in the battlefront or not. Often times, people not involved in direct battles between enemy nations support the nation by producing products necessary for warfare. Also, total war is a type of war unrestricted in terms of strategical utilisation during battle and the use of weapons. Prior to WW1, people who fought in wars were only soldiers who possessed weapons. However, from the first world war, not only soldiers were involved in warfare, but normal civilians participated in warfare such as women and children. They played important parts in the war such as producing weapons and food for war. Such cases of active civilian cooperation during the war is evident from government-issued posters and propaganda from such eras. 

The following posters are both from the twentieth century, but one poster was created before World War 1 and the other poster was created during the World War era. The difference between the two types of posters clearly demonstrate the change of war strategies; governmental propaganda during the World War era reveal the main characteristics of the all-out war. Prior to the world war, governmental propaganda was mainly focused on emphasizing people behind the front to minimize their rations to support their soldiers in the battlefront. The poster below uses phrases such ‘Waste not-want not’ encouraging their people to prioritize the nation before the individual. Furthermore, women in posters are also portrayed to be typical housewives who are in charge of the family’s food and living.

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Image 1 (https://cdnhistorybits.wordpress.com/2015/03/24/canadian-ww1-propaganda/,2019)

On the contrary, government propaganda during the World War era portrayed women to be strong and robust. It mainly encourages the active participation of women in labor forces. In addition, the poster exaggerates the physicality of women which is highly differentiated from posters in the previous era.

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Image 3 (https://www.thoughtco.com/world-war-ii-women-at-work-3530690, 2019)

Such differences in governmental propaganda amongst ages show the emergence of all-out warfare. All-out wars extended war periods and it also made efficient distribution of supplies an important criterion for victory. Nations now had to attack enemies’ supply routes to win the war more effectively. For instance, the Germans during World War I implemented the U-Boat Campaign from 1914 to 1918 cutting off all supply ships bound for Europe. Roughly 11 million tons of the allies’ vessels and 15,000 sailors have been sunken through the U-Boat campaign implemented by the German military proving to be an extremely effective approach since supplies were essential in these wars. Though the mission caused the United States to participate in WW1, it was still a highly successful method when it came to isolate enemy armies from ammunition, food, and first-aid supplies (Smithsonian, 2015). Furthermore, to cut down supply chains, armies also came up with different strategies. Enemies bombed civilian cities to block them from producing requisite material for war by destroying infrastructure. Historical records claim that the primary objective of bombings would be to attack the morale of the enemy’s civil population and in particular, the industrial workers (The Historiography of the Allied Bombing Campaign of Germany, 2019). This was to neutralize the enemy’s ability to produce products used in warfare. Consequently, this created more and more civilian casualties along with nations enhancing their weaponry and battle strategies to win in wars. This is clearly shown if one considers the fact that the first chemical weapon was used during the first world war and weapons such as machine guns and tanks were widely used from the first world war. Amongst other newly developed weapons, machine guns could cause tens of thousands of deaths in one day, as recorded during the Battle of the Somme. During the first day of the battle, Britain had around 60,000 casualties mainly due to German troops firing machine guns. (“WW1: Why Was the First Day of The Somme Such A Disaster?”. 2019.)

II. I. III The Legacies of World War 1

Though the war inflicting severe damage to the global society, there were arguably beneficial legacies of the war. For instance, out of the conflict came the 1st attempt at modern liberal international safeguarding structures. After the first world war, the international community was terrified of the cruelty of the first world war and resulting in the establishment of the League of Nations, providing a forum for resolving international disputes. However, it could not fulfil its role because the only measures it could implement on nations were sanctions and it certainly had no power. Consequently, ‘[after] the success of the Italian campaign in Ethiopia in the face of the public condemnation of Italy by the League of Nations as an aggressor, and in spite of the economic sanctions applied by the League, limited as they were, has led to … the League being a failure’ (American Journal of International Law, 1936). Given that the League of Nations was a failure, this meant that there was imminent danger approaching since the international community did not have any sort of accountable measure to block nations from engaging in warfare. 

Additionally, principles of self-determination triggered a worldwide scale of anti-colonialism movements. After the first world war, citizens in colonies demanded independence from their colonisers which were supported by the president of the United States Woodrow Wilson, as pioneered the political ideology: nation’s self-determination. His ideology was that nations and racial groups have the right to choose their own destinations for the future. This is clearly presented in his speech towards the American congress saying, “’Self-determination’ is not a mere phrase,” Wilson told Congress, “it is an imperative principle of action which statesmen will henceforth ignore at their peril.” (1918, Woodrow Wilson’s Speech delivered in US Congress). Along with the international community’s support towards anti-colonial sentiments, many colonies were liberated from the control of its colonial powers. 

