The 20th Century was an Improbable Mistake that Never Should Have Happened
Imagine you traveled back in time to June 1, 1914. You found someone who seemed to follow world politics, from any political point of view. You told this hypothetical observer that in 2021 Europe would be organized into a single entity with one currency from Poland to Portugal and people were allowed to live in any country they chose within the block. In this future, Russia is a dictatorship on the edge of this group of countries. The United States is the most powerful country in the world. Japan would be one of the richest countries in the world, and China increasingly powerful. All the areas of Asia, America, and Africa are independent nation-states. A world system of liberal democracy and capitalism will dominate the world. The population will be about seven times higher than the population of 1914. Technology will allow people to fly between major cities and communicate instantly across the entire globe. English will be the dominant language of business and culture. Women will have equal political and legal rights as men. Racism will still be a world-wide issue. Jews and Arabs will be at loggerheads in the Middle East. Religion will still be a factor in global politics. Major corporations with control of new technologies will dominate society and the economy.
This hypothetical 1914 political observer might not be at all surprised. You can kind of see the outlines of these developments in 1914: independence movements in the colonies, revitalization movement in China, industrialization in the US, different trajectories for Russia versus Europe, a sense of “European” civilization, Japanese advance, population increase, technological development, the rise of English, and the increasing power of liberal states. In 1914, you could move from Spain and take up residence in Poland if you wanted to. In 1914, before World War I, as now, corporations controlled technology and gained power. The outlines of a possible EU configuration are more visible in 1914 than in 1950.
You can see the outlines of our current political order from the vantage point of 1914 without mentioning World War I, World War II, the Cold War, communism, fascism, or the atomic bomb. In fact, not only was the tumultuous 20th century a wrong turn that did not need to happen, the deeper patterns of political development underneath all the main events of the 20th century continued along as if they never happened. World War I, WWII, the Holocaust, Mao, Mussolini, Lenin, communism: none of these things fundamentally changed the deepest trajectories of our history in terms of culture, population, technology, family structure, language, our energy use or humanity’s relationship with nature.
You can see the pattern of history from 1914 to 2021 without any of the major events, controversies, ideologies, or struggles of the 20th century. The 20th century, to put it simply, and as defined by every history book, doesn’t matter as we usually think in terms of our lives and politics. Driving cars matters to how we live — look at our architecture and climate change. But we were doing that before WWI. Cutting down forests matters. We have eliminated 50% of the wildlife that existed in the world as of 1945. We were on track to destroy nature in 1914 without any of that 20th Century detour. Being racist matters, but that’s about all anyone in power did in 1914. We were on the road to where we are now in 1914 and we didn’t need Bolsheviks, Nazis, or Gandhi to get here.
World War I did not have to happen. There was nothing inevitable or deep about that war. Some kind of struggle between labor and capital seems inevitable. Some kind of anti-colonial struggle is inevitable. Ethnic and national strife of some kind has an ancient feel to it. The Haitian Revolution or the French Revolution might have happened at other times in other places, but they have an inevitable sheen to them. Somewhere, slaves would revolt and succeed. Somewhere the old order of the aristocracy would be overthrown violently.
World War I… not so much. World War I, blocks of nation-states tearing up the fabric of society for no obvious or urgent reason: that isn’t an ancient or even common phenomenon. You can’t trace the origins of World War I back into basic human predispositions as you can with caste systems, colonial domination, ethnic conflict, class struggle, sexism, socialism, or capitalism. World War I is most essentially bad luck and stupidity: nation-states foolishly deciding to go to war to acquire territory they would never be able to hold or use productively even if they were to succeed in winning. It’s not inevitable.
Other crises came and went — the 1912 Morrocco crisis for example — without a great war. In 1914, the US sent troops into Mexico to chase Pancho Villa. That kind of thing had been going on for 20 years, Americans intervening in the countries to the south. The US foray into Mexico has a more inevitable feel to it than World War I.
