The story of world history post-1945 until the dawn of the new millennium can perhaps best be described as one of mutual suspicion, intolerance and a thirst for power and global supremacy. Perhaps we can apply these traits to many other eras and contexts as well, but the dawn of the truly global (and nuclear armed and loaded) superpower in the 2nd half of the 20th century really added new dimensions to the idea of hegemony and power.
Every fire of course must begin with a spark somewhere and it is to the embers of WW2 in late summer 1945 where we must turn firstly in understanding the beginnings of the conflict which became better known as the ‘Cold War’ between the two emergent post-war superpowers of the USA and USSR. Whilst ideological differences were laid aside temporarily in pursuit of the common goal of defeating Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, the cracks in the relationship didn’t take long to appear and not much longer before they became a gaping chasm. Bickering and squabbling jealousy soon developed into more systemic, deep-set and militaristic contempt for ‘the other’ and the first in many flashpoints which could well have led to all-out war (and ergo the end of ‘us’ in all likelihood) between the two ideological enemies flared in Berlin in 1949. Spoiler alert – this wont be the only time that Berlin features prominently in our study of the period!
The flare ups, spoils and machinations of the Cold War were not only confined to European soil and it is when analysing the American role in events that we begin to gain an appreciation of the truly global context of this grab for political, economic and indeed cultural hegemony over an increasingly globalised society. The success of the Communists in China’s civil war in 1949 led to another Communist behemoth for the USA to contend with in addition to the USSR, and Chinese influence would prove to be a thorn in America’s side as they sought to secure their position in South and East Asia.
Whilst the USA had solid and reliable support in Europe, the USSR lacked similar strategic allies in the Western Hemisphere. That is, until the arrival of an organic Latin American communist revolution in Cuba in 1959, where the ‘hedgehog in Uncle Sam’s pants’ became a real possibility as the catalyst for complete and utter nuclear armageddon!
Shifting the focus back to the heart of the Cold War – Europe – the intricacies and nuances of centuries of European ethnic and cultural identity were completely washed over with the march of the victorious Red Army in 1945, and the – ultimately failed – Soviet experiment of implanting communist rule across the diverse and fascinating patchwork of Central and Eastern European nations and peoples provides a telling and contextually meaningful study into the cause and effects of trying to force systems of control and belief onto peoples who didn’t necessarily sign up for what your giving them. Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and finally the USSR itself all experience varying degrees of protest, reform and repression before the ‘system’ comes apart at the seams under the weight of nationalism in the 1990s
And to conclude the course the final unit of study focuses on the region where it all began really in terms of civilisation – the Middle East. Anything Europe can offer in terms of simmering ethnic and nationalist mistrust and hatred, the Middle East can emulate with some to spare. The 20th century and its associated industrial and technological advances has led humanity to rely massively on ‘black gold’ and the Middle East with its abundant oilfields has benefited from this hugely. However with wealth and power comes greed, jealousy and resentment and the Middle East has been at times a massively destabilised region as a consequence of this ‘good fortune’ of sitting on reserves of oil. A heady mix of ancient history, religious fundamentalism and Cold War ‘great power’ politics contributes to the events in Iran and Iraq from 1970-2000 as being a fascinating and contextually hugely important era of historical study to assess.