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Turning points of the 20th century

From the First World War to the present: Europe in the focus of history

Herfried Münkler
Herfried Münkler © dpa

The twentieth century was a century of extreme violence, as witnessed by the years 1914 and 1939 with the outbreak of the First World War and the unleashing of the Second World War. During the same century, however, there were also turning points of remarkable non-violence, as witnessed by the “peaceful revolution” of 1989, which was realised largely without bloodshed despite the expectations of brutality usually associated with the overthrow of a political regime. The two world wars and the collapse of the Soviet empire were not German, but European events. However, the Germans certainly played a decisive role in all three, and to that extent it is rather appropriate that these three dates are primarily German years of remembrance. This 
also applies especially to 1989, when the impetus for the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact may have come from Poland and Hungary, but the “fall of the Wall” 
in the GDR as the “front-line state” brought about the collapse of the alliance.


In 1914 the Germans also played a decisive role in the outbreak of the First World War: not because German policy definitely wanted this war, as claimed by some researchers, but because some of its conclusions and decisions contributed to transforming the conflict into a war that engulfed the whole of Europe. The Germans bore special responsibility for transforming a regional conflict into the Great War as a result of their geopolitical position at the centre of the continent: they were the power whose policies could have concentrated or separated the many – active and dormant – conflicts in Europe. Even more than political decisions, it was the military planning of the German Empire in summer 1914 that led to a limited conflict in the Balkans becoming a war that engulfed the entire continent. There may have been no need to speak of Germany’s war guilt, as became the case according to Article 231 of the Treaty of 
Versailles, but the Germans certainly bore a large 
degree of responsibility for breaching the spatial confines of this war.

The First World War consisted of (at least) three overlapping conflicts that together played a major part in ensuring that this war broke down all spatial boundaries and could not be ended by political negotiations. As a result of its long duration, it became deeply embedded in the political order and the social structures of Europe and eventually destroyed 
it from the inside. One consequence of this is that common European remembrance is virtually impossible and that, in simple terms, three groups of remembrance have formed: the group of those who commemorate the war as a victory; the group of those who commemorate the millions of deaths on all sides in melancholy and grief; and finally the group of those for whom the war was a decisive step towards their “rebirth as a nation-state” and for whom commemoratively therefore its beginning is less import­ant than its end. These 
different forms of remembrance of the “seminal catastrophe of the twentieth century” are part of the diversity of Europe and cannot be transformed into a common European commemoration with the stroke of a political pen.

On closer analysis, the First World War was – primarily – about political hegemony over Western and Central Europe. This conflict was fought out between Germany and France. After the unification of Germany in 1871, the German Empire attained a semi-hegemonical position that was reinforced by its dynamic economic development from the end of the nineteenth century. France, on the other hand, vacillated between expanding its colonial empire and the memory of its former predominant role in Europe. In summer 1914, however, this conflict was dormant. It alone would not have led to the war.

A second conflict that was fought out in this war 
revolved around the question of the future world 
order. This had become part of the political agenda following the relative decline of the British Empire. During the eighteenth century Great Britain had come to fill the role of world policeman, a position based on its dominant power over the oceans and 
its role in maintaining the balance of power in 
Europe. The British had defended this position in two wars against the French and strengthened it in the course of the Industrial Revolution. However, new competitors had meanwhile arisen in the shape of the USA, Japan and, last but not least, Germany. 
It was therefore foreseeable that Britain would not be able to maintain this position for ever. Because the Germans were the most energetic at modernising and expanding their navy, they became the main rival, although the United States was the real competitor in terms of potential. It was not really clear before 1914 where the alliances and dividing lines would crystallise in the conflict over the future world order, but everyone was aware that at least two of the five great powers that dominated Europe would no longer have a role to play at a global level. Austria-Hungary was the first candidate here, but who was the second? Germany, France – or possibly Russia? This conflict was also more dormant than active in summer 1914.

More politically acute, however, was the third question that was addressed in this war, and the possible alternatives on offer by no means matched the military 
alliances. This question concerned the political future of the large multinational, multilingual and multireligious empires of Central and Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The Hapsburg Empire, the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire were being challenged by the concept of nationhood that was spreading from West to East. This war was therefore about their continued existence and by no means only whether a few borders had to be moved or redrawn.

It was the conflagration of these three conflicts that allowed the First World War to become the seminal catastrophe of the twentieth century for Europe.


