Marking the Centuries

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David Brin, who apparently is now described not only as a science fiction author but a “futurist”, has a piece from New Years Eve in which he speculates as to what it would mean for the new century to start in 2014. He’s not suggesting an adjustment to how we number years, but rather talking about the ways in which people have sought to define when a century or decade begins and ends by its signal events, not its dates.

For instance, some historians talk about the “long nineteenth century” which is defined as running from the French Revolution in 1789 through the start of World War One in 1914, a 125 year “century”.

Brin, however, has his own breakdown:

The last two centuries (and possibly more) didn’t “start” at their official point, the turning of a calendar from 00 to 01. That wasn’t when they began in essence, nor when they first bent the arc of history.

No. Each century effectively began in its 14th year.

Think about it. The first decade of the 20th century was filled with hope and a kind of can-do optimism that was never seen again — not after the horrific events of 1914 shattered any vision that a new and better age would arrive without pain. Yet until almost the start of World War I, 19th-century progress seemed unstoppable and ever-accelerating.

Consider the world of 1913, when regular middle-class folks in the U.S., U.K., France, Germany and so on were acquiring unexpected wonders: clothes-washing machines, gas stoves, gas and then electric lighting, indoor plumbing, refrigeration, vaccinations, telephones, radios, motor cars. Stepping outside you would see and hear human beings flying through the sky — with a looming confidence that soon you would get a chance to join them.

Yes, all of those techno-advances continued after World War I. Social changes such as women getting the vote were harbingers of more to come. But after 1914, the naivete was gone. People realized that the 20th century would be one of harsh struggle accompanying every step of advancement. And along the way to hard-won better times, the age would spiral downward first, into the deepest pit that humanity ever knew, before our parents (or grandparents) clawed their way out of the nadir of 1944 — the focal year of a century that truly began in 1914.

All right, that’s just one data point. Is there another? Well, look at 1814, the beginning of the Congress of Vienna and the so-called Concert of Europe that made possible the continent’s longest extended period of overall peace, as the great powers turned from fighting bloody wars to perfecting their colonial empires. Those two years — 1814 and 1914 –- each marked a dramatic shift in tone and theme (in the West, that is), so much so that they represented the real beginnings of the 19th and 20th centuries.

I think this is rather off. The peace of 1814 to 1914 was an uneasy one, the same technological and cultural developments that Brin cites as causing such optimism in 1913 also caused incredible uncertainty and upheaval.

This is why I think it makes a lot more sense to see the 19th century, thematically, as beginning with the French Revolution in 1789, and the advent of mass war in the 25 years from 1789 to 1814. The following decades of the 19th century saw some attempts to roll back the political revolution of 1789, but political, cultural and technological revolution continued as theme throughout the century. Industrialization proceeded rapidly throughout Europe during the 19th century. In 1848, revolution swept Europe. Nationalism was increasingly stirring. The revolutions were mostly put down, but they had made gains and the order restored was more precarious. In the 1860s and 70s, the European continent was shocked by a series of short, sharp wars: The wars of Italian unification. The Franco-Prussian War and the Austro-Prussian war, which between them resulted in the formation of a unified German empire and its emergence as arguably the strongest power in continental Europe.

Meanwhile, industrialization was continuing apace. Socialist and labor political movements were becoming increasingly powerful. Turkey was coming apart as a great power, the Balkan countries were breaking off via a series of bloody wars of national liberation, and these Balkan powers (backed by Russia was was quickly becoming a major power as it industrialized) were putting pressure on the Hapsburg empire, which was also suffering from its own internal divisions.

In other words, while the 19th century was indeed a period of rapid development, it was also a period of uncertainty and unrest. Technology was moving forward by leaps and bounds. What would one day be called the “developed world” was developing, and in the process new fortunes made old poverty increasingly politically unacceptable.

I’d make the case for 1789 to 1914 as the “long 19th century” as a period of technological advancement, political and cultural revolution, and the emergence of a number of increasingly nationalistic great powers on the European scene, as countries came to be identified with the people (in the sense of race or cultural group) they represented rather than merely a set of elites ruling a given piece of territory.

The 20th century which emerged with sudden violence in 1914, I would characterize as being a period during which the great powers and major political ideologies struggled for dominance, with the eventual emergence during the second half of the 20th century of two superpowers: the USA and USSR.

Given that, I’d provisionally put the beginning of the “21st Century” in 1991, with the fall of the USSR and the emergence of the monopolar world with the USA as the lone superpower. If I’m right, the 21st century thus far seems to be characterized by a single major power maintaining a large enough monopoly on military force, while technological innovation has gone through another spurt of rapid development, and the global economy has become increasingly integrated.

Of course, even by that measure we’re only 23 years into something like 100, so who’s to say what the theme of the 21st century will look like in another 80 years.

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  1. “I’d provisionally put the beginning of the “21st Century” in 1991, with the fall of the USSR and the emergence of the monopolar world with the USA as the lone superpower.”

    That would make the “20th Century” only 77 years long, which I suppose is just as well. Seems to me, though, that 9/11/01 qualifies as a pretty obvious starting point for the (cultural/historic/political) 21st Century as it marks a move away from declared wars against specific countries in favor of the boundless “war on terror” and the rise of the surveilliance state.

    Specific decade markers for the decades of the 20th Century could be reckoned as follows:

    The Thirties: 1929 (stock market crash) through 1941 (Pearl Harbor). Marked, of course, by the Depression.

    The Forties: 1941 through 1948 (Berlin blockade). Marked by WWII and its aftermath.

    The Fifties — 1948 through 1963 (JFK assassination). The Cold War was the overreaching issue of this 15-year “decade”.

