World War I Occurred in the 19th Century!

Now, of course, I know that World War I took place from 1914 to 1918 at the beginning of the 20th century.

However, historians and non-historians alike rely too much on dates and how we group these into clusters like “decades.” As critic and philosopher Susan Sontag argues, decades are mere social constructions. Going by how we think, it’s almost as if there is a complete and total disconnect between December 31, 1899, 11:59 PM and January 1, 1900, 12:01 AM – a time when the day, month, year, decade, and century changed! 

Indeed, how we study and how we learn about World War I, for instance, is artificially very deeply rooted in characteristics of what we call the 20th Century. Imagine, if you will, that our system of numbering years started twenty years later–with nothing else changing. This would put the American Revolution in 1756 and World War I in 1894-1898. How would this effect how we think about World War I? How we think about the 18th and 19th Centuries?

Such re-thinking when it comes to timelines and unquestioned methodologies is important.

Thinking about World War I and values and ideologies we attribute to the so-called 19th Century, World War I does fit – in some ways maybe even more so than with the so-called 20th Century – given that World War I was about technology and nationalism.

And continuing this line of thought, shifting the years would place the great depression as the historical grand entry into the 20th Century. How does this alter how we think about the following 100 years? (And then again here too we quickly fall into the trap of artificial boundaries.)

How would our conceptualizations of the “revolutionary” “1960s” be different if we shifted the decade by five years? Whereby what occurred in 1960 would be said to have occurred in 1955 and so on. So the “60s” would be what actually happened from 1965-1975?

Consider the “disconnect” too between 12/31/2003 and 1/1/2004. People talk about events in 2003 or in 2004 but not from July 13, 2003 to July 12, 2004. Why? Both are equally artificial and useful and unuseful. 

As humans, we need groupings. It’s an important part of the psychology of how we learn. But, when we let such groupings (overly?) guide our thinking, the consequences result in overly arbitrary understandings based on arbitrary measurements.

As an exercise of thinking, take time to think about how your understandings of eras are weakened and then maybe strengthened by concepts of months, years, decades, and centuries and shifting these around. Conceptually play with such notions and see what new understandings emerge.

Andrew Joseph Pegoda 

Is the start of a new decade, for example, really the cause of such major change?