If World War I had not happened, something else would have happened. Possibly, that something else could have even been worse. Maybe if the great powers delayed their first war until 1925, it would have been a single war, instead of two, but somehow worse. It’s hard to imagine how things could have turned out worse, but maybe, not likely, but maybe.
No World War I, no Russian Revolution. No Russian Revolution, no Mao taking over China. No Mao, no Great Leap Forward. No World War I, no World War II. No Hitler. No Holocaust. No ideological struggle. No Indian partition in 1947. How would the British have left and what would the Indian subcontinent look like now? Hard to guess. It could have been worse: the British might have dragged their rule out too long, a guerrilla war might have gone on for decades, maybe there would be many independent states, the Hindu/Muslim split might have taken longer to settle. If not for the decolonization and the Cold War, would the federal government of the US-sided with Martin Luther King or Bull Connor? Would the US have supported the Apartheid government in South Africa longer?
Obviously, World War I could have happened since it did happen. A murder in Sarevejo in 1914 could have triggered an ultimatum that was tied into a series of secret agreements between the great powers, that lead to a German invasion in the West. But when you line up all the things that had to go wrong to make World War I happen, it almost seems like it was improbable. The 1912 Morrocco crisis was more logical: it makes way more sense for the powers to hammer out a deal rather than go to war, or to isolate a conflict as local in the Balkans rather than turn all of Europe into a battleground. An above-average amount of gambling, bungling, and stupidity needed to occur to produce World War I.
I think the whole 20th century was an accidental wrong turn that didn’t need to happen. I literally think that if Leopold Lojka had not turned his car around right in front of Gavrilo Princip on June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo, or if Gavrilo had chosen a different cafe to get a beer, then World War I would not have happened. Yes, the split-second decisions of Leopold and Gavrilo are minor events by minor characters that triggered major events that lead to more events, like the Holocaust, the bombing of Hiroshima, and the Cultural Revolution. But if those particular events had not occurred on June 28 — if Gavrilo had missed, for example, or if Leopold had turned around 25 meters earlier — then the 20th Century would have been completely and entirely different.
But the EU would probably still exist in some form. We would still be worried about climate change and the power of Amazon and Google. Maybe Fidel Castro wouldn’t have ridden into Havana in 1960 with a big old beard but some colonial rebel would have driven into some capital with a big old beard about that time. The murder of George Floyd, or something like that event, would have lead to the same protests we saw in 2020, more or less. We would have still had to mask up and China’s trade surplus would still be enormous. And no one would have ever heard of the USSR or refer to the rise of the Nazis as the most obvious political mistake in history. Without the Vietnam war, some other hippy-ish movement would have happened, but some kind of reaction to the stifling 1950s culture that is the child of the Victorian era would have occurred. Jimi Hendrix is more inevitable and probable than World War I. Gay rights would still be a thing. The Black Panthers would still have been infiltrated by the FBI, or something similar. Karl Marx would still be considered a very significant political economist of the 19th century. Socialism would still be a thing.
The deep history of the concentration of wealth and power, of technology being control by the few, of the use of elections and mass media as tools of social control, the misuse of technology and climate change, the consolidation of regional blocks of nations, the centrality of the nation-state, white supremacy pretty much exactly as it is now, the power and militarism of the US, the imbalance between “first world” and “third world” — these would all still be with us without that wrong turn in Sarevejo.
The wars and events of the 20th century are not as systematic in terms of genetics as the Spanish conquest of the Americas, with the transfer and mixture of populations. Ghengis Khan—that single individual—probably has a more systemic impact on the overall genetic inheritance of the world than everything that happened in the 20th-century combined. The ideologies of fascism and communism—and the resulting mass death—did leave some kind of impact on the collective genetic inheritance of humanity.
The houses we live in, our genes, life expectancy rates, health, the crises we face, the food we eat, the fuel we burn, the solar panels we count on, technology, AI, how we organize our families, the economy, the media, language, culture, and the dominant political order of the world: none of these things are the result of any uniquely 20th-century event, idea, or system that was not also underway prior to World War I.