The year when our present began
What do global refugee movements, Islamic fundamentalism, free-market reforms and energy problems have in common? These and other phenomena can be traced back to 1979, as historian Frank Bösch convincingly argues.
By Holger Moos
1945 or 1989 are usually regarded as years that ushered in a new era. To date, such a key function has not been ascribed to 1979. Frank Bösch aims to change that. In his work Zeitenwende 1979 (i.e. turning-point 1979), the director of the Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung (Centre for Contemporary History) in Potsdam uses ten epochal events to show how “the world of today began” in that year, and a new world order emerged.
With the Iranian Revolution, political Islam created space for itself on the stage of world politics. Khomeini, the political and religious leader during the revolution, became an iconic figure in contemporary history. French philosopher Michel Foucault described the political earthquake triggered by Khomeini in 1979 as “perhaps the first major uprising against global systems, the most modern and insane form of revolt”. One of these globally operative systems, neo-liberalism, was also launched in 1979 with the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister of Great Britain.
Resistance fighters become terroristsThe reforms initiated by Deng Xiaping brought about a further change of economic course in China. In 1979 he began opening up socialist China to the West and thereby to global markets. A different kind of challenge arose for socialism in the form of the new Pope John Paul II. The trip to Poland by the head of the Catholic Church fuelled protest movements not only in Poland but in many other Eastern Bloc states.
And it was in 1979 that the Soviet army marched into Afghanistan: a political and military disaster that not only accelerated the Soviet Union's decline in power, but also gave birth to various groups of radical Islamist resistance fighters. Even though Bösch points out that there is no direct path from that event to the attacks of September 11, 2001 in New York, the historical paths are sometimes so convoluted that in the perception of the Western world resistance fighters soon became terrorists.
It may seem a bit strange that Bösch associates the election of Thatcher as British Prime Minister with the founding of the Greens in Germany under the heading “Neoliberalism and Ecology”. He explains that both were looking for fundamental change and saw no alternative to their agendas. Other chapters are dedicated to the second oil crisis, the Vietnamese boat people, the revolution in Nicaragua, the nuclear accident in Harrisburg and the TV series “Holocaust”.
A cornucopia of contemporary historical insightsWhile 1968 and 1989 were previously regarded as the classic years of radical change in the second half of the 20th century, Bösch convincingly shows that 1979 also ushered in a multi-faceted turn of events. “The well-founded combination of events in countries far apart from each other creates a mosaic of a world historical upheaval. This turn of events had an impact on Germany and Western Europe, even though world history was written elsewhere that year,” wrote Moritz Behrendt in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.
Bösch provides detailed information on the ten selected events. At the same time, he returns frequently to the overarching interrelationships with regard to Europe and Germany in particular. He does not get lost in the details and works out broad contours, but also does not allow the individual events to merge into a grand narrative in an inadmissible fashion. The only drawback of this cornucopia of contemporary insights is that Bösch would surely have had enough material to sprinkle in more anecdotes and punch-lines that would have made this book even more vivid.
Bösch, Frank: Zeitenwende 1979. Als die Welt von heute begann
München: C.H. Beck, 2019. 512 S.