Today, we’ll look at the new global system that gets set up in the wake up European empires. The U.S. gets obsessed with containing things, we go to space (allegedly), China gets Mao-ed, and *spoiler alert* the U.S. wins the Cold War! This is Anti-Social Studies, I’m Emily Glankler, settle in, and let’s go back in time…
We could spend a ton of time on the Cold War in the U.S. and the Soviet Union. I could do a scene-for-scene reenactment of the original Red Dawn if that would be helpful. WOLVERINES! But since I’m a world history teacher I really want to spend more time on, you know, the world. So let’s spend the next few episodes traveling around the world to see what was going on everywhere else after World War II.
The Cold War will reach Latin America thanks to Castro and a ship named the Granma. The Middle East will erupt into chaos after the fall of the Mandate System. And all across Africa and Asia decolonization will create new nations that will have to figure out how they fit into this new postwar world. It’s all happening in the shadow of the Cold War and it all matters for your life today.
China. Oh, China. You’re so confusing and so simple at the same time. China is a land of tradition and continuity. But one guy is going to try to change all of that in the postwar world. His name is Mao Zedong.
We’re going to go back and look at what was going on outside of the US and the USSR soon. But if I can skip ahead for a second – and I can, because it’s my podcast – let’s talk briefly about how the Cold War ends. Basically, by the 1980s the Soviet Union was experiencing all of the same issues that every massive empire has at some point going all the way back to Rome. Just like we can copy and paste the way empires are administered from the Persians, we can copy and paste the reasons for their decline from the Romans.
Out of the ashes of Europe’s destruction, two new superpowers rise. The Soviet Union is amazingly still standing. Again, they lost 23 million people in the war. But their sheer size and the amount of power that Stalin commanded over the government and the economy kept them afloat, much to the chagrin of subjugated nations across eastern Europe.
And in the west, the United States emerged as a major powerhouse for the first time in history. Separated from the war by an ocean on either side, the American homeland was relatively unscathed. So American factories, crops, and other industries, all of which had been reinvigorated by the war effort, were primed and ready to help rebuild Europe. And they will rebuild Europe. Partly out of the goodness of our hearts, but also out of the fear that an impoverished Europe might turn to communism.
And after the heat of years of world war, things begin to get very very cold.
After World War I, all of the major powers turned inward and focused on rebuilding their own economies. Nowhere was this more difficult than in Germany. If you remember, they were saddled with billions of dollars in reparations payments. And as they struggled to pay the Allies, France invaded and occupied the Rhineland – a region in Germany that was very important to industrial production. This made it even harder for their economy to rebuild.
By 1923, hyperinflation was rampant in Germany. In 1918 one paper Mark was worth one gold Mark. But just 5 years later, to buy one gold Mark, you would need one trillion paper Marks. To put it another way, if you were an American tourist visiting Germany in 1923, you would head to a bank to exchange currency. You would hand them 1 US dollar and they would give you over 4 trillion German Marks. What? That’s insane.
The worldwide depression had a lot of impacts but none more important than the rise of extreme dictatorships around the world. We see this in Russia with the rise of Stalin, Italy with Mussolini, and Japan with its intense military government. But for today, let’s focus on Germany.
Adolf Hitler fought in World War I after getting rejected from art school. Man, if I had a time machine… Just let the guy do his stupid paintings! He experienced the devastation and shame of their World War I loss in the trenches and it was then that he also realized the had a gift for public speaking and persuasion.
I’ll be honest. I really didn’t want to write this part of the episode. Partly because it makes me sad and uncomfortable but more so because I know I can’t do it justice. There are so many better resources than me to explore in depth the various aspects of the Holocaust, one of the best being the U.S. Holocaust Museum and Memorial website. So I’m not going to attempt to do a less good version of what they’ve already created. Instead, I want to talk about something a lot of classes don’t cover but should: Why was there so much anti-Semitism in the world by the 1930s?
For the first few years of the war, the Axis Powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) were rapidly expanding. The Germans successfully used their lightning war, or “blitzkrieg.” The idea was to quickly invade a place rather than waiting for all parts of your military before advancing. Using new technology like the radio, airplanes, and motorized vehicles, the German army was able to concentrate its attack on one part of the enemy’s lines. Breaking through, they would create chaos and disorganization amongst the enemies while their slower moving military elements came later and swept up what was left.
(Listen to the entire episode here!)
In 1940, Hitler quickly invaded and conquered most of France. The French signed an armistice and the Nazis set up a government of French collaborators known as the Vichy government. The French resistance fled to the unoccupied territories or to other countries, but not before they did everything they could to prevent Hitler from benefiting from their culture.
By 1945, World War Two had become the deadliest conflict in human history. 78 million people died during the war. And, thanks to “total war,” more civilians died than soldiers. The United States lost 418,000 people and Great Britain lost 450,000 in the war which, amazingly, is low compared to the other nations involved. For comparison, Japan lost 3 million, Germany lost 9 million, and Russia lost 23 million people. 23 million.