The history of Europe in the twentieth century can be described as a constant examination of these three areas of conflict, one in which some attempt to revise the results of the First World War, while others seek to come to terms with these results and shape a new and stable political order. Accordingly, the beginnings of the Second World War can be understood as an attempt to revise the results of the First World War as laid down in the Treaty of Versailles. This revision did not only begin in 1939, but already commenced in 1938 with the “Anschluss” of Austria into the German Reich and the incorporation of the Sudetenland shortly afterwards. The Hitler-Stalin pact involved the Soviet Union in this policy of revision as a geopolitical beneficiary. Although the war became a political and moral disaster for Germany as its main initiator, in political terms it ended rather successfully for the Soviet Union, despite its enormous sacrifices: it succeeded not only in shifting its territorial frontiers to the borders laid down in the Hitler-Stalin Pact, but was even able to extend its zone of influence to the Elbe and the Bohemian Forest. As a result, Europe was divided into East and West. Central Europe as a focus of political power ceased to exist.

At first glance, the eradication of Central Europe from the political map was the result of the military defeat 
of the German Reich in the Second World War; on closer examination, however, it was also a consequence of the moral repudiation of Germany as a result of war crimes and genocide. For a long time, the two successor states of the German Reich, the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic, evaded discussion of these crimes. Closer examination of 1939 as the beginning of the Second World War is still a painful matter for Germans even today. However, there has been intense investigation of the Holocaust from the 1960s until the present. Sometimes the division of Germany into two states within opposing alliances has been seen as a “just punishment” for the crimes Germans committed. This played a role once again in the inner German debates about the unification of Germany in 1990.


1989 can therefore be seen as another revision of the results of a war, this time the results of the Second World War. Here, the political and moral self-repudiation of the Soviet Union played an important role on the path towards this revision. The Soviet Union gambled away any political credit it might initially have been able to claim as the conqueror of the Nazi regime by deploying tanks against the population 
of its sphere of influence (in 1953 in the GDR, in 
1956 in Hungary and in 1968 in Czechoslovakia). Combined with its notorious failure to establish a flourishing economy, the political and moral self-destruction of the Soviet Union made a major contribution to the collapse of the order it had set up, thereby opening the path for Germany’s renewed political unification. The fact that this occurred non-violently – in other words, not as part of a military process but as a legal act – was the precondition for the political acceptance of a united Germany by its European neighbours. The historical commemoration of 1989 is Germans’ happiest memory in 2014.

If the year 1914 stands for Europe’s seminal catas­trophe, what significance do the First World War and its consequences have for Europeans’ political self-image today after having been influenced for many decades by the memory of the horrors of the Second World War and German crimes? In order to answer this question, we need to return to the three areas of conflict of the First World War that were outlined above: the fight for European hegemony, the struggle for a new world order and the political role of European powers within it as well as the demise of the three large empires of Central and Eastern Europe and the Middle East. In different ways these conflicts also played a role in 1939 and 1989.

Let us begin with the struggle for hegemony in Western and Central Europe fought out between Germany and France. This was a struggle for the political order of this region, for a share of power and riches. The change in power-political structures that occurred with the foundation of the German Reich in January 1871 was the result of a war in which an al­liance of German states asserted itself against France. 1989 is – also – a revision of 1871 to the extent that this time the reunification of Germany was carried out peacefully and with the consent of its European neighbours. If the two dates are juxtaposed as political symbols, then 1989 stands for a new political self-image of Germany in which not military might, but economic strength forms the foundation for its pol­itical role in Europe. The process of German unification was relatively successful economically, and the new states did not become a poorhouse, as some anticipated. This provided proof of the Federal Republic’s strength and also made a major contribution not only to Germany’s new self-image in Europe, but also to a recognition of its role within it.

Otherwise the struggle for Western and Central 
European hegemony has come to an end as a result of Franco-German reconciliation and the Berlin-­Paris axis. It is conceivable that the “Weimar tri­angle” – in other words, the addition of Poland – 
could augment this political axis as the centre of the European Union, but this still lies in the distant future. It is worth noting here that close cooperation between countries is not a “possession” that you own and can depend on for ever. It has to be cultivated and constantly renewed; commemoration of the First World War will play an important role in reminding us of this. However, if it aims to do justice 
to this task, remembrance must not be allowed to 
become mere ritual, but must be founded upon a constantly renewed examin­ation of the political symbols that the years 1914 and 1939 have become.