    The Sixties — 1963/64 to 1971 (Nixon’s wage and price controls) or 1972 (Nixon’s trip to China, signaling the era of detente). Marked, of course, by Vietnam, assassinations, riots, sex, drugs, rock n’roll, etc. etc.

    The Seventies — 1971/72 through 1/20/81 (inauguration of Ronald Reagan and freeing of the Iranian hostages). Marked by inflation and the energy crisis.

    The Eighties — 1981 through 11/9/89 (fall of the Berlin Wall) or 12/25/91 (final dissolution of the USSR). Marked by Western victory in the Cold War.

    The Nineties — Last two dates above to 9/11/01, which some rather prematurely regarded as “the end of history”. Marked by rise of the Internet and of the truly global economy.

  2. Our artificial divisions of time usually ill accord with major events and currents in human history. For myself I have always dated the start of the very long nineteenth century at 1776 and its ending at 1917. The twentieth in my view was a short century from 1917-1989. I choose these categories because I view the nineteenth century as a time of optimism and a spreading faith in democracy. The twentieth was a time of pessimism with the democracies just dodging a bullet from what could well have been remembered as the beginning of the Age of Totalitarianism. My choices are based on the political currents of those times. Looking at the world through a prism of technological progress, a different set of dates would arise. From a perspective based on Catholicism I think the nineteenth would have begun with the persecution of the Church during the French Revolution, and 1789 would have marked the beginning, with that century ending with the beginning of Vatican I. The twentieth would have ended with the beginning of Vatican II, and we would be dwelling in a twenty-first century that began in 1965! (I have had a lot of idle amusement over the years looking at the centuries through different perspectives!)

  3. All of our divisions are artificial.
    Why don’t we count the Seven Year’s involving all of Europe and fought on all continents War as the Fist World War?
    Did WW2 start when the Japanese the Japanese invaded China, in 1939 when German invaded Poland or in 1941 when we belatedly joined in?

    Likewise for wildly inaccurate labels like “the Dark Ages”, “Age of Reason”, “the Enlightenment” and worst of all “the Reformation”[sic].

  4. I would suggest that a 19th century beginning in 1789 could plausibly end in 1870.

    As G K Chesterton says, “Denmark was robbed of two provinces; France was robbed of two provinces; and… the fall of Paris was felt almost everywhere as the fall of the capital of civilization, a thing like the sacking of Rome by the Goths.” Thenceforth, despotism once again seemed to be triumphant in the Dreikaiserbund of 1873, the grand alliance of the barbarians beyond the Rhine.

  5. It’s fun to argue about “what started when” but less so when considering what’s left over.
    It was in this . . . “first decade of the 20th century was filled with hope and a kind of can-do optimism that was never seen again — not after the horrific events of 1914 shattered any vision that a new and better age would arrive without pain. Yet until almost the start of World War I, 19th-century progress seemed unstoppable and ever-accelerating” that the Wilsonian/Progressive vision of the “Administrative State” began; a centralized government run by “experts,” abolishing the need for political contention and finally liberating mankind from poverty and economic uncertainty by the marvellous, predictive powers of The Federal Reserve credit monopoly and a social doctrine rid of the baggage of traditionalist, familial gender roles and property ‘rights.’ Such agrarian ideas were obsolete and the time had come to step into the light of a New Age – all that remined in the way was that pesky Constitution and its outdated concepts of Liberty and “limited government.”
    Of course, forgotten among the Progressive notions of the time are that a minimum wage was rejected as it would keep the “unfit masses” from becoming docile and totally dependent, and that Margaret Sanger ‘s eugenics program (now known as Planned Parenthood) was hailed as the way to keep those same unfit masses from overpopulating and becoming too big a burden.
    We’re still stuck with that vision now, even though we know it to be based in naive, senseless notions of “intellectually superior” people (think Paul Krugman) being able to predict and control the economic vagairies of a free market. Its descendants have built a self-serving special interest that abhors all competition and will stop at nothing to eliminate it. In that sense, we’re really still mired in the 20th Century. The next epoch will begin at the fall of neo-fascist Progressivism; when it finally dies off and blows away, we can crank the odometer to “21.” That could be awhile yet.

  6. It’s more like the normal 18th century ended in 1789. Normal 19th century began in 1813 and ended in 1915 or so. Normal 20th century began in 1919, maybe, and ended in 1989. Maybe we’ll look back on the 21st and say that it began on 9/11, or maybe the defining moment still hasn’t happened. Either way, we’re in a relatively calm interim period between the centuries, unlike the Reign of Terror or World War One.

  7. This reminds me of how much our sense of reality is really dependent upon our outlooks and priorities. We could just as easily tell time in dozens of other ways. We could organize history in so many other ways, too.
    It’s been said that the nineteenth century didn’t really end until 1917. But Progressivism began before that, and facsism after it. The twentieth century has in fact really been marked by all kinds of political experimentation and change in teh West.

  8. It’s definitely true that the themes of a particular era don’t come out of nowhere, and don’t disappear without a trace. Jon’s right. The fall of the Soviet Union freed less than half of the people under communism, and only freed them from communism, not the whatever-you-want-to-call-it oppression that’s existed in much of the FSU since. You could put the rise of militant Islam in 1979, or the West’s response to it beginning in 1991.

    As to Nathan’s comment, I think there’s a lot more truth in the generational analysis than in the pattern of centuries. But it presupposes that a generation goes through the same experiences. There are so many subcultures that experience different things, though, that I’m not sure how much credence to put in generational theories.

  9. Nathan ANg, I read The Fourth Turning by Strauss and Howe which was actually all about that cyclical view of generations. Talk about being typological! But the book yields tremendous insights.

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