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100 Years: The Focus of World History

One decade ago the 20th Century has ended. Seven reasons to declare this epoch the most important one in history.          

Written by Dr. Stefan Högl

When the year 2000 approached one could virtually feel history go by: The turn of the century - indeed a millennium fever. Decades before, that date was surrounded by a magic sphere of expectations, a distant but ominous location one was definitely approaching. Special reports filled the newspapers, to look back on history became familiar. Meanwhile however the turn of the millennium has been forgotten, and the world has put its focus on other issues. It is a sad story for the 20th Century, which nobody wishes to remember. Its events and developments however show: These were the most important one hundred years ever in human history.

1. The Discovery of the World

To know and to understand the world in its extensions - this dream has finally been realized by man in the 20th Century. For the first time it was possible to explore the space of the universe and to look deep into atomic structures as never expected before. At the beginning of the century there were still undiscovered areas on the globe: Deserts, mountains and polar regions were waiting for exploration. This gap was closed with the help of the first airplanes. Expeditions haven't stopped at the earth's boundaries however. Soon, the neighbouring planets of our solar system became the focus of science. Pluto was discovered in 1930, its moon Charon only in 1978. At the end of the century the first spacecraft Pioneer 10 left the home of our solar system. - Meanwhile the universe has lifted its major secrets. Telescopes have discovered its extension, elaborated its age, explored its history. With similar efforts scientists have taken a look into the inner structure of matter - on the level of atoms and quarks. Here already, science seems to have reached its limits, although new questions still arise.
The most spectacular event undoubtedly was man's first landing on the moon. No other event might have reached the same symbolic power which stands for a whole century: The century which discovered the world.

2. The Scientific Break-through

The scientific progress hasn't been limited to modern physics. Neighbouring disciplines have also got profit from rising technical possibilities. So the blue planet and the life on it have been explored and long time secret processes were explained. Biologists were able to detect the genetic blue print and to describe a great part of life's evolution. In medicine the discoveries have led to then unexpected possibilities, be it the discovery of x-rays, the penicillin or modern intensive care. Meanwhile, most illnesses are either curable or may at least be alleviated - in mental areas, too: The past century has become the birthplace of psychology as a scientific discipline.
With the success in various parts of life science has began its victorious march. To this day its claim is to explore and explain all aspects of our world. Besides remaining philosophical and theological questions, this approach has been realized: In the 20th Century, the world finally became explainable and calculable.

3. The Century of the Individual

A principle, which has influenced religious and political ideas since mankind existed, has finally been realized: The respect for human beings as individuals with inviolable dignity and indefeasible rights. Although the 20th Century had to wait a long time for this idea to prevail, the political development clearly shows: Fundamental human rights are now fought for around the globe and they are increasingly respected, too. Their spread cannot be upheld any more. Still, there may be some differences about how to formulate these rights in detail, but there is one result of the 20th Century: Man sees itself as an individual with a sovereign responsibility for his actions. He has found his self-consciousness.

4. Victory for the Democratic State

The recognition of human rights on the individual's side must, in the long term, lead to a free and democratic state on a political dimension. A sovereign person must at least have a voice in social issues and have the chance to speak, assemble and move freely.
The collapse of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe has impressively shown that the demand for free elections could immediately be derived from the entitlement to human rights. Any dictatorship is built upon the denial of individual rights - whenever they reach the consciousness of man, it means the foundation for a democratic order. Only in the 20th Century reality has shown what has been a matter of academic circles before: In the end, the democratic state will prevail, because he complies best with human nature and human dignity.

5. The Economic Decision

With the end of the East/West conflict not only the question of the political system has been decided. The search for an economic order of the future has also come to an end. In the long term, only what is adjusted to human nature can prevail. So, the basic political and economic decisions have to be built on a solid fundament: on basic human rights. Besides political and social participation a person shall be able to enjoy the fruits of his work and sign treaties with others. Limitations as they are typical for a planned economy can hardly be combined with such principles. It wasn't for economic reasons alone, that the communist states have failed in the end, but also because of their ignorance for the individual.
It was the 20th Century which had to provide the stage for the historic struggle for a society which is adequate for humans.

6. The Rise of a Future Vision

Man's history is filled with political and social demands, with ideological and religious concepts, all with a universal claim for their realization. Countless wars have been waged for power and influence, for raw materials and territorial claims, for god and honour. The 20th Century has seen the first World Wars, the highest death tolls and the most horrific weapons.
But this same epoch meant a turning point, too: The vision of peaceful world, which - for the first time in human history - will ban war from its arsenals. A world order was designed which is based on the recognition of universal human rights as well as on national and religious respect. This development meant a novelty in world history. Even when its realization might still take a long way, the first step has been taken in the past century.

7. The End of History

At the end of the 20th Century a historic epoch finds itself closed. A time, in which man has found answers to the most basic questions. The world and its processes are decoded as far as possible, man has found his individuality and therefore the social system where to live it through. Only with this in mind, the vision of a world order adequate for human nature and committed to his dignity could grow.
History has reached an end regarding the major scientific and social questions. Francis Fukuyama has already made that point after the fall of communism. Certainly, there will be further important discoveries, will decisive political steps been taken in the future. However, the big questions and conflicts are resolved. Most people have taken notice about that development without wasting many thoughts on it. Somewhere in the future the end of major historic events was to be expected anyway - just like the fall of the Berlin wall simply had to come one final day.

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The Legacy of the 20th Century

One decade after history passed by a blend of melancholic and bitter memories is in the air:  A century like this will never come again. At the same time one may look back on the past decades with relief. With the resolve of the big conflicts one can turn to his own personal history and get to those questions life has left open.
For the eyewitnesses of the historic 20th Century the duty remains to save and share their memories. When they reach far back,  they will be most valuable for future generations. 

On the death of Hans-Georg Gadamer:

"...With him the twentieth century dies, finally. There dies the century of Heidegger, his teacher, the century of Karl Jaspers and Carl Schmitt, of Ernst Jünger and Thomas Mann, of Stefan George, Rilke, Kafka and Celan. There dies the last century, in which philosophy has still spoken German for us. (...)"

(from Marino Freschi, in the Süddeutschen Zeitung from 16./17.03.2002)

Following the terrorist attacks on September 11th several writers have referred to them as the real beginning of the 21st century: