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World War I began with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in 1914. What everyone thought would be a short conflict turned into a knock-down, drag-out fight that killed over 20 million soldiers and civilians by the time it ended in 1918. (Source)
World War I is also known as "The Great War," not because of how much fun everyone was having, but because of the crazy (scary) technological advancements that gave us, among other things, automatic weapons and poisonous gas.
After World War I ended, the German people had to pay millions in war reparations, and that left them struggling economically. It added insult to injury, really, because no one likes to lose. A young veteran named Adolf Hitler was unhappy with the terms of the German surrender, and as the leader of the National Socialist German Workers' Party—a.k.a. the Nazi Party—he knew a golden opportunity when he saw one.
Hitler took advantage of the countrywide frustration and gained tons of support for the Nazi Party as a result. He rode that wave all the way to the top and became chancellor of Germany in 1933.
When you think about the Holocaust, you probably associate it with Auschwitz and World War II—and you're right. But it actually started long before that, when Hitler was named chancellor of Germany in 1933.
He rose to power on a platform that included intensely anti-Semitic ideas, like laws that closed Jewish schools and businesses and required all Jews to wear a yellow Star of David on their clothing. Then, in 1941, Hitler and the Nazis started evacuating Jews to various concentration camps throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, where inmates were separated from their families and forced to live and work in horrible conditions.
By the time World War II ended in 1945, 11 million people had died during the Holocaust, and 6 million of those people were Jews.
"The Night of Broken Glass" was exactly that—German streets were covered in pieces of glass after rioters destroyed Jewish schools, homes, businesses, and synagogues. When it was all over, German officials said the violence had erupted "spontaneously" in response to outrage over the assassination of a government figure stationed in Paris, but—surprise, surprise—Nazi officials didn't do much to put a stop to the madness.
In fact, they told firefighters to try and contain the flames only if they were spreading toward non-Jewish homes and businesses. The night ended with the arrests of thousands of Jewish men, and the Jewish community as a whole was responsible for paying for the damages and the costs of repairs.
Unsurprisingly, after Kristallnacht, many German Jews decided it was time to get out of town, and they boarded the St. Louis on May 13th, 1939. The ship would take them to Cuba, where they would wait until they could enter the United States. But the Cuban government changed the rules (cough,anti-Semitism, cough), and even though all the passengers had bought legal visas before the ship left Germany, they weren't allowed to disembark after arriving in Havana harbor.
The United States and Canada refused to accept any refugees—the secretary of state even had the Coast Guard keep an eye on the ship to prevent any passengers from escaping onto U.S. soil. Eventually, the refugees on board the St. Louis were able to enter other European countries, including Great Britain, Belgium, France, and the Netherlands, but 254 ended up dying during World War II, most of them in Auschwitz and Sobibór.
When the Nazis invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939, World War II started, literally, with a bang. After years of tension due to the way World War I ended, Europe exploded into conflict. By the time it was over, 30 countries were involved, and more than 60 million people had died.
Buchenwald was one of the largest concentration camps in Nazi Germany, built in the center of the country in 1937. It was originally for political prisoners, but after a while, the Nazis imprisoned gypsies, military deserters, POWs, and resistance fighters in the camp as well.
As the war was coming to an end, about 10,000 Jewish prisoners arrived at Buchenwald after the Germans forced them to march from other camps. Elie Wiesel was one of the prisoners coming from Auschwitz, and U.S. forces took this picture when they liberated the camp on April 11th, 1945. (You can actually see Wiesel in the second row, seventh from the left.)
More than 250,000 people were imprisoned at Buchenwald between 1937 and 1945, and while there aren't exact numbers (because the Germans didn't want there to be records), the SS murdered at least 56,000 prisoners.
FDR was enjoying a little downtime in Warm Springs, Georgia, when he collapsed and died of a brain hemorrhage during his fourth term as president.
He's remembered as one of the most effective presidents in history, and his New Deal policies, as well as his plan to focus U.S. manufacturing capabilities on the production of war materials, brought the country out of the Great Depression and prepared America to enter World War II.
People all around the world were devastated, including fellow Allied leaders Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin, but none were more shocked than FDR's successor, Harry Truman, who discovered after taking the oath of office that FDR had been keeping a few secrets—like, oh, yeah, we had an atomic bomb.