The struggle over European states’ role in the world, the second conflict of the First World War, has also lost its pol­itical explosiveness. The year 1945 represents the decisive turning point here, when large parts of Europe lay in ruins and the political world was 
divided into two large blocs. Colonial empires disintegrated in the anticolonial wars of liberation of the 1950s, when the colonial powers were not intelligent enough to give up their now fragile possessions in good time. Europe withdrew into itself; the era in which it conducted global politics on a grand scale was over. If European states participated in world politics, it was as an appendage of the leading power in their respective alliance. That was a major precondition for a weakening of centrifugal forces in Europe and a strengthening 
of the idea that it would only be possible to play 
a role in the world in future as part of a united 
Europe. This view does not have to be permanent and changes emerging in the European region in 
the twenty-first century could lead to a return of centrifugal forces, particularly as the shift in American attention from the Atlantic to the Pacific region presents Europeans with the challenge of dealing with their problems alone.


The twentieth century was an American century, and that is due not least to the First World War. In fact, the United States can be considered the true victor of that conflict; although there were military victors in Europe, there were no political and certainly no economic victors. The years between 1918 and 1945 can be seen as the period in which the role of world policeman, which had been exercised by the British in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was gradually transferred to the United States. Forced to fulfil this role alone since the end of bloc confrontation, the United States now sometimes seems overtaxed and appears to be indicating a strong preference for burden-sharing. In other words, it expects allied powers to show a greater readiness to take on security policy duties – at least, in their own regions and neighbouring peripheral areas. This is leading to new responsibil­ities for Europeans that they can only tackle together. It also holds the danger of a renewed outbreak of the old conflicts symbolised by the years 1914 and 1939.

In addition to preserving and consolidating its existing level of political and economic integration, the great political challenges facing Europe in the twenty-first century include the pacification and stabilis­ation of the post-imperial regions that have arisen as a result of the disintegration of the large multinational and multireligious empires. When it comes to the developments and outcomes of the First World War, the third major conflict outlined above is either still with us or has not been sufficiently or permanently resolved. This applies to the Balkans, the 
Caucasus and the Black Sea region as well as the entire Middle East. Yugoslavia, which was created at end of the First World War out of remnants of the bankrupt Hapsburg monarchy and the Ottoman Empire, disintegrated in a series of wars of secession and civil wars during the 1990s. Using a combination of military and police presence, economic incentives and financial support, the European Union has succeeded in pacifying the region to a certain degree. However, it is not yet possible to speak of a stable 
order. When one considers the interplay of conflicts at the beginning of the First World War, there are good grounds for Europeans to continue investing in the stability of this region. The duration of this task will be measured in decades rather than years.


Due to their peripheral location on the fringes of the European Union, the post-imperial territories that arose out of the collapse of the Tsarist Empire or 
the Soviet Union and the demise of the Ottoman Empire only partially fall under European jurisdiction, but they represent an ongoing threat to Europe’s 
political stability and economic prosperity due to 
the permanent risk of these states’ disintegration. Europeans’ responsibility for these territories also arises out of the fact that they played a leading role in the destruction of the old order during the First World War and in the establishment of new orders thereafter. This applies not only to the German strategy of undermining the political cohesion of the 
Tsarist Empire by supporting nationalist movements, but also to the division of the Middle East into a British and a French sphere of influence as laid down in the Sykes-Picot Agreement. On closer analysis it becomes apparent that two different principles of political order clashed in the regions concerned: that of the nation-state and that of the large multinational and multireligious empire. This conflict remains unresolved even today. Although the nation-states proved superior to the large empires during the First World War, a political order based on the concept of the nation-state proved to have only very limited feasibility and legitimacy here. If the political structure of the European Union is viewed as 
a combination of the nation-state model and the structure of the multinational empire that neutralises border conflicts and combines people’s desire for identity and the needs of overall cooperation, then it is also an acceptable order for the Middle East. What has evolved in Europe through the bitter experience of two world wars could also be the sol­ution for the problems of other countries. That is 
also part of remembering and commemorating 1914 and 1939.

Remembering and commemorating the three great turning points in European history during the twentieth century entails an examination of the solutions and answers that have been found as well as the challenges that still exist. To that extent it is not 
an antiquarian commemoration of past events, but an examination of contemporary political tasks and possible solutions. Although constantly underlined in politicians’ speeches, this is more than a hackneyed phrase: focusing on the years 1914, 1939 and 1989 as symbols of the course of European history in the twentieth century always also entails determining what has already been accomplished, simply hoped for and still needs to be achieved. ■


is one of Germany’s most renowned 
political scientists and historians of ideas. He has held the Chair of Political Theory in the Institute of Social Sciences at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin since 1992. Several of his books are now 
regarded as standard works. At the 
end of 2013 Münkler published an over 900-page overall view of the First 
World War “Der Grosse Krieg: Die Welt 1914 bis 1918”, which has become a 
non-fiction bestseller in Germany.