By William Urban
This phrase, a rough translation of the German adjective “welthistorische,” means more to me than to most historians. That is because long ago, in a world that hardly exists now, I studied history in Germany. The phrase means an event that changes world history, not just in one country, but for everyone — a clean break with the past, an opening into a new era.
I did not encounter the term first in Germany, but at the University of Texas, from professors who had studied German history. In the sense of the term, there were events like the French Revolution that everyone needed to know, because their impact was so great that everything which followed seemed to be but a distant echo — like the insane fellow who dressed liked Napoleon and had a self-image of grandeur. Those were the days! Who today has even heard of Napoleon, except perhaps as an expensive brandy? And insane fellows are probably not connoisseurs of fine liquors.
We live today in the beer era — common, cheap, and the container easily disposed of; in fact, it is more common simply to pitch a can into the trash than to reluctantly and lovingly place it there. The same is true of the many potentially World Historical events of our times. They come at us so fast and so quickly that we have no time to savor them. Looking back through the clutter of rapid change, a few stand out.
The First World War — the war to end all wars — ended European world domination. It took twenty years to demonstrate that the colonial powers had bled themselves to death on the battlefields of France, but Europe had sacrificed not only its young men, but its capital and much of its self-confidence. It was surely the World Historical moment of the twentieth century. But no. The Second World War was even more costly in human lives and humane values. Nazism and Japanese militarism were destroyed, but new evils came in.
Then came the Cold War, the collapse of American will in Vietnam, Cambodia and Berkeley, with the imminent triumph of Communism, only to have such expectations end up with the Berlin Wall falling in 1989, then the collapse of Soviet Communism and the evolution of Red China into something completely unexpected — an amalgam of state authority and capitalism that made China into a producer of goods for the world and the number one polluter of our times.
So what are we to make of this? Are these events to be remembered by future generation? Or global warming? Or the panic over global warming? Or merely the dizzy speed of change in every respect, with backward countries sprouting skyscrapers, digging subways, and choking on automobile fumes? Are any of these World Historical moments?
These are the questions I asked myself as I watched the videos from Tehran. Not so long ago it seemed that we were facing Islamic radicals advancing on every front. Now they are being beaten back in Iraq, in Pakistan, and maybe in Iran. In retrospect world historical events seem inevitable. At the time they usually come as a surprise — business as usual. When Kermit Roosevelt went to Tehran in 1953 and rented a mob to overthrow a politician who had come into power by use of a mob, or in 1979 when Jimmy Carter sent clear signals that we would not support the shah, no matter what might come his removal, they could not imagine how this would play out in 2009. They were, after all, not setting world historical events in motion. Today President Obama is probably right to keep American hands clean — at least in public. He comes out of the Chicago school of politics, and we know what that means — one doesn’t survive by being a patsy. But is what is happening in Tehran inevitable? Or, perhaps, is inevitability something we only perceive afterward?
Mostly likely, the Iran revolution will fail. Just as did the Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 198. Alas, there is no room here today to discuss this. But I am aware that some readers will ask, “why ‘alas?’” This is a reasonable response — generally, world historical events mean trouble for everyone. But what is happening in Iran could be good news. Who knows? Regime change might happen. It might even inspire North Korean leaders to rethink their plans. Though I won’t hold my breath on that one, I never expected the Soviet Union to disappear the way it did.
The historian can explain world historical events afterward, but beforehand he can only suggest possible courses that highly unpredictable people might choose to take. Or he can fall back on Tolstoy, who said that while generals get armies to the battlefields, they have almost no influence on what happens afterward.
Monmouth Review Atlas (July 2, 2009), 4.