However, this logic still had flaws. President Wilson’s self-determination theory did not recognize the responsibility of the victorious states of WW1 to liberate their own colonies. For instance, Germany lost many of its colonies during and after the first world war. It lost Togoland (Ghana and Togo) due to the Treaty of the Versailles. After Germany lost control of Togoland, France and the Britain divided the nation into Ghana and Togo. Under Article 22 of the Treaty of the Versailles, former colonies of the Central Powers were given the status of ‘League of Nations mandate’ along with being handed to the winners of the first world war such as the United Kingdom, France and Belgium. During this process, Germany lost its colonies such as South West Africa, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand. Apart from Germany, Italy also lost its control over Libya remaining influential only in the small coastal cities of Libya since they were no longer able to conduct strategic trade with Africa over the Mediterranean. On the other hand, the French and British colonies did not gain independence even after the Treaty of the Versailles. To illustrate, India did not gain independence after WW1; instead, every time there was a political uprising, the British oppressed them more than ever. In the end, only the Central Powers were forced to liberate their colonies, but the winning parties of war such as Britain and France were not hold responsible in the mass-decolonising movement after the first world war. For instance, French Indochina and British India remained in the hands of them contradicting the treaties demanding the cessation of colonising power on foreign territory.

Not only freeing colonies, the Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles, also known as the ‘War Guilt Clause’ required Germany who lost WW1 to pay back reparations of £6.6 billion establishing a legal justification to demanding compensations on the German government. This was an astronomical amount of money for Germany immediately after the war; things got worse due to allies’ actions. The allies did not give a chance to Germany to revive its economy in order to pay back its reparations. Instead, they took every asset of Germany such as gold, coal, and machines. Germany, who did not have anything to make money from printed out too much cash to compensate £6.6 billion eventually falling into a hyperinflation. Again, post WW1 situations demanded Germany and other nations to fall into situations such as economic turmoil and political extremism. In other words, post-world war situations pushed Germany and its fellow nations forward to an authoritarian, rogue nation. As evident in cases in modern society where the continuous economic downturn and immigration mayhem in the US became a political agenda for political radicalism to dominate the nation, Germany at that time also faced such radicalism due to economic crises and chaos within their own nation. This became a chance for politicians exploiting this very public sentiment to foster the belief of nationalism within the nation. In the case of Germany, the Nazis mainly asserted how Germany would be great again even without having to pay the war reparations and lie under the control of the international community. Consequently, WW1 did not lead to the end of conflict. What happened after the first world war was the first attempt to establishing modern international safekeeping measures.

II. II. World War 2

II. II. I The Outbreak of World War 2

With chaotic situations sweeping through nations, things became as what John Maynard Keynes predicted. In his essay, ‘The economic consequences of the peace’, he proclaimed, “I will dare to prove that revenge will be swift if it is intentionally bringing Central Europe to poverty” after observing the measures taken to the Central Powers of World War 1 during the Treaty of Versailles. Post-world war 1 situations of Germany unfold precisely as Keynes predicted German citizens became radicalized due to all the discrimination and poverty that they experienced. 

People craved for a leader who could enact justice upon the winners of the First World War and also re-establish German prominence over the global economy and politics. In this process, Adolf Hitler and his National Communist Party which was aimed to create a fascist/totalitarian nation seized power. As the leader of the National Communist Party, Hitler was appointed as the Chancellor of Germany by the President of the Weimar Republic in 1933. Situations in Germany worsened when the Great Crash, or the Great Depression took place. This will be specified in the second issue relating to the economical shifts which occurred during the twentieth century. 

Things were not better for Italy. Italy turned towards the allies in the end of the first world war, Italy couldn’t receive benefits as much as the other allies. This included benefits such as the distribution of colonies and reparation which was demanded to Central Power nations. Italy also had to pay for the numerous amounts of weapons they used during war. As life became harder after the First World War, people craved for a new leader much like in Germany. The people of Italy supported Mussolini. These dictators pioneered fascism and extreme nationalism. With the rise of anti-Semitism and fascism along with totalitarianism, the world was on the brink of a second world war. For instance, in 1933, he had already withdrawn Germany from the League of Nations and begun to militarize the nation in anticipation of his plans for territorial conquest. In 1935, the legislation depriving Jews of German citizenship, and barred them from marrying or having relations with persons of “German or related blood.” were passed. In addition to its pervasive anti-Semitism, Hitler’s government also sought to establish the cultural dominance of Nazism by burning books, forcing newspapers out of business, using radio and movies for propaganda purposes and forcing teachers throughout Germany’s educational system to join the party. Much of the Nazi persecution of Jews and other targets occurred at the hands of the Gheimeh Staatspolizei. Tension increased between Germany and other states and once he confirmed the alliance with Italy in the so-called “Pact of Steel” in May 1939, Hitler then signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union. In 1939, the National Socialist Party of Germany finally invaded Poland, inevitably prompting Britain and France to declare war on Germany. The battles were brutal, causing a massive number of casualties. In one occasion, during the battle of Stalingrad, which was the bloodiest battle of all, there were nearly 2 million casualties (World War II Casualties, 2018.). This clearly shows the violence during World War II. Also, the second world war was the first time to utilize an atomic bomb in real battle. The army of the United States bombed two Japanese cities: Nagasaki and Hiroshima.  

