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The New Year could mark the beginning of a new(ish) century

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Historians are divided on where ages begin and end: how will they assess this one?

By Frederick Studemann

SO how was it for you? Depending on your location and source of commentary, the year just gone was terrible, tumultuous, hugely eventful or (for the odd cheery contrarian) another small stepping stone on the long path of human progress.

And the one ahead? With the wisdom of hindsight, will people come to view all the current anger and confusion — from Brexit to Trump, the rise of China to the challenge of tech — as symptomatic of a more profound geopolitical change? A moment when the maps no longer worked; the rules and tools of the past no longer applied. Is this not just the dawn of a new year, but of a new age — a “new century” even?

The notion that centuries do not necessarily begin when they ought to according to dates is well rehearsed in the west. The historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote of a “short” 20th century running from the start of the first world war in 1914 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. That short century followed a long 19th one, judged by some to have spanned from the French Revolution in 1789 to that fateful gunshot in Sarajevo. Others see this as a bit of stretch, preferring to set the 19th century clock running in 1815 with the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the peacemaking Congress of Vienna.

The 18th century is available in both long and short versions — from Britain’s Glorious Revolution of 1688 to the Battle of Waterloo in 1815; or from around 1715 with (give or take a few years) the death of Louis XIV of France, the end of the war of Spanish succession, the union of England and Scotland, and the arrival in London of regal immigrants from Hanover, to the storming of the Bastille in 1789. The odd member of the UK’s governing Tory party gives the appearance of still living in the 1700s, ensconced in the glorious certainties of a world just waiting to surrender itself to the native genius of a global Britain; truly a splendidly long “long 18th century.”

Returning to our own times, there are those, such as the economic historian Brad DeLong, who wonder whether Hobsbawn may have short-changed the 20th century. Can a case be made, they ask, for the 20th century to run from 1870, when the wider impact of the industrial revolution became clear, political economics became central and liberal democracy took hold, to just after the global financial crisis?




In this parlor game, certain patterns emerge. One is that the teenage years of a century seem to be popular moments for starting or resetting the historical clock — 1914, 1815, 1715 and so on. That adolescent perspective is one that might be neatly applied to our current times. But others point to 2001 — the terror attacks on New York and Washington; China joining the WTO — as a moment when forces were unleashed that would shape the decades ahead. In other words, our century pretty much started on time.

While some historians delight in applying thought-provoking and crisp parameters to the past — just look at their book titles — others are more cautious.

“History is not a series of coupled railway carriages,” argues Margaret Macmillan, emeritus professor of international history at Oxford. “The trouble with chopping up the past into decades or centuries, or even years, is that it gives a misleading impression of unity.” But she admits, there are times when “you do feel the world — our bits of it — changed and one age ended and another started.” The end of the Roman republic, the fall of the Ming dynasty and Japan’s Meiji Restoration are a few such moments that she cites.

So where do we fit in? Is the present moment one of those definitive endings and beginnings? Tom Holland, just surfacing after finishing off his latest book on the classical world, notes that if we are indeed now witnessing the end of a Western-led global order and all its universalist claims then the right initial historical punctuation mark might be better set at 1492, when Christopher Columbus pointed his ship west towards the Atlantic. Rather than fussing about centuries — whether long, short or a bit of both — as defining measures of history, should we really be counting out in half-millennia? Amid the upheavals of the coming months, it may be salutary to ponder how the future will see us.

 

frederick.studemann@ft.com