Visual History of the World




From Prehistoric to Romanesque  Art
Gothic Art
Renaissance  Art
Baroque and Rococo Art
The Art of Asia
Neoclassicism, Romanticism  Art
Art Styles in 19th century
Art of the 20th century
Artists that Changed the World
Design and Posters
Classical Music
Literature and Philosophy

Visual History of the World
First Empires
The Ancient World
The Middle Ages
The Early Modern Period
The Modern Era
The World Wars and Interwar Period
The Contemporary World

Dictionary of Art and Artists


The World Wars and Interwar Period 



The first half of the 20th century saw the world entangled in two global wars, conducted with an unprecedented brutality. The First World War developed from a purely European affair into a conflict involving the colonies and the United States. It altered Europe's political landscape and shifted the power balance worldwide. In World War II, the nations of Europe, Asia, the Americas, and Africa were drawn into the conflict through the aggressive policies of an ambitious Nazi Germany. The war was conducted with the most up-to-date weapons technology and cost the lives of more than 55 million people. The Holocaust, the systematic annihilation of the European Jews, represented an unparalleled moral catastrophe for modern civilization.


Pablo Picasso "Weeping Woman", 1937




Imperial Japan and Southeast Asia 



Aggressive expansionist policies and increasingly fascistic nationalism characterized the politics of the Japanese empire from 1914 to 1945. Beginning in 1931, Japan waged a brutal war of conquest against China that lasted almost 15 years. Japan overextended itself with its surprise attack on the United States in 1941, and despite its military strength, supremacy over the whole of east Asia was clearly unsustainable. The country's inevitable defeat was hastened when the US destroyed two Japanese cities with atomic bombs. Most of the southeast Asian nations won their independence after the war, though some had to fight prolonged conflicts with the Western colonial powers.


Development of Japanese Imperialism up to 1931

Japan expanded its sphere of influence when it gained control of the former German colonies in the Pacific after World War I. Nationalist ideas and the imperial cult increasingly gained influence in the economically flourishing country as it sought to expand into Asia.


Japan further developed its position of supremacy in East Asia after the death of 4 Emperor Meiji in 1912 and the ascension to the throne of his son Yoshihito.

At the outbreak of war in 1914, the Japanese foreign minister stated that while Japan had no desire to become embroiled in war, she would stay loyal to her alliance with Great Britain and protect its interests.

When Germany refused to relinquish its lease hold and naval base at 3 Tsingtao in the Chinese province of Shantung, Japan joined World War I on the side of the Entente.

Japanese forces occupied all German colonies in the Pacific: the Marshall, Marianas, Palau, and Caroline Islands. After the war, the League of Nations transferred these islands and Tsingtao to Japan to administer as mandated territories. Although Tsingtao was given back to China in 1922 under the Shantung Treaty, the islands' territorial status quo was confirmed in other international treaties.

In the 2 "Four Power-Treaty," France, Great Britain, Japan, and the United States agreed to respect one another's Pacific possessions and to help in case of an attack by an outside power.

In the "Nine Power Treaty" of 1922, Japan guaranteed China national sovereignty.

Economically, after a short postwar weakness, a period of strong growth began in Japan.

4 Emperor Meiji in military uniform, portrait, late 19th century

3 Government building in Tsingtao,
capital of Kiaochow, 1913

2 "Four Power Treaty," November 1921

Even the 6, 7 devastating earthquakes around Tokyo and Yokohama in 1923 only slightly affected this trend.

The global economic depression after 1929, however, brought this to an end, particularly affecting 5 silk farmers.

The country became formally democratized after the war. The electorate was broadened tenfold to 14 million, and universal suffrage was introduced in 1925. Politically more important, though, was an ultra-nationalistic group of military officers that over the course of the 1920s gained increasing influence with the government and emperor through extraparliamentary committees such as the "Secret State Council" and the "Military Senate." They pushed for conquests to secure new resources.

6 Damage wrought by earthquakes, 1923

7 Victims of the earthquake, 1923

5 Japanese silk painting,
ca. 1850



Japan's War of Conquest in China 1931-1945

The decade-long Japanese conquest of China began with the occupation of Manchuria in 1931. Domestically, the right-wing military hierarchy tightened its grip on power in the empire, silencing more moderate civilian voices.


9 Emperor Hirohito took the throne in 1928, but from 1932 on, the army emerged as the sole power factor in the country.

9 Emperor Hirohito, 1930

Emperor Hirohito

emperor of Japan
original name Michinomiya Hirohito, posthumous name Shōwa

born April 29, 1901, Tokyo
died Jan. 7, 1989, Tokyo

emperor of Japan from 1926 until his death in 1989. He was the longest-reigning monarch in Japan’s history.