Why is this related to progress? On one side, the use of atomic bombs functioned as a catalyst to the arms race after the world war era. After the world witnessed the destructiveness of atomic weapons, nations were astounded by the magnitude of the casualties the atomic can bring about. Therefore, numerous nations such as the USSR, the US and its allies spent astronomical sums of capital into the development of these weapons. The rise of weapons of mass destruction put citizens in fear as they saw the impacts of the citizens living in Japan immediately after the United States bombed two major cities of Japan with atomic bombs. Consequently, the use of atomic bombs and its outcomes acted as a motivation towards an intensified arms race and the widespread fear among citizens. However, some claim that this very fear created through atomic weapons created peace and security around the world. The direct cause of this is because the use of such atomic weapons indicated the tremendous scale of casualties and destruction. This discouraged nations whom mutually possessed or formed alliances with nations which possess atomic weapons to engage in war since engaging in warfare would directly lead to both sides facing unprecedented amounts of destruction. Also known as Mutual Assured Destruction, the atomic bomb is viewed as one of the major factors which significantly decreased the frequency of warfare during the twentieth century compared to any other centuries. Moreover, due to the scale of destruction, public sentiments toward warfare shifted. People were deterred from supporting their own nation engaging in warfare as they recognised the perils they are opening themselves into the moment when they agreed to warfare. Finally, as civilian casualties drastically increased, international safeguarding/peacebuilding institutes such as the United Nations and international humanitarian laws restricting the use of weapons towards civilians or infrastructure were established (Pictet, 1987). Succinctly, though the emergence of atomic bombs might have created fear, it was that fear which decreased the amount of warfare outbreaks even until the status quo. It was also that fear which triggered the establishment of the United Nations, contributing to pursuing global security and peace: atomic bombs also contributed to the progress of humanity. In addition, the emergence of fascism, totalitarianism, nationalism and anti-Semitism taught humanity a lesson thereby progressing them. These ideologies did create numerous victims throughout society and caused irreversible damages. However, because humanity witnessed the brutalities and downsides of such ideologies, it progressed humanity. As we acknowledged the dangers of discrimination, radicalization and national pluralism (Smits, 2004), humanity came up with necessary restrictions. These include social safety nets to protect and respect the ideas of minorities by restricting hate speech from minorities or to provide minimum quotas to represent the voices and beliefs of minorities. If it weren’t for such emergence of perilous ideologies during the twentieth century, people would still not be able to know the dangers such ideologies. These ideologies would not be able to be further evaluated or criticized by people with different ideas which is why they remain to be radicalized and there would not be an opportunity for correcting and proving these ideas to be flawed. In the long term, these ideologies would be highly unlikely to be reiterated since people already established restrictions which is why there would be no more casualties. Thus, the emergence of fascism, totalitarianism, nationalism and anti-Semitism progressed humanity by encouraging the establishment of measures which can prevent the recurrence of similar events. 

II. II. II The Legacies of World War 2

As with WW1, there were lessons learned through WW2. Many of the events which happened during the Second World War triggered changes to be made effective immediately to prevent the repetition of similar events. For instance, the use of atomic bombs during the second world war shocked the entire world after the world saw the destructiveness of atomic bombs. A New York Times article published the next day after the bombing on Japan, “The Blasting Power of the New Bomb” demonstrates the enormous magnitude of the new atomic bomb. It compares the new atomic bomb with 20,000 tons of TNT or 2,000 B-29 bomb loads. It also mentions the global scale surprise and shock towards the deadliness of the newly developed atomic bomb itself. (New York Times, 1945) This triggered the establishment of treaties or agreements such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (1970) and the Geneva Convention (1949). The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty demanded ‘Each non-nuclear-weapon State to not receive the transfer of nuclear weapons … not to manufacture or acquire nuclear weapons; and not to seek or receive any assistance in the manufacture of nuclear weapons.

Also, after the war ended in 1945, the United Nations which is an international organization was established for the purpose of maintaining international peace and security. Despite the League of Nations being a failure, the United Nations derived from the vestiges of the League of Nations as member states complemented the League of Nation’s flaws, e.g. the lack of motivation for nations to comply with the League of Nation’s orders, to make a better international organization. Thus, the establishment of the United Nations brought numerous benefits to society. For example, when Iran was accused of developing nuclear warheads and emerged as a threat to the Middle East community and the international community in a macro level, the United Nations was able to deem appropriate action towards Iran such as imposing global scale economic embargoes. Such acts would not have been possible without the cooperation of the international community, which the United Nations made it possible. Of course, there were cases where the United Nations were not necessarily successful. For instance, the United Nations failed to preserve global peace whilst trying to stop Rwanda’s genocide. However, the intervention failed letting the Hutus people slaughter nearly a million Tutsi minorities. These should be something that the UN should be learning from and progress to never repeat these mistakes again. Nevertheless, there is nothing wrong to claim that the establishment of an international organisation triggered necessary global peacekeeping measures. Going back to the initial question, a lower possibility for global conflict due to the establishment of an international body should certainly considered as a type of progress of humanity. Furthermore, the Holocaust, the infamous genocide which took place during the second world war was a watershed event in human history. However, humanity could consider about genocide.  Due to the outbreak of the Holocaust, the international society became more aware of genocide triggering the discussion for measures aimed to prevent similar events from happening in the future. For instance, the Nuremberg trial held in 1945 punished war criminals and showed that government officials who committed crimes against humanity such as genocide will be harshly punished regardless of their intention. Also, an UN-held Genocide Convention which took place in 1948 took precautions regarding genocide after facing the Holocaust by banning genocide or any sort of massacre targeting a certain party or group. On the other hand, global order changed from a multipolar world to a bipolar world. In the start of the century, there were Britain, France, Germany, Belgium and other nations who held considerable amount of power. However, after the second world war, the world was driven by only the US and the USSR. 

