10 Years That Made The Modern World
As we know, all history wasn’t made equal. Although it was dotted with a variety of groundbreaking events that changed our civilization forever, these occurrences were few and far between. For the most part, huge stretches of time passed when absolutely nothing happened.
In contrast, certain years essentially made the modern world. At those times, entire eras passed within a matter of months. From the global chaos of 1918 to the widespread cultural and religious reforms of 1962, here are 10 years in history that shaped the modern world as we know it.
2001 will always be remembered for some of the most crucial scientific breakthroughs of our time. The biggest one was the sequencing and publishing of a working draft of the human genome (all the genetic information in a cell), which completely transformed our understanding of the human body and its place in evolution. It was an unprecedented effort by researchers around the world to understand our shared roots, and it ended up changing medicine forever.
However, the most pivotal event of 2001 remains the terrorist attacks in New York, colloquially known as “the 9/11 attacks.” Although some people consider that matter to be over with Osama bin Laden’s death, its effects are actually still all around us.
If we include the Iraq invasion in 2003, the “War on Terror” laid the roots for most (if not all) of the region’s disputes today. Popular support for ISIS directly stemmed from the sectarian tensions caused by the government installed in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s defeat in Iraq.
Not many people know that Saddam loyalists made up a big chunk of the upper brass of ISIS, which is why they were so good at warfare. The Syrian civil war and the refugee crisis—issues that form the backbone of policymaking in countries around the world—were a direct result of the sectarian tensions and power vacuum in Iraq.
2001 was also the year that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict took its current form, further destabilizing the region and the world.
The year was quite important financially, too, at least in hindsight. It featured the first recession in at least two decades. Although we didn’t know it at the time, this was only the beginning of what would become the worst financial crisis in history.
Most of us don’t know enough about 1848 to have an opinion about it, let alone to claim that it’s one of the most important years in history. Although 1848 certainly pales in comparison to some historic milestones that came later, it was an immensely influential year on its own.
1848 will always be known for the wave of revolutions that hit Europe and elsewhere. In some countries, this was known as the People’s Spring, the Spring of Nations, or the Year of Revolution.
It was the first time that the idea of the nation-state took root in the popular conscience as it was directly pitted against the multinational setup of empires. As we’ll discuss in a bit, the 1848 revolutions led to many long-lasting changes around the world, including the modern notion of the democratic nation-state.
World War II is by far the more popular of the World Wars, although that’s mainly because we don’t understand the first conflict well enough. The reasons for World War I were less black-and-white than for the second one, which adds to our reluctance to talk about the “Great War.”
Despite this, World War I remains a critical event in modern history. By the end of it, four of the most influential empires ever—German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian—had fallen, which marked the beginning of the modern era. The aftermath of the war gave birth to the modern idea of the nation-state and ended the age of empires. Some of the biggest contemporary issues, like the wars in the Middle East, also took root.
Another far-reaching event of 1918 was the Spanish flu, which infected about one-third of the world’s population and killed at least 50 million people according to some estimates. The disease disproportionately affected the populations of some countries as well as forced us to develop new ways to deal with epidemics and pandemics.
The worldwide significance of events in 1962 isn’t always readily apparent. Sure, the Cold War was an obvious time of monumental tension between the US and the Soviet Union. 1962 contained the Cuban Missile Crisis, also known as “that time we all almost died.” On a less direct level, the Cold War was also percolating in Vietnam as the popular region of choice for global proxy wars back then.
Neither of these events, however, had as much impact on the rest of the world as something that was happening in the Vatican.
1962 was the second meeting of the Vatican Council; the first had occurred about 100 years earlier. Around 2,500 bishops and believers were called to St. Peter’s Basilica for four sessions of the council, with the last one held in 1965.
Its aim was to redefine the place of the Church in a modern, postwar, and postcolonial world. Some call it the single most important event in modern Christian history because it defined the faith for all the years to come. It was the birth of many features that we now consider inherent to Christianity, like brotherhood within faiths, permission to use languages other than Latin during Mass, and the general code of conduct for modern Christians.
Like the ’50s in general, 1953 was a transformative year. With most of the world still grappling with the aftermath of World War II, this was the chaos before everything settled down. Some crucial events of the 20th century were taking place around this time, and they still massively affect the world.
For one, the Iranian coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in August 1953 gave way to almost everything happening in the Middle East today. It set the stage for the successful 1979 Iranian Revolution, which eventually got hijacked by radical Islamists and turned the country into today’s Islamic Republic of Iran.
The rise of Iran, which is arguably the most powerful nation in the Middle East right now, corresponded with the rise of the Shia sect of Islam. The tensions between the Sunni and Shia sects have turned into one of the bloodiest and most prolonged civil wars in history. Besides affecting the Middle East, this has created changes in the rest of the world.
Apart from politics and war, 1953 also saw a scientific breakthrough that changed medicine and our knowledge of life on Earth forever. It was the year when we realized that DNA is structured as a double helix. All the genetic breakthroughs of recent years—as well as the potential for designer babies and realistic clones in the future—are based on the discovery by James Watson and Francis Crick.
