The 20th Century

Our perception of the period 1900-1950 is dominated by two devastating world wars. But, significant as those conflicts were in shaping the world we now live in, other historical forces were at work during this time. Their legacies are still with us today.



Modern Iraq was born in 1920, when the League of Nations granted Britain a mandate to administer three disparate former provinces of the Ottoman Empire, Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. The peoples across this artificially created territory rebelled against what they saw as disguised imperialism and the British only managed to restore order after much bloodshed. An imported monarch, King Faisal I, couldn't convince Iraqis that anyone other than the British were in charge. This view persisted after Iraqi independence in 1932, prompting decades of wrangling and bloody coups until Saddam Hussein came to power in 1979.


While Europe was preoccupied with the rise of Fascism, China faced an increasingly belligerent Japan. In 1931, the Japanese occupied Manchuria, a resource-rich region on China's eastern seaboard. Full-scale war broke out between the two nations in 1937. An uneasy alliance of Chinese Nationalists and Communists fought the Japanese but made little headway. The conflict continued until the end of World War II, when Japan was defeated. The Communists took control of China in 1949, after driving the Nationalists to Taiwan. Taiwan and the People's Republic of China have been at odds ever since.


Indian resistance to British rule gathered pace during the 1920s with a non-violent campaign of civil disobedience led by Mohandas (known as "Mahatma" or "great soul") Gandhi. Though the campaign for independence was gaining ground, Gandhi was unable to prevent open hostility between Hindus and Muslims. In 1947, two independent nations were created: a secular but Hindu-dominated India and a Muslim Pakistan. Relations between the two were difficult and several disputes have spilled over into military conflict.


After World War I, Britain received the mandate to administer Palestine, formerly part of the Ottoman Empire. In the 1917 Balfour Declaration, Britain had expressed support for "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people". Jewish immigration to Palestine soared, despite objections from Palestinians, who themselves sought an independent homeland. Amid increasing violence and terrorism on both sides, Britain turned the problem over to the United Nations in 1947. The U.N.'s solution was to create two states, one Palestinian Arab, one Jewish. Israel came into being but the other state never got off the ground. Israel occupied part of it after a war in 1948 with its Arab neighbours. Jordan and Egypt occupied the rest.


The first attempt to establish a global conflict resolution body was a dismal failure. Set up after World War I, the League of Nations was weakened from the outset by the refusal of the United States to join. It managed to settle some minor disputes but did nothing to halt the aggression of major powers, such as Japan, Italy and Germany. Nevertheless, it established the principle of international conflict resolution and paved the way for the establishment of the United Nations in 1945.