Eventually, most previous colonial powers lost influence onto their colonies since the war commenced eventually linking back to the previous idea regarding decolonization during the twentieth century. Woodrow Wilson’s ideology of self-determination drastically changed the course of history as evident by the increase of independence movements and the rise of new hegemonial powers. As this idea influenced people and shaped the course of history, colonies were able to gain more benefits through decolonization. This is because politically and economically, they were freer from foreign influence giving them more opportunities to develop their own nation. Nonetheless, despite the fact that global order changed into a bipolar world, society became increasingly complex and more frequently experienced conflicts. Nations now had more reasons for war compared to colonial eras. Whilst during the colonial era nations fought against colonial powers (Blanton, 2001), after a bipolar world arose, nations fought due to ideologies, ethnicities and religious purposes. Moreover, the emergence of a bipolar world also meant a decrease in the checks and balances compared to a multipolar world where many European nations grew and restricted each other simultaneously which made societies even more difficult to predict and dangerous. Thus, the rise of self-determination certainly triggered emergence of anti-colonial sentiments, but at the same time, it greatly contributed to the construction of a bipolar world which intensified conflict and polarisation between nations which is why it functioned as a barrier to the progress of humanity. 

III. The Century of Economic Change

The twentieth century was a century of economic change. The Great Depression opened a new field of economics – macroeconomics – while it also enforced governments to provide increased amount of welfare. Macroeconomics emerged, providing a field for economists to prevent the Great Depression from reoccurring. Along with different economic changes and transitions which took place during the twentieth century, the global economy also faced drastic changes. In this chapter, series of various economic change will be specified into two issues: Dark Age Economics and Polarisation of Regional Economics.

III. I. Dark Age Economics

The first economic change that occurred during the twentieth century was the Great Crash. Before the Great Depression, the global economy seemed to be prospering. This period of time in the US is also referred as the ‘roaring twenties. During this era, the economy seemed to grow rapidly since there were newly emerged markets in food, music, and automobiles. Stock prices reached unprecedented figures, where people were eager to take massive risks and bet huge money in markets. 

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Percent of the monetary wealth owned by the top 10% of U.S. citizens from 1910 to 2010.

No one seemed to notice the bubble and inflation occurring in the economy, since at that time, there were no concepts regarding inflation and real Gross Domestic Product. Without considering such threats to the economy, people continuously invested, consumed and produced. Statistics prove that 60% of the automobiles which were purchased during the roaring twenties were bought with credit. However, most of these revenues were derived from inflations in the market.

Consumer Price Index before and after the Great Depression. Inflations were present until 1930 and that was when the whole market bubble popped, and out came the Great Depression. 

Before the Great Crash, the United States overcame the recession which lasted until few years before the First World War. They have achieved this result through the production of military goods and other products which most of the nations engaging in conflict demanded. Furthermore, the United States was the only possible market for investors and banks since all of the previous European markets have weakened during the first world war. Their industrial complexes have been bombed, and their lands were used as battlefields during the war. Private companies and the government of the United States both spent a lot of capital on governmental programs and research & development for their firms to innovate their supply chains or products which created more employment opportunities, and with companies producing to their capacity and consumers consuming to their respective financial limits, the economy rebounded. This typical era is called as the ‘Roaring Twenties’. Real GDP per capita in 1920 was around 606 billion US. The US economy grew 42 percent during the 1920s. (What the Economy Was Like in the 1920s, 2019) Eventually, the United States became the number one leader of the global economy and everyone was investing for the United States. Consumer confidence was at its peak, where everyone was confident in investing, consuming, and producing.

III. I. I The Great Crash

Then, in 1929, the “Black Thursday” arrived and the market crashed from its peak. This was due to the accumulation of a massive bubble created inside the US economy due to excessive amounts of loans entailed with increased trade of overvalued stocks in the market. The economic growth rate from 1929 to 1930 scored a devastating -11%. (US Growth Rate by Year, 2019) Everyone tried to pull out their investments from the market. With the largest economy in danger, the European economy was also devastated. Many of the investment banks which invested huge amounts of money to the United States had their roots in Europe and factories, supply chains who depended on the trade with the United States also faced hardship during the Great Crash. On a national scale, due to the enormous drain of foreign currency, economies apart from the United States also faced a huge economic disaster. 

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Fluctuation of different economic growth indicators before and during the Great Depression

Therefore, European nations had to do something to stop this vicious cycle. While the United States implemented the New Deal policy by Franklin Roosevelt to increase overall spending, Europe implemented protectionist economic policies by practicing harsher trade barriers to their colonies so that their domestic industries could be protected. Also, European nations exploited their colonies in terms of manufacturing and export so that they could sell their own nations’ products cheaper and produce products with lower cost. However, these protectionist policies only worked for the Triple Entente and victorious nations of the world wars because other nations who lost the war had no colonies from which to exploit. This was due to the ‘peace treaties’ the nations which engaged in the two world wars have signed.