Along with Maurice Wilkins, Watson and Crick jointly won the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material.”
In addition to the reunification of Germany and the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union, 1990 was critical to the global fall of communism. It was the end of a massive, decades-long experiment in a major part of the world. Even if communism still survives in pockets here and there, 1990 was the end of a global order of sorts.
That’s hardly it, though, as the year also saw quite a few other groundbreaking events. The first build of the World Wide Web was released along with a browser to access it. The Internet, as we know it, was first booted up, and we haven’t looked back—or up from our screens—ever since.
The Gulf War also began in 1990. In addition to being the first taste of war in the Middle East for that generation of the US armed forces, it set the blueprint for all future US conflicts in the Middle East. The private military industry first came up in the US at that time, too.
As you’ve probably noticed, most of the years on this list are from the 20th or 21st century. That’s not due to prejudice against the distant past but the fact that more recent years naturally have a bigger impact on the modern world. If we dial the clock back a bit further, though, we find one particularly influential year on par with anything that’s happened recently. That year was 1789.
Known as one of the biggest events in human history, the French Revolution began in 1789. It was the beginning of modern democracy and served as a defining event for contemporary ideas of liberty and freedom. The revolution also served as the building block for the modern republic.
The political divisions created during the French Revolution would come to define modern politics. For example, left wing and right wing were real sides during the French Revolution. When drafting a constitution, members of the French National Assembly who were loyal to the nobility sat on the presiding officer’s right while the revolutionaries and other opposition sat on the left. Without the French Revolution, the world would look quite different today.
That was hardly our only giant leap for freedom in 1789, though. George Washington won the first US presidential election in January 1789 and was inaugurated in April of that year. He set a standard—to an extent, of course—for all future US presidents.
Many of you may think of 1905 as a remarkably boring year. However, it was anything but. Some of the most important events of modern history took place in 1905, and it was generally a time of brewing global tensions and consolidation of military power and alliances.
More specifically, 1905 was the beginning of the single most important scientific breakthrough in history to date: Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity, which was followed by the publication in 1915 of his general theory of relativity.
Einstein was the first person in history to prove that the laws of physics aren’t absolute. Instead, they depend on someone’s position in space and time. Of course, that’s a rather simplistic explanation, though this tweak in our understanding made much of today’s technology possible.
Einstein’s work is what makes our GPS systems reliable and keeps our clocks accurate. Many potential applications have yet to be discovered, although the general theory of relativity is the guiding theory for most modern branches of science dealing with understanding the nature of the universe.
In 1905, the first Russian Revolution also took place. This may sound unimportant, but it made the Russian Revolution of 1917 successful. The 1905 uprising came on the heels of a massive war with Japan, and the discontent only grew when the tsar’s forces fired on peaceful protesters.
Although the uprising was quashed, the lessons learned during 1905 were instrumental in making 1917 a success. In fact, Vladimir Lenin claimed that the 1917 revolution wouldn’t have been possible without the one in 1905 as it was also when the Bolshevik Party started getting popular support in Russia.
For Japan, the victory in the war was the first time that an Asian country had militarily defeated a European power, bolstering Japanese confidence and setting the stage for its entry into global warfare.
Many years in the last century could account for our current circumstances. But if there was one clear marker between the worlds of yesterday and today, it happened in 1945. In fact, some historians designate 1945 as the beginning of contemporary history. This was the year of the setting up of the world, though it was quite an arduous task at the time.
With the end of World War II, it was unclear how the postwar world would look. Of course, we can’t forget 1945 as the year of the first atomic bombings, adding yet another thing to the rather long list that could wipe humanity from Earth.
Much more important, however, was all the political maneuvering among the winning countries as everyone wanted to push their own version of world order. As the war was coming to an end, Britain wanted the US to liberate as much European territory as possible. It was clear at that point that anything not taken by the other Allies would end up in the hands of the Soviets.
The US, however, was led by a new president and took a more cautious approach to dealing with Europe. The US only sent as many troops as necessary to win the war. Besides, America’s main theater of war was the Pacific, not Europe.
In addition to the political negotiations between the sides, the increasing hostility between the Soviets and the others in the winning negotiations essentially kicked off the Cold War. This defined geopolitical relations for years to come.
There are important years and groundbreaking years. And then there’s 1979. Although we can’t recount all the crucial events in 1979, we can tell you about the most important ones, starting with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The approximately 10-year-long war wouldn’t just contribute to the end of the USSR and the global fall of communism. It also gave rise to the modern version of the Islamic terrorist. Thanks to funds from countries like Saudi Arabia and the United States, a local population’s resistance against a foreign invader was turned into a holy war against the “godless communists.” As we’d learn later, the world would pay a terrible price in the decades to come for directly funding that rise of extremism.
1979 was also the year of the Iranian Revolution, which paved the way for the powerful but extremely radicalized state of Iran today. In the UK, Margaret Thatcher was assuming her role as the prime minister. Her policies gave birth to a new style of governance that many refer to as “neoliberalism” today. It shaped all conservative movements of the subsequent decades.