Germany may have surrendered in May 1945, but the Americans were fighting a war in Europe and the Pacific, and it didn't look like the Japanese had any plans to stop fighting any time soon.
After FDR died and Harry Truman discovered that the United States had been working to develop an atomic bomb, he just had to decide when—and if—to use it. That moment came early in the morning of August 6th, 1945, when the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, a city in southwestern Japan. Records show that 70,000 people died instantly, and much of the city was destroyed.
A second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki a few days later, and it was only then that Japan surrendered, marking the end of World War II.
You've heard the phrase "the sun never sets on the British Empire"? Yeah, that's way out of date.
True, the British started establishing overseas colonies in the 16th century, and eventually they had control of so many places that it was always daytime somewhere.
But the American Revolution marked the beginning of the end of all that, and the ol' Brits started to lose much of the territory they'd gained.
One of the final blows came in 1947 when British India—which was established in 1612—was divided up, resulting in the creation of India and Pakistan. The transition was far from smooth, though—millions of folks were displaced, which created a refugee crisis, and lots of people died. It's been 70 years since the partition, but relations between India and Pakistan are still tense.
When the British took over Palestine after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, they issued the Balfour Declaration, which promised to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
There was a lot of opposition from Arab populations in the country, though, which led to open fighting between Arabs and Jews, and the British put a stop to Jewish immigration as a result. After World War II ended, the United Nations ended up making the final decision, which was to partition Palestine. Half of the area become Israel.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was a political and military agreement to stop the spread of communism after World War II.
Basically, all the countries agreed to have each other's backs both militarily and politically, so if anyone (and by "anyone," they meant any communist country) made any wrong moves, they'd defend one another.
When the National Party gained power in South Africa in 1948, the all-white government started to legalize racial segregation and discrimination. Even though nonwhite South Africans were in the majority, they still had to live in separate (and rundown) facilities.
In 1950, the Population Registration Act officially demanded that each South African be classified and registered according to their racial characteristics.
This continued for more than 50 years.
Apartheid, which translates to "separateness," was strengthened by the economic consequences of the Great Depression and World War II and resulted in more than 3 million Black South Africans being forcefully removed from their homes. Apartheid was—shockingly—legal in South Africa until 1994.
The Vietnam War was the longest and most unpopular war in American history. And that's saying a lot because we've been in some long wars (like the war in Afghanistan) and some unpopular wars (the, um, war in Afghanistan).
More than 50,000 Americans and millions of Vietnamese were killed in what was essentially a U.S. effort to stop the spread of communism.
Here's what went down: after the French were kicked out of Vietnam in 1954, the country was divided into the communist North Vietnam and the anti-communist South Vietnam. Neither side was willing to unify, so when the Viet Cong started to fight the South Vietnamese government, the Unites States sent military advisors to help in 1955. This opened a can of worms that resulted in some 500,000 American troops on the ground in Vietnam 10 years later.
From that point on, the war continued to be incredibly unpopular, and both sides started negotiations to try and end the conflict as quickly as possible. As part of the agreement, U.S. forces withdrew, and American POWs were released. South Vietnam surrendered in 1975, and Vietnam was reunited under communist control.
JFK made history when he was elected as the first Catholic president of the United States in 1960. In 1963, JFK was in Texas with his wife, Jackie, in preparation for his reelection campaign when he was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald. There are lots of controversy and conspiracies surrounding the assassination, but the Warren Commission ruled that Oswald acted alone.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Cambodia was dealing with not only a civil war but a huge conflict right next door—the Vietnam War.
It took a number of years, but eventually the Khmer Rouge won the civil war, and a communist government gained power in Cambodia. Once they established control, the Khmer Rouge started to unapologetically torture and execute anyone considered to be an enemy to their communist rule—so anyone with ties to the former government, any intellectuals, and any ethnic minorities. Between 1975 to 1979, between 1.5 to 3 million people were killed.
On April 3rd, 1968, he went to Memphis as part of a sanitation workers' strike, and he gave a speech where he said he'd seen the promised land (i.e., a world with true equality), but in a rather eerie foreshadowing of his own death, MLK also said he might not make it there. The next night, as he stood on a balcony at his hotel, he was shot in the neck. MLK was just 39 when he died.
Robert Kennedy, younger brother of JFK, gained lots of notoriety as his brother's attorney general during the Kennedy administration. After JFK's assassination, Bobby Kennedy became a U.S. senator (representing New York), where he was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, and he continued to advocate for human rights and racial equality.