III. I. II Legacies of the Great Crash

The results were twofold. Firstly, government welfare increased. After the Great Depression, people recognized the necessity of government welfare. During the era of industrialization, capitalists who owned companies dominated certain industries and earned a lot of money. They could educate their children, receive adequate amount of healthcare, and lived in hygienic conditions thereby creating a distinct class system that still maintains to the present in the UK. However, the proletariats, a class of factory workers, could not enjoy these features. The polarization between the rich and poor classes reached severe levels; it was inevitable for governments to interfere in the situation and provide necessary conditions for living to the poor. These included things such as health care, providing food, and providing public shelters. Ultimately, this led many people to enjoy the prerequisites for survival. This increased citizens’ disposable income where citizens had more money to spend to themselves. These people could live better lives compared to the past and they gradually became the middle-class who are beneficial for the economy since they are the ones who can stimulate the economy by purchasing, producing and taxation. To sum up, the rise of the middle class in the twentieth century which directly influenced the consuming structure, or the economic structure of many different economies was led by the increased awareness of government welfare towards the impoverished ones. Not only expanding the domestic market, the rise of the middle class meant that more people were able to enjoy more rights and services due to their increased income, diversifying their freedom of choice. Thus, the increase of governmental welfare during the twentieth century progressed humanity. 

The second result was the rise of macroeconomics. The leading pioneer of macroeconomics was John Maynard Keynes, as mentioned in the outset of this essay, who tried to explain recessions and unemployment through such economic theory. The direct cause of this is because after the two world wars, the world faced a major devastation in their economies: The Great Depression. A breakthrough seemed impossible for nations until Keynes came up with an idea which contradicted every single previous economic belief. He argued that government should increase spending and regulate the market. Previously, bourgeoisie economics believed that the ‘invisible hand’ proposed by Adam Smith will bolster private sectors and recession is a part of the economic cycle and will therefore be solved in the long term. However, it is true that an economy faces up-and-downs, but according to Keynes, this does not mean that the government can just sit back. That being, in the ‘long term’, we’re all dead. This ground-breaking discovery was praised after the US government succeeded in driving out of the Great Depression through the New Deal policy advised by Keynes. The New Deal policy consisted of increased regulations towards the private sector, increasing welfare opportunities to the unemployed and reinforcing economic growth through federal spending and job creation. From this point, a new field of economics was born – macroeconomics. This new idea was based on the idea of preventing future depressions from happening. The premise of this study was that if the government increases spending in a depression or a recession, governments can create more jobs and encourage spending. This has been the orthodox for the past few decades until it was questioned if it is actually applicable to other economies. While previous economics focused more on individual consumer and manufacturers, Keynes focused on how markets work on a whole. This was a new approach which opened up a new field of economic research. Keynes established a new idea of economics during the twentieth century in order to take necessary precautions. As a result, current economists are more ready to cope with economic crises than the past. The US Government, which was in an extreme depression, escaped by the advises from Keynes re-affirming the validity of Keynesian economics. I can dare to say that if economics before Keynes was the Dark Ages, Keynesian economics was the era of Enlightenment when humanity came out of the ‘tunnel’. Keynes is such an influential figure in twentieth century economics and even the entire history of economics.  There still has been criticism towards Keynesian economics. For instance, the theories of Milton Friedman, the Austrian School of Economics or Modern Monetary Theorists disagree with Keynesian economics. Instead of increasing governmental spending in the case of an economic downturn, these theorists tend to support the control of monetary value. In other words, they believe that controlling the supply of currency in the market will lead to the market correcting itself. Despite such criticism, Keynesian economics is proven to be effective in dealing with recessions and depressions in numerous cases. Additionally, accompanied by such alternative economic theories, Keynesian economics provided insight towards potential economic downturns and its solutions. Thus, it contributed to the progress of humanity by giving humanity a more comprehensive understanding over economic situations.

This chapter discussed the arise of Dark Age economics due to the Great Crash. Then it examined the main results of the Great Crash being the rise of governmental welfare. The rise of macroeconomics contributed to progress in many aspects. Not only did the rise of Keynesian economics improve the knowledge of humanity and come up with solutions and preventions, the foundation of such ideas triggered more economists to further develop and analyse economic theories. This is also progress which humanity faced as it provided insight to economic downturns, solutions to recessions and established new branches of economic thought. Moreover, the rise of governmental welfare increased the liberty of individuals along with enlightening people of the concept of basic quality of life and the government’s obligation towards its citizens. As mentioned in the beginning of this essay, ideas do change the course of human thought and history. Hence, despite the Great Crash devastated the economy, it is true that progress arose from the Great Crash and are still carried on such as ensuring social equality and increased economic stability through increased awareness of economic structures.

III. II Polarisation of Regional Economics

The twentieth century was a century of massive economic shift. In this chapter, this change specifically regards the shift of structure of economies. Solely through analysing how previous economies functioned, one is to gain insight of the significant changes. Previous economies had two main attributes: Triangular trade and protectionist policies (Charles, 2015). First, previous markets were mainly dominated by triangular trade conducted by European nations. Europe exploited the manpower in Africa to harvest crops which were popular in Europe in America. This Europe-oriented trade was a main characteristic until the twentieth century. Then came the two world wars; Europe collapsed. Not only Europe having to decrease price of products and loosen trade tariffs which turned out to be detrimental to Europe’s economy, they had to decrease the number of colonies they possessed due to the fact that it took too much effort when they were also suffering due to the second war. Europe was no longer in the position of the ‘exploiter’ when it came to trade, insofar that the market attractiveness was no longer in its original position. (New York Time, 2007)

Eventually, new leaders of the global economy emerged. The United States, for instance, rose from the ashes of the war through the domination of the weaponry market during warfare. It was no longer circumscribed to the plantations or the British colony, but was an independent economic body acting as influential as its mother nation. With new economic world order on the table, this created massive changes. The premise of this argument is that such transformations polarised nations’ economies, interestingly based on regions. There are two factors to this: the decline of empires and the emergence of economic blocs. 

