What is the Most Important Moment in Modern History?

by John J. Tierney, Jr.  |  March 4, 2019  |  ARTICLES

 Franz Ferdinand

Above: Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, five minutes before they were assasinated. 

When I ask my History class this question for the first time, certain answers dominate. Many say "who cares"? Then comes sarcasm, "my birthday," and, more seriously, the 9/11 attacks.

By the last class, perspective has grown, with some actually acknowledging something important preceding them. That's progress.

Definitions are in order. First, who does care and why? Everybody should, because history is the only known human laboratory and it "repeats." If it didn't repeat, everything would be unique, i.e. a "first." Human events, of course, are never identical, but they do demonstrate patterns of behavior. This is demonstrably true on individual levels. Every human being knows his or her life story and, in turn, usually can point out the exact moment something "critical" happened. Actually, "my birthday," while meant jocularly, is appropriate. What is the most critical moment in U.S. history? Most would answer, July 4, the birthday.

Second, what is "important"? Does it affect persons, locales, regions, countries, or the world? By definition, the world has to be the answer; everything else is parochial, relatively.

Third, why "moment"? While this is admittedly arbitrary, it helps to narrow down an event by the most precise term. One of the greatest texts in the New Testament is the moment St. Paul was struck by lightning and converted to Christianity. The rest, so they say, is history.

Fourth, what is "modern"? Again, this is arbitrary, but I have chosen the beginning of the Twentieth Century. If one goes further back or forward, the answer could be much different. Either way, the answer is still important. 

The first task is to identify "important." This is, perhaps, the most decisive, and subjective, decision. Although not entirely arbitrary, the identification of this event will dictate the moment. Here is where controversy can intrude, and elimination of every other occasion is almost certainly to bring about dissent.

Upon reflection, there aren't that many candidates, if one accepts the boundaries. Some prominent candidates:

  • 9/11 (September 2001) began the War on Terror;
  • Hiroshima, Nagasaki (August 1945) introduced the Atomic Age and ended World War II;
  • Pearl Harbor (December 1941) brought the U.S. into world politics;
  • Yalta Conference (February 1945) began the Cold War;
  • Fall of the Berlin Wall (November 1989) ended the Cold War;
  • German invasion of Poland (September 1939) began World War II;
  • Communist victory in China (October 1949) began China as a global power.

While certainly not exhaustive, this list defines many of the decisive events of the time period. Yet, there is a problem. They all occurred around mid-century or afterwards, which begs the question: what prompted them?

Thus, if one wants a "critical" moment, one usually does not start in mid-life. Unlike people or countries, world events normally do not have "birthdays." But they do have beginnings. What preceded the above?

Thus, it's only logical that the first half of the century caused the second half. Similarly, most psychiatrists claim that the human personality is formed early, around ten years of age. So, by the defined timeframe, we must look at the beginning, rather than in the middle, and certainly not at the end.

It is a historic consensus that World War I remains a divide between modern and "pre-modern." The outcome of that conflict has haunted both the recent and present generations, from the beginning of the end of colonialism, the creation of Israel, the beginning of Communism, Fascism, Nazism, Democracy in world politics (America), the end of Europe as the main contender, and the rise of the Soviet Union and the United States as world "superpowers." The world's most recent wars, bloodbaths, and terror strikes stem indirectly from that war: the atrocities in the Balkans in the 1990s, the unending battles in the Middle East and Afghanistan, the terror attacks from a resurgent Islam itself.

So in seeking a "moment," it must be related to what they once called "The Great War." They were right, but didn't know it. World War II, while much worse in casualties and destruction (75 million dead by most accounts) was, in retrospect, a direct result of the first war. It was, in fact, the second part of a two-act "theater" begun in 1914 and not resolved until 1945. Same contestants, same issues, but a definitive ending. The First World War did not really have an "end," only an armistice, a pause (half-time).

Thus, in seeking a moment, we must look at the first critical event of the century; the one we are still living out. As in all events, there are background and immediate causes. For background, we have the nation-state, begun around 1648, nationalism, militarism, the European alliance system begun in the late nineteenth century, etc. That's accurate, but it doesn't say where and when.

World War I was declared by Germany on August 1, 1914, and within days Britain joined in. The U.S. waited until April 6, 1917 to join and didn't fight on the front until mid-1918. But what started the war?

On a summer excursion to Bosnia in 1914, the heir to the Hapsburg throne, Franz Ferdinand and his wife, were murdered in Sarajevo by Gabriel Princip, a member of the Serbian terror ring, the "Black Hand." The die was cast. A month of futile negotiations between the powers failed to stem the inevitable, and modern history began its reign.

Two people shot by an obscure teen eventually saw the destruction of a world order and the deaths of tens of millions. The "moment" was approximately 10 AM, June 28, 1914. Few saw ahead, but one may have. Noticing the lamplighter closing the streetlights below, British Foreign Secretary, Edward Grey, uttered this prophetic sentence, "The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime."

That was August 4, 1914. But the moment had already come and gone.