The Most Important Year Ever?

Following is a great article from Intelligent Life Magazine (related to the economist) about what a year really means in history. If you would like to see more contenders for the most important year ever, check out the other Intelligent Life staff’s picks.


Human history is full of pivotal years. But which was the most significant? Andrew Marr ponders some contenders.

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Summer 2009

It is a parlour game but a little more too: what was the most important year in human history? How we answer it says a lot about who we are. Christians might go for the birth of Christ, or his crucifixion (though would have to agree a year for each first) and Muslims, the Prophet’s migration to Medina in 622AD. For English patriots it might be Alfred’s defeat of the Vikings in 878, while Marxists could vote for the publication of “Das Kapital” in 1867.

But my contention would be that we are looking for a universally important year. In the absence of a truly universal religion, that would rule out a religious moment. In almost every case it rules out a national date too. One can argue that the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 was crucial to the world–no independent England, no Britain, no British empire, a world of difference. But that requires too much speculative spooling forward to be convincing.

So what about years which saw an event which affected many countries and peoples? If you introduce that thought, you bring the most significant year nearer to modern times. For the basic facts of travel and the transmission of ideas mean that the further back you go—unless you play games with the dawn of humanity—the less universal the choice is likely to be. There are plenty of key dates for classical times but when Caesar was killed in 44BC, even his empire was just a wobbly circumference in one small part of the world. If you scroll forward to 1453 and the fall of Constantinople, certainly a momentous year for Christendom, it’s hard to argue that anyone noticed or cared about it in China, Japan or Africa.

We could, it’s true, try to find a year during which a large number of different events happened. In 1492, Christopher Columbus bumped into the Americas; the last Muslim ruler of Spain surrendered; Sonni Ali, who founded Africa’s vast Songhai empire, died; and the arts were taken to new heights by Mitsunobu Toba in Japan and Leonardo and Mantegna in Italy. It was also a big year for the Poles and the Lithuanians. Yet somehow, that’s all a bit…bitty. Columbus apart, these coincidence years are lacking in thwack.

Another approach is to say that since mankind is driven by ideas we should be looking for intellectual turning points. This is to assert the primacy of cause over mere events. The trouble is that few great ideas have a single source. We have had a lot of fun with the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s “Origin”, but 1859 wasn’t his eureka year.

Or take political liberalism, still just about the dominant political idea now. Do you choose a book by Locke from the 1690s, or one of the Enlightenment heroes, or 1776 and the American Declaration of Independence, or the more all-embracing Declaration of the Rights of Man in Paris in 1789? If you go for the books, there are too many; if you go for Paris, then how do you deal with the world-sized irony of the approaching Terror?

Even as economic power, thanks to our great crash, seems to be moving East, the world is still dominated by the American example, and so 1776 is the most persuasive of these liberal moments. Unlike Magna Carta (Intelligent Life, spring 2009) or Britain’s Glorious Revolution of 1688, the formation of the United States has touched most people alive in one way or another. It’s certainly on my shortlist. It nudges out 1919, when so much of the political world we live in emerged from the disastrous Versailles treaty—mainly because 1919 depends on 1914, so that’s two years, not one.

But alongside 1776, we must include 1945. The atomic bombs alone changed the world’s sense of itself, never mind the final defeat of Nazi Germany, whose attempted genocide of the Jewish people remains the single most important moral fact of modern times, the one that has done most to change the way we think. It was the year when American hegemony in the West was established and when the long Stalinist bondage of eastern Europe began, and when India took decisive steps towards independence. If there was a year in which events overtook causes, from India and China to the Middle East, this surely was it. Later epochal moments—the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, Mandela’s release in 1990, the discovery of DNA in 1953—are big, but not quite as big.

I have a final candidate. If humanity is most threatened by global warming and if it requires urgent international action, then is not the Copenhagen summit quite close to being our last real chance to take it? Some people, I know, choke on both ifs. But 2009 is my third candidate. Now, who has a better idea?

In the coming days, other Economist writers will cast their votes for the most important year ever (eg, 5BC, 1204, 1439, 1791, 1944), and then you can cast your own.

Picture credit: Alan Kitching

(Andrew Marr presents “The Andrew Marr Show” on BBC1 and “Start the Week” on Radio 4. His “History of Modern Britain” has been a bestseller. He is a former editor of the Independent. His last column for Intelligent Life magazine asked why has the Magna Carta lasted?)

Published in: on July 7, 2009 at 10:19 am  Leave a Comment  
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