III. II. I Decline of Empires

The rudimentary step for the polarisation of national economies was due to the decline of empires. As this essay covered earlier, the world wars, treaties and global-scale pressure decimated empires. These empires, which possessed numerous colonies now had to free them from their colonial order. This contributed to the polarisation of economies. Why is this so?

This is because in a case where decolonisation occurs, it takes long time and effort to reconstruct the country. During colonisation, the nation divides into different parties who have different perspectives toward their colonial power. Therefore, even after independence, it is going to take a long time to unite all people to work hard to reconstruct the nation. For instance, in Korea, while the Japanese government colonised Korea there were a lot of people supporting Japan to carry its colonial regime in Korea alongside with the people seeking independence. After Japan withdrew its power over South Korea, instead of constructing a sustainable and egalitarian government, people in power rather focused on eliminating opposites for their gain of power. This hindered development and this political debate carried on until the late twentieth century. This is detrimental to former colonies since this is not their utmost priority. Instead, they should prioritise the reconstruction of their nation as an independent, sovereign nation. Consequently, colonisation takes away the chance of economic development since people are demotivated from working hard when all of their hard work will benefit the bourgeoisie. Furthermore, domestic politics lose its position since foreign authorities will be the ones governing the nation (Schmidt, 2014). Of course, it is true that the continuation of colonial rule is harmful for colonies. However, the transition period of decolonisation could have been better structured, which was not so during the twentieth century where even world macroeconomies in developed nations were unstable due to the Great Depression and recessions which followed along. Moreover, decolonisation occurred extremely rapidly, without taking into account of the necessary transition period for former colonies to adjust to the new government. This is because due to the nation’s independence there will be debates regarding government administration which will continue for a long period of time. 

Thus, these nations will be isolated from the international community or the market since developed nations will be way ahead than former-colonies. This unfair starting line provided by colonialism polarised global economies. In the long term, former colonies will still be exploited due to polarisation clearly depicting the absence of progression compared to colonial eras.

III. II. II Economic Blocs

The second factor which led to the polarisation of regional economics is through the establishment of economic blocs. Many of the existing economic blocs were in fact established during the twentieth century. Such establishment is evaluated to bring different influences. While some argue that these economic blocs provided more interaction and trade, there exists criticism which explain that this triggered further inequality and polarisation. Therefore, in this chapter, this paper will evaluate both aspects of the establishment of economic blocs.

III. II. II. I The Establishment of Economic Blocs

The twentieth century faced massive changes and among them were the establishment of economic blocs. These include blocs such as the European Union, North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The legacies of such economic blocs are still undetermined and remain incomplete since there are still existing economic blocs which have evolved and continue to evolve at the present day. Nonetheless, the impacts of economic blocs in the international economy or the global economy remain highly significant. 

III. II. II. II The Pros

Before discovering the downsides of economic blocs, the main benefit that the establishment of economic blocs posed onto the international society was the increase of international trade. This was inevitable due to the characteristics of an economic bloc: eradication of tariffs or trade barriers within the nations who are members of the economic bloc. Due to exempting trade barriers which acted as a barrier for foreign trade, the establishment of economic blocs motivated nations to export its products more intensely into the foreign sector/market. Incentivised by decreased costs of exporting products, this increased foreign products’ competitiveness within domestic markets, and this consequently led to increased investment and increased trade between member states of the economic bloc. Furthermore, the establishment of economic blocs often also meant the rise of free movement of labour, as evident from the Schengen Treaty signed by the member states of the European Union who are assigned in the same economic bloc. By getting rid of borders enabling a fast, effective flow of capital and goods along Europe, this decreased retailing prices and facilitated the increased movement of labour force to different markets. Such increase in global-scale trade is beneficial for several reasons: specialisation of the market, beneficial for individuals and the Golden Arch Theory. 

The first benefit is by creating specialised industries for nations. The good thing about increased trade is that despite the fact that nations have different strengths each nation can supplement the other. For instance, Germany has a competitive automobile industry; but simultaneously lacks raw material such as steel and aluminum which are essential for producing automobiles. Therefore, Germany relies on the steel production of nations such as Netherlands, Belgium and Austria. This way, Germany is able to receive materials essential for their own economy and nations such as Netherlands can benefit from exporting steel to Germany: this therefore becomes a win-win game for both nations. Consequently, nations can specialise in specific fields of their domestic industries. Some nations will have a reinforced, concrete tertiary labour force in which they can excel in those specific industries. However, every nation needs certain amount of people or industries that can satisfy other needs: manufacture or 3D jobs. In these cases, nations who have a saturated tertiary job market lack the power to incorporate such individuals and goods into the market. However, if there are economic blocs which make people travel around easily and companies to export and import goods without high or no tariffs, this clears the demand of the market. In other words, economies are able to function without solely depending on their domestic economies and find goods and solutions from global markets. This ultimately leads to a concentration and specialisation of industries since economies do not need to focus on every part of industries. Government funding and support can solely be onto these special industries which will be more effective than the government spending their limited amount of budget to every single industry the domestic market contains without the nation being allocated inside an economic bloc. Also, companies can be devoted into specific economies. Increase efficacy and productivity of the market will decrease price of products since the company is spending more time into these specific industries so that the production costs will decrease overtime. In the long run, this can improve the national economy’s competitiveness in the global market where their specialised products are cheaper and higher in quality. Despite the fact that specialisation of industries may not directly lead to progress, it provides future stages for economies and governments to allocate their capitals to, creating a more effective economic model. In an economy where more revenue is generated due to efficient market structures, it is more likely for citizens to enjoy diverse commodities and public welfare. Moreover, according to the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, whilst the peoples’ physical needs such as food and water are satisfied due to economic growth, people are more likely to be encouraged to progressive concepts such as democracy, which is why the growth of economies due to the establishment of economic blocs contributes to progress as a whole (Özdağler, 2015).

