20th century

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As centuries go, this has been one of the most amazing: inspiring, at times horrifying, always fascinating. ~ Walter Isaacson
Cruelty and human brutality exceeded the worst expectations. In the trenches . . . seeds were sown for an era in which humans were viewed as material, not as individuals. ~ Guido Knopp
The major political event of the twentieth century is the death of socialism. ~ Irving Kristol

The twentieth century was the period between January 1, 1901 and December 31, 2000. It is distinct from the century known as the 1900s, which began on January 1, 1900 and ended on December 31, 1999.

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  • The search for identity and belonging is also a motif for the human condition of the twentieth century-a century defined by displacements and migrations.
    • Marjorie Agosín Forward to Miriam's Daughters: Jewish Latin American Women Poets (2000)
  • The 20th century was perhaps the deadliest in human history, devastated by innumerable conflicts, untold suffering, and unimaginable crimes. Time after time, a group or a nation inflicted extreme violence on another, often driven by irrational hatred and suspicion, or unbounded arrogance and thirst for power and resources. In response to these cataclysms, the leaders of the world came together at mid-century to unite the nations as never before. A forum was created — the United Nations — where all nations could join forces to affirm the dignity and worth of every person, and to secure peace and development for all peoples. Here States could unite to strengthen the rule of law, recognize and address the needs of the poor, restrain man’s brutality and greed, conserve the resources and beauty of nature, sustain the equal rights of men and women, and provide for the safety of future generations.


  • The last century was defined by physics. From the minds of the world’s leading physicists there flowed a river of ideas that would transport man kind to the very pinnacle of wonder and to the very depths of despair. This was a century that began with the certainties of absolute knowledge and ended with the knowledge of absolute uncertainty. It was a century in which physicists developed theories that would deny us the possibility that we can ever properly comprehend the nature of physical reality. It was also a century in which they built weapons with the capacity utterly to destroy this reality.
    • Jim Baggott, The Quantum Story: A History In 40 Moments (2011), "Preface"
  • The birth of the 20th century was like a flaming sunrise. More was expected of the century than any other. So much had been achieved in the previous one that it seemed sensible to expect that henceforth the world's triumphs would far outweigh the disasters.
  • [This century has been called] the century of extremes, . . . in which human vices reached unfathomable depths. [She notes that it has been] a century of great progress [and in some places of] unprecedented economic growth ... [At the same time, however, poor urban areas face a bleak future of] ... overcrowding and a disease pattern linked to poverty and an unhealthy environment.


  • We live in a time of transition, an uneasy era which is likely to endure for the rest of this century. It will be a period of tensions both within nations and between nations -- of competition for scarce resources, of social political and economic stresses and strains. During this period we may be tempted to abandon some of the time-honored principles and commitments which have been proven during the difficult times of past generations. We must never yield to this temptation. Our American values are not luxuries but necessities -- not the salt in our bread but the bread itself. Our common vision of a free and just society is our greatest source of cohesion at home and strength abroad -- greater even than the bounty of our material blessings. Remember these words: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life liberty and the pursuit of happiness." This vision still grips the imagination of the world. But we know that democracy is always an unfinished creation. Each generation must renew its foundations. Each generation must rediscover the meaning of this hallowed vision in the light of its own modern challenges. For this generation, ours, life is nuclear survival; liberty is human rights; the pursuit of happiness is a planet whose resources are devoted to the physical and spiritual nourishment of its inhabitants.
  • A child born tonight will have almost no memory of the 20th century. Everything that child will know about America will be because of what we do now to build a new century. We don't have a moment to waste. Tomorrow there will be just over 1,000 days until the year 2000. One thousand days to prepare our people. One thousand days to work together. One thousand days to build a bridge to a land of new promise. My fellow Americans, we have work to do. Let us seize those days and the century.


  • The speed of its collapse has exceeded all the other great landslides of European history, [and] it happened through natural causes ... the rise, development and collapse of the Soviet Union, ... [was] one of the most dramatic spectacles of the twentieth century.
    • The book Europe—A History, by Norman Davies, as quoted in ‘The Most Profound Changes’, article of Awake! magazine, 1999, 12/8.
  • [The Soviet Union was] a vast multinational empire already sinking into irreversible decline.
    • Down With Big Brother, a book by Michael Dobbs, as quoted in ‘The Most Profound Changes’, article of Awake! magazine, 1999, 12/8.


