Tumultuous Times

2016: When Does A Tumultuous Year Become An Historic Year?

Even casual historians are recognizing 2016 as a year of consequence. There are times when events seem to begin to cascade upon themselves, each gaining greater momentum. We are living in such a time as this.

Nothing clarifies the significance of this year’s events more than a quick glance at the “breaking news” events covered by the 24/7 cable news networks. There isn’t even time to create the intro graphic and dramatic music bed before another big breaking news event knocks the current one out of view. Consider the following “breaking news” events just from the last few weeks:

  • Islamic Terrorist attacks an Orlando night club leaving 49 dead.
  • Great Britain votes to formally leave the European Union
  • Five Dallas police officers assassinated in retribution for the police shooting of two black men by police.
  • Islamic Terrorist attacks a Bastille Day crowd in Nice, France leaving 84 dead and hundreds wounded.
  • Islamic Terrorist attack in a restaurant in Dhaka, Bangladesh leaving 24 dead.
  • An attempted coup in Turkey that leads to a great purge of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s enemies and a hard turn towards Turkey becoming an Islamic state.
  • Three Baton Rouge, Louisiana police officers assassinated in retribution for the police shootings of two black men.
  • German-Iranian shooter attacks a mall in Munich, Germany killing nine.

Paul McLeary provides an interesting survey of historic “tumultuous times” when the rules of normalcy seemed to be suspended.

There are moments in history when time itself seems compressed, when so many shocking and important events crowd together that it becomes almost impossible to keep track of them. Lenin supposedly said “there are decades where nothing happens, and weeks where decades happen.” (The remark, alas, is probably apocryphal.) Long before him, the French writer Chateaubriand quipped that during the quarter-century of the French Revolution and Napoleonic regime, many centuries elapsed. In late 1989, a single three-month period saw the end of communist power in Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania and the fall of the Berlin Wall, as well as the U.S. invasion of Panama, and the Malta summit meeting between Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President George H.W. Bush where the two leaders essentially announced that the Cold War had come to an end: many years’ worth of change crammed into a single season.

To be sure, nothing in 2016 yet compares to the most truly “interesting” moments in world history. In 1940, in a span of less than three months, Nazi Germany conquered Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France, while the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. A year later, another three-month period saw the invading Nazis drive hundreds of miles into the USSR, concurrently beginning the systematic mass murder of Jews and other “undesirables.” During a single two-week period in August of 1945 there took place the end of the Allies’ Potsdam Conference, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Soviet declaration of war on Japan, and the Japanese surrender that brought World War II to an end. So far, 2016 has been less “interesting” than 1989, and, for that matter, than 1991. That year witnessed the Gulf War, the attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. And then there was 2001, an altogether excessively interesting year for reasons that do not need repeating.

But 2016 is barely half-done.

Clearly, the kinds of events listed above are typically not of such great historical significance to create a seismic shift in the global structure, but as McLeary argues in his article, a series of these smaller events can prove to be harbingers of bigger, more significant events. McLeary points to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in late June of 1914 as the event that started a sequence of events building up to the outbreak of World War I in August 1914. The root issue, as McLeary notes, was likely Germany’s concern they were losing an arms race against England and France. The assassination of the archduke was only cover for the bigger motivations.

Only history will tell us if 2016 turns out to be a year when the global chessboard is shuffled and upset, but without question, 2016 is certainly “interesting” so far.