The second benefit is that increased trade creates a larger variety of choice for individuals. Centuries ago, where trade was considered to be a mere exchange between few individuals, people living in a landlocked region weren’t able to gain access to products which were exclusive in coastal areas. After trade increased through the establishment of cities, people were able to experience and undergo a vast variety of choices compared to the past. These individuals were now granted the opportunity to purchase exotic products from coastal areas and even from totally different continents which included the trade of pepper and spice. Therefore, it is obvious that the more people engage with trade, it eventually increases the freedom of choice of individuals. This increased after the establishment of economic blocs. By establishing economic blocs, people were able to buy products all away from different continents more frequently than the past, but these products also became egalitarian meaning that more people gained this freedom and choice. Succinctly, an increase of choice for more individuals through increased trade via economic blocs is certainly a triumph and a benefit for humanity. Even for those living in developing nations which would lack in the quality and the variety of products, the increase of trade is highly beneficial as new products will flow into these markets. 

Finally, more trade means less conflict. After the establishment of economic blocs, the world has been more interconnected than before. Most of the products that we use in our daily lives are a mixture of products from all around the world. The world faced a rapid phase of globalisation during the twentieth century because of increased trade between nations. Because foreign goods which incorporate different cultures were flowing into nations, this caused people to be exposed to different perceptions and ethnicities which created a globalised world. However, in terms of economic globalisation, the cause of it was simple: some products were cheaper and easier to facilitate the insatiable demands of the global economy and this made some nations produce specific products and by them sharing the same ultimate goal, the economy became globalised/interconnected. The establishment of economic blocs reinforced such interconnection since these blocs boosted up trade and exchange between nations by lowering trade barriers. As a result, interdependent economies because more dependent to each other. This happened to an extent that nations who are trading partners or share the same supply chain will never engage in warfare which will impose a devastating effect to both nations. These are reinforced by Thomas L. Friedman’s two economic theories: The Golden Arch Theory and The Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention. These two theories suggest that increased trade decreased the likelihood for possible conflict due to warfare being a mutual disadvantage for each nations’ economies. Consequently, the establishment of economic blocs increased economic globalisation which in the end, decreased conflicts. The following graph suggests the number of conflicts decreased dramatically from the mid-twentieth century when the two world wars finished and the global economy stabilised from post-war situations. 

Image result for number of warfare graph

In a nutshell, it is evident that economic blocs increased trade and trade decreased conflict due to globalisation which eventually acts as a benefit for humanity.

III. II. II. III The Cons

Nonetheless, the establishment of economic blocs brought some harms to the international society and human progress. The first harm was that it isolated trade within blocs. After trading blocs were founded, nations did not find a reason to import goods from nations who aren’t included in the economic bloc. As a result, only members of the economic bloc will be engaging in trade with each other. Often times, economic blocs are formed between nations which share same regions. For instance, economic blocs such as NAFTA derive from nations in the American continent, APEC include nations from Asia and COMESA involve the economic cooperation between African nations. Since products are cheaper to export or import within the nations who are in the same economic bloc, they are more likely to trade with these regional neighbours. If nations aren’t trading from different nations from different regions, this polarises economic growth between different nations. Some economic blocs such as the European Union are composed mainly of developed nations. At the same time, there are some economic blocs which consist nations who relatively have a developing economy. If developed nations are only trading with each other and the developing nations are left behind, this results in a polarisation between economies due to low-to-no trade happening between developing and developed nations. This means that developing nations cannot interact or become exposed to these developed nations and use them as a model for economic development or an opportunity to sell products which will be beneficial for their economy. In the end, there is no meaning for developing nations to form blocs only with themselves when they have such low purchasing power and lack political stability and economic liberty for companies to freely exchange goods and engage in trade. Such isolation between regions will eventually lead to gap between regional economies which is a huge harm.