In fact, Bobby was campaigning for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination in Indianapolis when he received news that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. In response, Bobby nixed his planned campaign speech and eulogized MLK, despite concerns for his safety.
But two months later, after winning big in the California primary, Bobby was shot three times, and he died the next morning.
Remember when we talked about the British in terms of their colonial presence in India? Well, they didn't just get colonial in faraway places—they also kept it local.
In 1921, the Republic of Ireland gained independence from British colonial rule, but the little island remained divided—Northern Ireland remained a part of the United Kingdom.
Not everyone was terribly happy about this. Nationalists (a.k.a. Irish Roman Catholics) and Unionists (a.k.a. British Protestants) fought over the status of Northern Ireland, specifically whether it should become part of the Republic of Ireland or remain part of the United Kingdom.
The conflict came to a head in the second half of the 20th century and became known by the moniker "The Troubles." It was a cute, innocuous sounding name for a nasty spat of guerrilla warfare, kidnappings, torture—all that fun stuff.
The problems continued into the 1990s, and President Clinton actually took an active role in helping to negotiate peace talks. Both sides agreed to share power when they signed the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, and while the transition wasn't entirely smooth, it did put a stop to the violence that had overwhelmed Northern Ireland for 30 years.
Anwar Sadat was the president of Egypt, and with the help of President Carter, he'd been part of talks to resolve conflicts between Arab countries and Israel. The talks resulted in Sadat signing the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty in 1979, which made Egypt the first Arab state to officially recognize Israel.
But a lot of people were less than happy with Sadat's actions, and there was quite a bit of unrest during the last month of Sadat's leadership. Then, in October, during a parade, extremists opened fire and killed 10 people, including Sadat and four U.S. military officers. The assassins were eventually tried and executed for their crimes.
When Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union in 1985, he angered lots of die-hard Soviets by implementing a couple of new policies that gave citizens more freedom than they'd ever had before. Glasnost ("openness") and perestroika ("restructuring") changed the USSR and other communist-controlled countries by revamping the economy and the central government, as well as providing more freedom to the media.
But here's the real kicker: Gorbachev believed Soviet success depended on developing a better relationship with the West, particularly with the United States, which was the exact opposite of what the Cold War had been all about.
As a show of good faith, Gorbachev backed out of the arms race and adopted a nonintervention policy in relation to other countries who'd signed the Warsaw Pact. Before long, peaceful protests erupted in communist countries, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 was a symbolic crumbling of communism across Europe. The Soviet Union officially dissolved in 1991.
Unfortunately for the first President Bush, he couldn't secure a second term, largely because of an economic recession. Clinton won both the popular vote and the Electoral College to become the 42nd president of the United States…a job in which he'd generate headlines by being both a saxophone player and, um, a player.
The Declaration of Principles was an attempt to settle the long conflict between the Arabs and the Israelis and between Palestine and Israel. Yitzhak Rabin, who was the prime minister of Israel, agreed to remove troops from parts of the Gaza Strip and West Bank. And Palestine, under leader Yasser Arafat, would be able to hold elections in those territories and govern themselves. Both parties also agreed that terrorism was not the answer to the problems between their two countries.
Check out this link: The New York Times article from that day, as well as the front page of the paper.
A little background: after World War I, Rwanda was under Belgian control until July 1962, but ethnic violence was a problem between the Hutu majority and the Tutsis, who were forced out of the country until they launched an invasion in 1990.
When the leader of the Rwandan government—a moderate Hutu—agreed to a ceasefire and negotiations with the Tutsi forces, many Hutu extremists were less than thrilled. The plane carrying the Hutu leader was shot down, and within hours, Hutu militia groups started slaughtering Tutsis and moderate Hutus, and the genocide spread throughout the country.
No one in the Western world intervened until long after the killing was over, though the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda did eventually convict a couple of military officials for organizing the genocide.
After World War II, Bosnia and other Balkan states became part of the Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia. But in the 1980s, with the rise of a Serbian leader who made lots of people unhappy, many countries started to distance themselves from Yugoslavia—and, as you probably guessed, none of it happened very peacefully.
