At the turn of the 20th c., Great Britain was a nation at its peak—a peak it was about to topple from. Under the opulent reign of Victoria’s successor, Edward VII, England was a land of prosperity, stability, and world dominance. Of course, no one could have known what the next hundred years would bring: the horrors of World War I trench warfare, the German bombing raids that would devastate British cities during World War II,and the end of the once-massive British Empire.
World War IIt all began with a single gunshot. In 1914, a Serbian nationalist assassinated Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. Austria declared war on Serbia, and like a chain of dominoes, alliances fell into place: Austria and Germany on one side, Russia, France, and Britain on the other. Both sides dug in, locked together in bloody trench warfare—a chaos of mud, barbed wire, exploding shells and hand grenades, machine guns, tanks, and poison gas. The Great War,as World War I was then known, dragged on, devastating Europe, killing or wounding virtually an entire generation of young men, and bringing a profound sense of disillusionment to the people. Siegfried Sassoon,a poet and soldier, had this to say: “I have seen and endured the suffering of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings. ...” In 1917, the United States entered the war, leading to Germany’s capitulation the following year and to an uneasy peace.
Between the WarsThe war was finally over, but Europe now faced the consequences of four years of nonstop destruction. Britain had lost 750,000 men, and more than twice as many had been wounded; returning troops, promised a “land fit for heroes,” instead came home to unemployment and economic depression. France was in a shambles, and Germany was crushed by the punishing terms of the treaty it had signed at Versailles. Russia was hard hit as well, rocked not just by war but also by a revolution, in 1917, in which the czar was overthrown and replaced by a Communist state.
Anxious to rebuild, war-torn European nations turned to the United States for loans. Then came the U.S. stock market crash of 1929, cutting off the flow of funds and causing a worldwide depression.Anger, fear, and uncertainty took hold, and in the chaos, dictators seized power: in Italy, Benito Mussolini; in Russia, Joseph Stalin;in Germany, the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.At first, Britain stood back as Hitler forcibly annexed Austria and marched into Czechoslovakia. Finally, in 1939, when Hitler invaded Poland, Britain and France declared war on Germany. Italy and Japan soon allied themselves with Hitler. World War II had begun.
Adolf Hitler In 1933, Adolf Hitler, head of the National Socialist German Labor Party (or Nazi Party), was elected chancellor of Germany on a platform of rabid nationalism and vengeance. The Treaty of Versailles, which Germany was forced to sign after World War I, required that it make expensive reparations to nations it had invaded and harmed. Hitler was against paying this economically crippling debt, and many Germans agreed. He quickly gained power and his army swept through Europe, conquering countries in just days in a blitzkrieg, or “lightning war.” When he invaded Poland in 1939, Britain and France declared war.
World War IITerrible as the Great War had been, for most British citizens it was a distant tragedy, played out on foreign battlefields. World War II was different. After the fall of France in 1940, German fighter planes crossed the English Channel and attacked Britain. As bombs rained down on London, the entire population mobilized to defend the home front. For one whole year, Britain held out alone against the Nazis. Then, in 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union and Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, bringing the United States into the war. Hitler was finally defeated in 1945.
After the war, Britain was financially drained, burdened by debt and the need to rebuild its cities. Everything, from butter to socks, was rationed. Determined to provide at least the basic necessities, the new Labor government transformed Britain with a new national health care system and public education. Liberal in outlook and concerned with pressing domestic issues, Labor leaders had little desire to cling to far-flung colonies eager for self-rule. Instead, they gave India its independence in 1947, continuing a trend begun in the 1920s of dissolving the British Empire into a loose commonwealthof independent nations.