  • two things changed in the 20th century that may jolt us into a new way of thinking. First, more was discovered about the nature of the ocean and its relevance to the way the world works than during all preceding history. Second, during the same narrow slice of time, human actions caused more destruction to ocean systems than during all preceding history. And the pace is picking up.
    • Sylvia Earle The World Is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean's Are One (2009)


  • Third, we must develop our energy technology and resources so that the United States has the ability to supply a significant share of the energy needs of the free world by the end of this century. To attain these objectives, we need immediate action to cut imports. Unfortunately, in the short term there are only a limited number of actions which can increase domestic supply. I will press for all of them.




  • The peoples of Western Europe and North America seemed to have every reason to greet the twentieth century as the dawn of a new and happier age in the history of mankind.
    • Michael Howard, as quoted in ‘The Most Profound Changes’, article of Awake! magazine, 1999, 12/8.


  • As centuries go, this has been one of the most amazing: inspiring, at times horrifying, always fascinating.


  • August 1, 1914: No one suspected that the 19th century, which had presented Europeans with a long period of peace, ended on that day; and no one noticed that the 20th century actually began only at that time—with a time of war lasting three decades and demonstrating what men can do to fellow humans.
    • Guido Knopp, as quoted in ‘The Most Profound Changes’, article of Awake! magazine, 1999, 12/8.
  • Cruelty and human brutality exceeded the worst expectations. In the trenches . . . seeds were sown for an era in which humans were viewed as material, not as individuals.
    • Guido Knopp, as quoted in ‘The Most Profound Changes’, article of Awake! magazine, 1999, 12/8.
  • The major political event of the twentieth century is the death of socialism.




  • At the outgoing of the old and the incoming of the new century you begin the last session of the Fifty-sixth Congress with evidences on every hand of individual and national prosperity and with proof of the growing strength and increasing power for good of Republican institutions. Your countrymen will join with you in felicitation that American liberty is more firmly established than ever before, and that love for it and the determination to preserve it are more universal than at any former period of our history


  • If we are to have peace in the last third of the century, a major factor will be the development of a new relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. I would not underestimate our differences, but we are moving with precision and purpose from an era of confrontation to an era of negotiation. Our negotiations on strategic arms limitations and in other areas will have far greater chance for success if both sides enter them motivated by mutual self-interest rather than naive sentimentality. It is with this same spirit that we have resumed discussions with Communist China in our talks at Warsaw. Our concern in our relations with both these nations is to avoid a catastrophic collision and to build a solid basis for peaceful settlement of our differences. I would be the last to suggest that the road to peace is not difficult and dangerous, but I believe our new policies have contributed to the prospect that America may have the best chance since World War II to enjoy a generation of uninterrupted peace. And that chance will be enormously increased if we continue to have a relationship between Congress and the Executive in which, despite differences in detail, where the security of America and the peace of mankind are concerned, we act not as Republicans, not as Democrats, but as Americans.
  • As we look back over this century, let us, in the highest spirit of bipartisanship, recognize that we can be proud of our Nation's record in foreign affairs. America has given more generously of itself toward maintaining freedom, preserving peace, alleviating human suffering around the globe, than any nation has ever done in the history of man. We have fought four wars in this century, but our power has never been used to break the peace, only to keep it; never been used to destroy freedom, only to defend it. We now have within our reach the goal of insuring that the next generation can be the first generation in this century to be spared the scourges of war.
    • Richard Nixon, 1972 State of the Union Address
Cooper: You don't believe we went to the Moon?
Ms. Hanley: I believe it was a brilliant piece of propaganda, that the Soviets bankrupted themselves pouring resources into rockets and other useless machines...
Cooper: Useless machines?
Ms. Hanley: ..and if we don't want to repeat of the excess and wastefulness of the 20th Century then we need to teach our kids about this planet, not tales of leaving it.
Cooper: You know, one of those useless machines they used to make was called an MRI, and if we had one of those left the doctors would have been able to find the cyst in my wife's brain, before she died instead of afterwards, and then she would've been the one sitting here, listening to this instead of me. Which would've been a good thing because she was always the ... calmer one.


