Visual History of the World




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Visual History of the World
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The World Wars and Interwar Period
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Dictionary of Art and Artists


The World Wars and Interwar Period 



The first half of the 20th century saw the world entangled in two global wars, conducted with an unprecedented brutality. The First World War developed from a purely European affair into a conflict involving the colonies and the United States. It altered Europe's political landscape and shifted the power balance worldwide. In World War II, the nations of Europe, Asia, the Americas, and Africa were drawn into the conflict through the aggressive policies of an ambitious Nazi Germany. The war was conducted with the most up-to-date weapons technology and cost the lives of more than 55 million people. The Holocaust, the systematic annihilation of the European Jews, represented an unparalleled moral catastrophe for modern civilization.


Pablo Picasso "Weeping Woman", 1937




The First World War



World War I is considered the "first calamity of the 20th century." Stemming from the imperialist policies of the European powers and the entwined alliances that resulted, the "Great War" claimed a total of around 10 million dead and 13 million wounded. The mobilization of whole nations and the previously unknown brutality of trench warfare triggered social upheavals, whose political and social consequences shaped the twentieth century.


The Collapse of the Central Powers and the Armistice 1918

Although the Entente had the advantage in every area after the United States entered the war, the Central Powers were unshakably set on a military victory.


After his electoral victory in 1916 1 US president Woodrow Wilson sympathized with the Allies and provided financial support to them.

Under the slogan "Peace without victory" he supported the idea of a balancing peace, whereas France and Great Britain aimed for the complete defeat of the German Reich. On April 6th, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany because the latter insisted on maintaining its policy of unrestricted sinking of neutral merchant shipping by submarines, which could not rescue survivors. By June 1917, the first US troops had landed in France. On January 8,1918, Wilson gave a speech proposing 14 points, which formed the basis of the later peace treaties, though significantly modified.

The most important provisions were the evacuation of all territories seized by the Central Powers, the 2 return of Alsace-Lorraine to France, international disarmament, the right of all peoples to national self-determination, and the general joining together of all nations for the mutual guarantee of political independence and territorial integrity.

The German Reich, however, continued to pursue the goal of a "victorious peace," particularly given that there had been a permanent cease-fire on the Eastern Front since December 1917 after the revolutionary developments in Russia. This had allowed substantial numbers of German troops to be switched to the Western Front.

In the Treaty of 3 Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918, the Central Powers coerced the Soviets to relinquish Poland and Kurzeme.

1 US President Thomas
Woodrow Wilson

2 Marshal Petain rides triumphant
through a conquered Metz, 1918

3 Peace of Brest-Litovsk: Trotsky (right)
and other Russian deputies on their
way to the negotiation, 1918

Ukraine, and later the newly founded Baltic states, would also become formally independent but remained under German control. Portions of Georgia and Armenia fell to the Ottoman Empire.

The Germans' hopes for a military victory in the West after the end of the conflict in the East quickly proved to be illusory. After the Entente Powers' successful counter-offensive in the summer of 1918, German troops were pushed back all the way to the borders of the Reich. When, at the end of October, Germany's main allies, Austria and the Ottoman Empire, collapsed and made peace on their own, the German Reich was finally defeated. To avoid a bitter peace, the German government accepted the "14 Points" as the conditions for peace negotiations.

The events in Germany came thick and fast.

German sailors' refusal to put to sea for a naval battle on October 28,1918, was the prelude to the 5 November Revolution that ended in the overthrow of the monarchy.

On November 9, the kaiser 6 abdicated and a German republic was proclaimed in Berlin.

5 German mutineers, November 1918

6 Wilhelm II leaves Berlin on November 9 for exile

Two days later, Matthias Erzberger, as representative of the German Reich, signed the 4 Armistice of Compiegne.

The war was 7 over.

4 Signing of the Armistice of Compiegne, November 11, 1918

7 Soldiers heading home



The Peace Settlements

After a power struggle among themselves, the victorious powers agreed upon harsh peace terms for Germany in the Treaty of Versailles. The Germans were forced to take sole responsibility for the war and pay heavy reparations to the countries they invaded.


The victorious Allied powers met in January 1919 in Paris to discuss a new postwar order. The negotiations of the more than 100 delegates lasted into June.

The peace discussions were dominated by the U.S. president 13 Woodrow Wilson, British prime minister 8 David Lloyd George, French prime minister 9 Georges Clemenceau, and to a lesser extent Italian prime minister Vittorio Emanuele Orlando.

13 US President Wilson

8 David Lloyd Georqe
9 Georges Clemenceau

Neither defeated Germany nor Bolshevik Russia were invited.

The goals of the victorious powers were widely divergent. Wilson wanted to secure a permanent peace and create a corresponding organization with the formation of a League of Nations. Great Britain wanted to spare Germany—mostly out of fear that the defeated Central Power might embrace Bolshevism. France, on the other hand, wanted to fundamentally weaken its powerful neighbor.

In the final Treaty of 10 Versailles, a compromise prevailed, with harsh terms but no dismantling of Germany, and the US desire to establish a League of Nations.

The German National Assembly at Weimar voted to accept the terms by 237 against 138.

Germany 12 signed the peace terms on June 28,1919, though with no real alternative.

Germany lost about 13 percent of its pre-war territory. Alsace-Lorraine was returned to France and Germany lost territory to Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Lithuania.

The left bank of the Rhine was to be 11 demilitarized and occupied by the Allies; the German army was to be reduced to 100,000 men without a General Staff.

The reparations had not yet been fixed in the treaty, but it was clear that the amount would be large; the German Reich ended up paying 53 billion marks in gold by 1932. The "War Guilt clause" that held Germany fully responsible for the war was particularly resented.

Separate peace treaties were signed with the other Central Powers. At St. Germain on September 10,1919, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dismantled. Austria (forbidden from uniting with Germany) and Hungary became two small states and had to recognize the independence of Czechoslovakia and Poland, as well as the loss of all other imperial territories. In the peace treaty of Sevres of August 10,1920, the Ottoman Empire was carved up in accordance with a prior agreement between the Allies: The Bosporus, the Dardanelles, and the city of Constantinople were placed under French and British control.

10 Conference room in Versailles, 1919

12 Treaty of Versailles, 1919

11 Decommissioning a German tank, 1920



Graf Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau,
foreign minister of the Weimar Republic,
in the peace negotiations at Versailles:

"We know the force of the hate that confronts us here. It is asked of us that we confess ourselves to be solely responsible for the war. Such an admission coming from my mouth would be a lie."

Graf Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau




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