When Bosnia declared its independence in 1992, lots of Bosnian Serbs were unhappy because they wanted to be part of a dominant Serbian state, so they attacked Bosnia's capital, Sarajevo. In the process, tons of civilians were kicked out of the region, and it took a year for Serbian forces to take control, with the exception of three towns in eastern Bosnia—but that didn't last for long.
Though the United Nations said the towns were safe havens, Bosnian Serb forces invaded and killed tons of people in what became known as the Bosnian genocide. It wasn't until NATO joined the party and started bombing Bosnian Serb positions that Serbia agreed to enter peace talks and stop the madness, but upward of 100,000 had been killed in the genocide by that point.
Yitzhak Rabin was the Israeli prime minister, and he'd spent a lot of time working on a resolution to try and put an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the help of President Clinton.
Lots of people were unhappy with Rabin's efforts to support the process, and anti-peace rallies were far from peaceful. Tensions continued to build until Rabin was shot in Tel Aviv, and he died from blood loss and a punctured lung.
What you really need to know is that Executive Order 13072 established the White House Millennium Council, which was designed to commemorate the 20th century, the good times and the bad times, and "celebrate the possibilities of the future."
Elie Wiesel was one of many guests at the White House as part of the Millennium Council's lecture series.
Kosovo was captured by Serbia in the early 20th century, and in 1974, the Serbians gave the province a little bit of independence. But the Kosovars wanted a lot of independence, and after being under the control of other people for so long, you can hardly blame them.
But Serbia wasn't willing to grant that wish, and they took back a lot of power. For a number of years, both the Serbian army and the Kosovo Liberation Army avoided full-out conflict, but that changed in 1998, and brutal retaliation by the Serbs—in response to lots of different attacks by the Kosovars—left hundreds of thousands of people homeless and eventually led to the massacre of Kosovar civilians in January 1999.
After Serbia continued to mercilessly attack civilians, NATO got involved, and Serbian forces withdrew after 78 days of NATO airstrikes. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, and NATO forces are still there today to guarantee Kosovo's safety.
Eritrea had been fighting for independence from Ethiopia since 1961, and eventually, with help from the United Nations, Eritrea established a transitional government so it could officially secede from Ethiopia and be independent.
But of course, after years of war, it wasn't going to be that easy, and disputes continued over the border between the two countries. Eventually, in May 1998, everyone got a little trigger-happy, and both countries began to exchange fire near their common border. It ended up developing into a conflict complete with airstrikes and raids, as well as trenches a la World War I. The two countries signed a peace treaty in December 2000, but there's still tension between Ethiopia and Eritrea today.
It had been 54 years since his liberation when Elie Wiesel delivered "The Perils of Indifference" at the White House. But from his perspective, the world hadn't learned much from the millions of Jews who died during the Holocaust (including Wiesel's own parents and his younger sister). He gave this speech as a reminder of what had gone wrong in the 20th century, as well as a not-so-gentle reminder that the next century had to be better.
Darfur is a region in Sudan facing a number of health and humanitarian crises, many of which can be traced back to the uprising that began in February 2003, when non-Arab ethnic groups staged an uprising against the government.
In response, the government decided to kill as many rebels as possible, and the genocide has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, with millions more living in what are known as IDP camps, or camps for people who are forced to flee their homes but still live within their country.
Beginning in 2011, many countries in the Middle East staged revolts to get rid of various dictatorial leaders—you might have heard about the one in Egypt. The uprisings collectively became known as the Arab Spring, and eventually the protests spread to Syria.
When the Syrian government, under the direction of President Bashar al-Assad, tortured a couple of kids for writing graffiti in support of the revolts, peaceful protests popped up around the country—and it's important to emphasize that they were peaceful.
But the Syrian government responded by killing lots of protestors, and putting many more in prison. Then, military defectors—soldiers who had deserted the Syrian military—created the Free Syrian Army to overthrow the dictatorial government, and the country fell into a nasty civil war that's still going on.
It's created an unbelievable humanitarian crisis, with millions of Syrians trying to escape the violence, and the unrest made Syria a perfect home base for extreme terrorist organizations like ISIS.
The year 2016 will be fondly remembered as a year of sheer madness, compounded by the fact that a stunning number of famous people passed away. Unfortunately, Elie Wiesel was one of them—he died in July of that year after a long illness at age 87.
He was fondly remembered by politicians and everyday folks in the days that followed, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said, "I was privileged to know Elie and to learn so much from him."