  • Revolution rather than reform was necessary ... but it took a major war, the First World War, and the consequent chaos, to precipitate the revolution proper.


  • Looking back at the recent history of the world, I find it amazing how far civilization has retrogressed so quickly. As recently as World War I — granted the rules were violated at times — we had a set of rules of warfare in which armies didn’t make war against civilians: Soldiers fought soldiers. Then came World War II and Hitler’s philosophy of total war, which meant the bombing not only of soldiers but of factories that produced their rifles, and, if surrounding communities were also hit, that was to be accepted; then, as the war progressed, it became common for the combatants simply to attack civilians as part of military strategy. By the time the 1980s rolled around, we were placing our entire faith in a weapon whose fundamental target was the civilian population.
  • The earlier part of the twentieth century was defined by liberal democracy’s struggle against its rival ideologies of fascism on the right and communism on the left: to the point of hot and cold wars alike. Tocqueville’s “empire” of democracy, by which he meant its indisputable influence as an ideally, largely won those battles in the way that Western society was reassembled after the Second World War. The defining issue of our own era has therefore been something else entirely: more a full-throated struggle over democracy itself, a struggle to reconcile democratic equality with liberal freedom in an age of capitalist globalization. To tell the story properly we must discard the conventional narrative frame of the twentieth century: for its threads weave most meaningfully together not in 1945, nor even in 1989, but in the early 1970s, at the very point in which fascism and communism, as state forms, also finally began to yield their grip. It is there that the changes giving shape to the political order we have all been living through first set in.  In the half-decade between 1968 and 1974 an entire era—the postwar era—came to an end and something else began: our present age. There was no single year of upheaval, though 1971, for reasons that will become clear, cusps this change. There was no singular break, either, between some uniformly experienced before and after. But amid a perfect storm of crises that befell both East and West alike, the very structure of democracy that had sustained the Western nations through the first half of the twentieth century appeared suddenly to have run its course. That wider constellation of crises included the most dramatic transformation of the world economy since the Great Depression, and a fracturing of territorial sovereignty which, for the best part of two centuries, had underpinned national and international politics alike. It included the upheaval of rapidly modernizing societies at home, whose citizens suddenly demanded of their governments what their governments could not provide. The response to those crises in the East, we know well, was more repression at home and more credit from abroad to shore up their failing regimes: a path that ultimately led to the collapse of the entire communist system. But what of the response tin the West. As historians are beginning to document, something more radical happened: the West underwent “regime change.” From around 1971, on the back of the social upheavals of the late 1960s, with the Nixon administration in America at its most reckless and radical groups rising across Europe; with people marching on the streets and a crisis in the international economy, the postwar consensus unraveled and the institutional arrangements of the liberal democratic order began to be reconfigured.
    • Simon Reid-Henry, Empire of Democracy: The Remaking of the West Since the Cold War, 1971-2017 (2019), pp. 4-5
  • [T]he history of the 20th century was basically that of the swath of destruction left across the globe by socialist ideas, from the international socialism of the Bolsheviks and the Soviet Union to the national socialism of Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist German Workers' Party.
  • Any history of the twentieth century must begin in a world deeply unlike our own. At least in the most 'western', developed societies, we are less like the men and women of 1901, and further distanced in our thinking and behaviour from them than, say, were they from their forebears of a century earlier.
    • J. M. Roberts, The Penguin History Of The Twentieth Century (2000)
  • The tremendous and highly complex industrial development which went on with ever accelerated rapidity during the latter half of the nineteenth century brings us face to face, at the beginning of the twentieth, with very serious social problems. The old laws, and the old customs which had almost the binding force of law, were once quite sufficient to regulate the accumulation and distribution of wealth. Since the industrial changes which have so enormously increased the productive power of mankind, they are no longer sufficient.
  • The Congress has wisely provided that we shall build at once an isthmian canal, if possible at Panama. The Attorney-General reports that we can undoubtedly acquire good title from the French Panama Canal Company. Negotiations are now pending with Colombia to secure her assent to our building the canal. This canal will be one of the greatest engineering feats of the twentieth century; a greater engineering feat than has yet been accomplished during the history of mankind. The work should be carried out as a continuing policy without regard to change of Administration; and it should be begun under circumstances which will make it a matter of pride for all Administrations to continue the policy.
    • Theodore Roosevelt, 1907 State of the Union Address


  • The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart…even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an uprooted small corner of evil.

