The Guns of August

18 August 2011


It has become a commonplace of contemporary historiography to speak of the “long nineteenth century” and the “short twentieth century.” The long nineteenth century, by this reckoning, was from 1789 to 1914, and the short twentieth century was from 1914 to 1989. There is a little bit of “wiggle room” here, as the French Revolution that began in 1789 played out for many years, the First World War that began in 1914 lasted until 1918, and the events that resulted in the collapse of the Iron Curtain and then the collapse of the Soviet Union stretched from 1989 to 1991.

All historical periodizations are conventions, and as intellectual conveniences they all have both advantages and disadvantages. There is something utterly arbitrary about dividing history up into chunks of one hundred years, but it is also a convenient measure. Because it is both arbitrary and convenient, it stands to reason that some historians will tamper with the strict interpretations of centuries. And there is a justification for the idea of the long nineteenth century and the short twentieth century, in so far as there was a certain historical unity to the events and unfolded in Europe from 1789 to 1914, as there was a certain historical unity of events that unfolded in Atlantic civilization from 1914 to 1989, and both the unity and the unfolding of events was profoundly different in each case.

Now it is the twenty year anniversary of the failed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. The BBC has a story on this, New light shed on 1991 anti-Gorbachev coup, by Bridget Kendall, who was the Moscow BBC correspondent from 1989 to 1993 — quite the time to be stationed in Moscow. So it has been twenty years since the fall of the Soviet Union — the failed coup against Gorbachev was the decisive tipping point — and therefore twenty years since the end of the Cold War, which defined the lives of several generations of Westerners.

The BBC article reminded me that the failed coup against Gorbachev was in August 1991. If we take this date as the end of the “short twentieth century,” then the twentieth century both begins and ends with dramatic events in August, separated by seventy-seven years. We can think of both events as The Guns of August, in Barbara Tuchman’s famous phrase. Talk about the dog days of summer…

It is interesting to note that we mostly hold memorials for the end of things, unlike birthdays, which celebrate the beginnings of things. Why are there no memorials for the Guns of August?

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Grand Strategy Annex

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