The second harm is due to increased movement of the work force due to economic blocs. As nations in economic blocs agree to ensure free movement of goods and people through member states, this causes problems to the domestic economy. To illustrate, as the European Union implemented the Schengen Agreement, a mass number of individuals from nations with unstable economies such as Greece, Slovakia and Belarus fled from their own nations to the more-developed nations of the economic bloc such as Germany, Britain and France to get better jobs. Therefore, a huge brain-drain occurs in certain nations. Potential assets will flee to different nations if immigration barriers are also reduced due to the economic blocs. If this happens, the loss of the labour force is detrimental for the economy. This hinders progress since progress is not simply about the brightest, richest few accumulating knowledge and wealth. It should also be about that very process being egalitarian. Therefore, when economic blocs only serve the needs of developed nations, it cannot be taken account into progressing humanity. Not only does it benefit a very minute part of the population, the increase of economic disparity between developing nations and developed nations result in withholding progress in the end.  Why is this so? For the ones who are highly economically deprived, they will possess negative sentiments and antipathy towards developed nations as Germany did immediately after the first world war. Conversely, for developed nations, they will also possess negative sentiments because of the fact that they will need to aid and fund these developing nations. To illustrate, even in developed nations where a mass transportation of labour has occurred, due to increasing population within nations which have favourable work conditions and job offerings, xenophobic notions intensify within public spheres. These xenophobic notions, which derive from the perception that foreigners are devastating the economy and environment, create bias and discrimination between foreigners and the locals. Such misunderstanding and hatred cause public sentiments to go against foreigners which eventually is causing the relationship between people deteriorate. If this happens, discrimination will worsen which is harmful for the society and also decreases work productivity derived from the fact that some will avoid working together with others. Thus, the creation of economic blocs will cause brain-drain in developing economies and also people living in developed nations will be saturated with xenophobia which is clearly a harm. Therefore, the rise of global economic inequality and the singularity of the benefits economic blocs pursue hinder progress in the end. 

The third backlash is that economic blocs do not take individual nations to account. Each nation has different industries and different consuming trends, or economic circumstances. Some nations can be an export-based economy where the nation mainly exports products so the higher the currencies are, the worse. However, if nations are highly dependent on importing foreign products, it could be beneficial for them for currency rates to remain high. Therefore, nations are going to have the most beneficial and effective fiscal policies which can maximise the profit of the economy. These fiscal policies are going to be harmful for some nations while benefiting other nations. That is the exact reason why economic blocs are actually never going to benefit every nation, but only benefits the most influential nations inside the economic bloc. In a nutshell, some nations are only gaining the benefits of being associated with an economic bloc and other developing nations or relatively poor nations will only be exploited as evident from numerous Free Trade Agreements. 

Overall, the establishment of economic blocs had both negative and positive impacts. It is true that more trade is always beneficial in the long run, but if the paper takes only the twentieth century the facet of the evaluation, it becomes clear that such economic blocs polarised regional economies and increased inequality and exploitation of developing nations. Therefore, the establishment of economic blocs were harmful for humanity.

IV. Evaluation

Now let this paper come back to its initial quotation that ideas form the course of history. The paper examined the numerous different ideas or events which occurred during the twentieth century. Most of the events which occurred during the twentieth century were actually beneficial for the progress of humanity. There were lessons that humanity learned due to the two world wars that a peacekeeping measure was needed, after the Great Crash we have put together the most ingenious minds of the twentieth century and figured a possible way out of future depressions. Colonialism came to an end for a vast majority of the planet and a new start was opened up to these nations. As consistently mentioned during the essay, progress was present throughout the whole century, but these certainly came with extremely large costs. An enormous number of casualties were caused due to the two world wars and during the fight for independence. Also, some of the initial global peacebuilding measures such as the League of Nations and global-wide conferences and treaties which curbed the use of WMDs and other potential threats to global security are proven to be flawed and were broken from the implementation of such treaties and policies. Furthermore, after the decolonisation of former colonial powers, the colonies were fallen into economic and political chaos. Nations such as Ivory Coast and Sudan were in conflict ever since the twentieth century and their leaders are simply fighting for more political power and wealth. Situations have deteriorated in some nations and have been extremely unfavourable for certain individuals residing in those nations. During the Great Crash, many people lost their jobs and had to live in agonising pain. Finally, the establishment of economic blocs were eventually a disaster for most of nations only benefiting a handful of nations associated to the economic bloc. 

Therefore, the twentieth century was a century of great change and events. Many events contributed to the progress of humanity such as anti-colonial sentiments, the rise of economic blocs and the establishment of basic global safeguarding measures. Conversely, there were events that inflicted negative impacts towards humanity. Events such as the Holocaust remain as an emotional scar towards the victims of the Holocaust and the polarisation of regional economies remain a major problem even until the status quo. However, because humanity learned its lesson and came up with restrictions as mentioned continuously during the development of the essay, the twentieth century was a time of human progress. 

Of course, one has to acknowledge the fact that current stages are still too early and rudimentary to conclude whether the twentieth century was an era for the progress of humanity since most of society is built upon ones from the twentieth century and the legacies of the twentieth century. Of course, we live in a society where legacies from Roman Empires influence us, but when we evaluate the twentieth century, we tend to possess bias over the achievements of ourselves. Therefore, assessing the twentieth century can be done in a more accurate manner when more evidence and information is gathered. Moreover, there are other progress to humanity which happened during the twentieth century such as the rise of posthumanism literature, philosophy and artworks originated from post-war circumstances influenced by social paradigms and zeitgeist. Women suffrage movements were triggered due to the improved status of women after women being involved in supply chains during warfare. Therefore, the question is inevitably left unanswered: To what extent was the twentieth century a time of great progress?

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<strong>Dongwook (Warrick) Kwon</strong>
Dongwook (Warrick) Kwon

Student of NLCS Jeju


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