    Thanks to ideology the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing calculated on a scale in the millions.

    Alas, all the evil of the twentieth century is possible everywhere on earth. Yet, I have not given up all hope that human beings and nations may be able, in spite of all, to learn from the experience of other people without having to go through it personally.


  • The last half of the 20th century will seem like a wild party for rich kids, compared to what's coming now. The party's over, folks. … "Winston Churchill said "The first casualty of War is always Truth." Churchill also said "In wartime, the Truth is so precious that it should always be surrounded by a bodyguard of Lies." That wisdom will not be much comfort to babies born last week. The first news they get in this world will be News subjected to Military Censorship. That is a given in wartime, along with massive campaigns of deliberately-planted "Dis-information." That is routine behavior in Wartime — for all countries and all combatants — and it makes life difficult for people who value real news. Count on it.
  • Anyone desiring a quiet life has done badly to be born in the twentieth century.
  • Certain images of the twentieth century are inscribed in our memory as visual references, icons of the past that sum up its meaning and retain its taste. Everyone knows Andy Warhol’s Coca-Cola bottles, the figure of astronaut Neil Armstrong stepping onto the Moon, and the artificial happiness of Marilyn Monroe’s smiles. When we think of the decades stretching from the First World War to the Second, however, everything darkens. We see the trenches, the rail tracks leading into the camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau under the snow of the Polish winter, the mushroom cloud of Hiroshima. The age of extremes has produced its imaginary of horror, with a whole world of suffering behind it, but also social experiences, shared cultures, ideas and struggles that the present book aims to explore by way of the concept of a ‘European civil war’. This term has been used by several commentators and interpreters, from the interwar years on, even if the only writer to have developed it systematically – and in a highly debatable manner – is Ernst Nolte. If I adopt it here, it is to try and grasp the meaning of an age of wars and revolutions in which the symbiosis between culture, politics and violence has deeply fashioned the mentalities, ideas, representations and practices of its actors.
    • Enzo Traverso, Fire and Blood: The European Civil War 1914-1945 (2007)
  • In Asia and Africa, the economic and social problems are different but no less urgent. There hundreds of millions of people are in ferment, exploding into the twentieth century, thrusting toward equality and independence and improvement in the hard conditions of their lives.


  • Like the United States, the Soviet state was founded on ideas and plans for the betterment of humanity, rather than on concepts of identity and nation. Both were envisaged by their founders to be grand experiments, on the success of which the future of humankind depended. As states, both were universalist in their approaches to the world and the majority of their leaders believed that friends or enemies on the international stage were defined by proximity or nonproximity to the specific ideological premises on which each of these Powers had been founded. During the Cold War both Soviet and American leaders came to define the potential for such proximity by any country’s distance from the other superpower in its foreign policy and domestic political agenda. In historical terms, much of the twentieth century can be seen as a continuous attempt by other states to socialize Russia and America into forms of international interaction based on principles of sovereignty. In these efforts there were some successes, but many failures. The successes have mainly been connected to crises within the international system that could directly threaten Moscow or Washington themselves. For the United States, as we have seen, the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the end of the Vietnam War all led to a greater degree of accommodation to the interests of other states. For Russia, the period between the 1905 and 1917 revolutions, the aftermath of the German attack in 1941, and the GorbachevYeltsin era signaled such accommodation. But the periods in which both powers have been poised to intervene unilaterally against the gradually developing norms of international interaction have been much more prevalent. Given the form that American and – at least during its Soviet period – Russian policy took during the twentieth century, it is reasonable to assume that the two projects – one of state sovereignty and another of global ideological predominance – cannot be reconciled, even though both Cold War superpowers at least in form came to accept alliances and international organizations.
    • Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Intervention and the Making of Our Times (2012), p. 39