Hirohito was born at the Aoyama Palace and was educated at the Peers’ School and at the Crown Prince’s Institute. Early in life he developed an interest in marine biology, on which he later wrote several books. In 1921 he visited Europe, becoming the first Japanese crown prince to travel abroad. Upon his return he was named prince regent when his father, the emperor Taishō, retired because of mental illness. In 1924 he married the princess Nagako Kuni.

Hirohito became emperor of Japan on Dec. 25, 1926, following the death of his father. His reign was designated Shōwa, or “Enlightened Peace.” The Japanese constitution invested him with supreme authority, but in practice he merely ratified the policies that were formulated by his ministers and advisers. Many historians have asserted that Hirohito had grave misgivings about war with the United States and was opposed to Japan’s alliance with Germany and Italy but that he was powerless to resist the militarists who dominated the armed forces and the government. Other historians assert that Hirohito might have been involved in the planning of Japan’s expansionist policies from 1931 to World War II. Whatever the truth may be, in 1945, when Japan was close to defeat and opinion among the country’s leaders was divided between those favouring surrender and those insisting on a desperate defense of the home islands against an anticipated invasion by the Allies, Hirohito settled the dispute in favour of those urging peace. He broke the precedent of imperial silence on Aug. 15, 1945, when he made a national radio broadcast to announce Japan’s acceptance of the Allies’ terms of surrender. In a second historic broadcast, made on Jan. 1, 1946, Hirohito repudiated the traditional quasi-divine status of Japan’s emperors.

Under the nation’s new constitution, drafted by U.S. occupation authorities, Japan became a constitutional monarchy. Sovereignty resided in the people, not in the emperor, whose powers were severely curtailed. In an effort to bring the imperial family closer to the people, Hirohito began to make numerous public appearances and permitted publication of pictures and stories of his personal and family life. In 1959 his oldest son, Crown Prince Akihito, married a commoner, Shōda Michiko, breaking a 1,500-year tradition. In 1971 Hirohito broke another tradition when he toured Europe and became the first reigning Japanese monarch to visit abroad. In 1975 he made a state visit to the United States. Upon his death in 1989, Hirohito was succeeded as emperor by Akihito.

Encyclopaedia Britannica

Japan rejected the Washington accords of 1922, which had sought to avoid a naval arms race. Chauvinistic and antidemocratic military groups determined Japanese politics behind the scenes in the 1930s, leading to the official collapse of the entire parliamentary system. In 1940, the old political parties were compelled to dissolve, and a sort of conglomerate party emerged in their place: the Imperial Rule Assistance Association (Taisei Yoku-sankai). A new government under Prime Minister Prince Fumimaro Konoe nationalized the economy and put restrictions on important civil rights.

At the instigation of the military, Japanese troops invaded 10 Manchuria in 1931 and managed to occupy the entire region in a few months.

They created the puppet state of Manchoukuo headed by the former Chinese emperor P'u-i, who was named 11 emperor of Manchoukuo in 1934.

Japan continued its expansion and colonization of China, also seizing Yehol province. China, militarily inferior and divided, could do little to resist the occupiers. In 1935, Shanghai was captured in a brutal campaign.

Japan gradually pulled away from international agreements. When the League of Nations refused to recognize Manchoukuo in 1933, Japan announced its resignation from the organization.

In 1936, it terminated the naval fleet agreement, and soon after, Japan declared its withdrawal from the London disarmament conference and signed the 12 'Anti-Comintern Pact" with Nazi Germany.

10 Japanese soldiers in occupied Manchuria, 1945

11 Emperor P'u-i on a state visit to Japan
with Emperor Hirohito, Tokyo, 1935

12 Signing of the Anti-Comintern Pact,
November 25, 1936

The 13 Sino-Japanese War began in July 1937 with a clash between Chinese and Japanese soldiers on the 8 Marco Polo Bridge near Beijing and lasted until September 1945.

Within a short time, Japan had annexed the north of China and almost the entire coast. Further advances into the interior were halted in 1938 only by the rugged mountains of central China. The devastating war claimed enormous losses among the Chinese population; estimates range as high as 20 million dead—the majority of them civilians. With its defeat at the end of World War II, Japan was forced to withdraw from China completely.

13 Japanese infantry in winter uniform, in front of armored train, ca. 1937

8 Marco Polo Bridge near Beijing



Poem by Ushiyama Kinichi

In honor of the German-Japanese alliance:

"The alliance has been created, blood brothers equal,
The countries of both united strive to ascending power,
Brilliant the culture, the justice commanding awe,
German soul, how you equal the Japanese."

Japanese and Nazi banners on the occasion
of the visit of the Japanese foreign minister to Berlin, 1941




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