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Albert Keller SJ

A New Chapter in Contemporary History?

 

From: Stimmen der Zeit, 6/2009, P. 361 f.
webmaster's own, not authorized translation

 

The dividing into historical periods may simplify many things but it can also sharpen our awareness for breaks, new beginnings and forces in the course of history. One suggestion e.g. claims to recognize in the last 60 years of the Federal Republic of Germany three periods of about 20 years: The "era of Adenauer" and his successors, Ludwig Erhard and Kurt Georg Kiesinger from 1949 to 1968, which one usually in a stereotyped manner labels as "restorative", then the phase of the "sixty-eighters" [members of the '68 generation] up to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which is labelled as "anti-authoritarian" and "progressive", and finally the most recent time until today.

For the era from 1989 to today two American authors offer, though in a global perspective, important keywords for a full characterization; you are to imagine these 20 years as framed by the two U.S. Presidents Bush father (1989 to 1993) and Bush son (2001 to 2009). In 1989 in his article "End of History?" Francis Fukuyama took the view that history, in the sense in which it had been understood until now, had come to its end. The Western idea of liberal democracy and free market economy had become generally accepted and so no other theory could any longer compete with it. But without a debate about ideologies history lacked the inner drive that had advanced it until now. Fukuyama followed here the Russian-French philosopher Alexandre Kojve, who for his part based his thought upon Hegel and Marx for whom the class antagonisms was the driving force of history. If it is removed, then history supposedly no longer takes place.

In 1993 in his book "Clash of Civilizations" (German 1996) Samuel P. Huntington formulated a different but not completely opposite position. He too admittedly assumes the end of the conflict between those ideologies that have still moulded the nation-state alliances. This conflict, however, was now replaced by the clash of civilizations, in which above all the Chinese, Hindu and Islamic ones stood directly opposed to the Western one with its history, its languages, values and religions. The latter had for a too long time held the arrogant, false and dangerous view that the economic modernization caused at the same time the breakthrough of Western values. However, these had to be enforced by geopolitics of power, led by the United States of America.

Fukuyama's theory of the triumph of neoliberalism contributed just as much to the "Bush doctrine" of the necessary fight of a "coalition of the willing" against "rogue states" as Huntington's model of a "clash of civilizations".

 


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Despite the objections raised to them by many sides both diagnoses determined therefore the world view of the period after 1989. Some people see now in two current events the failure of both approaches and thus the end of this era. One argues that the current global economic crisis refuted the assertion of the triumph of the liberal market economy and that the theory of an unstoppable "war of civilizations" appeared implausible, because since January 2009 the United States in their highest offices presented the symbol of an "osmosis of cultures" in Barack Obama, the son of a Kenyan and grown up for some time in Indonesia and Joe Biden.

If one concludes from it with Robert Misik, "The world-historical stage that had begun with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War has come to an end," this reminds of Goethe's remark on the evening after the cannonade of Valmy: "From here and today a new era of world history takes its starting-point, and you can tell that you have been present." Perhaps one can from here also understand in what sense one can assume a break 60 years after the founding of the Federal Republic and 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

The cannonade of Valmy in September 1792 was a strategically insignificant battle but it gave the Revolution troops the moral strength for the victory over the anti-revolutionary alliance and guaranteed in the end the political accomplishment of the ideas of the French Revolution. With the attempt to see in the two events of world financial crisis and Obama's election a break in the current age, one had analogously to look for ideas the enforcement of which is marked by those events. One could first mention the insight that globalization inexorably progresses, and so it is hardly any longer possible in a hostile manner to demarcate one part of humanity in order to destroy it. We are increasingly only faced with the choice either together to survive or together to come to an end. This state has already been achieved regarding the atomic weapons and military possibilities and politically as well as economically we are not far away from it, as the global economic crisis demonstrates. The same is true for climate policy.

With it is secondly connected the fact that cultures - and with them also world-views and religions - do no longer exist isolated from each other but come increasingly in contact with each other. Between a merging with each other and fighting each other they are probably to find the way to a peaceful, however, also committed dialogue and to strive to ensure its conditions.

Seen as a whole - and this applies not only to such shorter historical periods - the result of these considerations is that the power of ideas is widely underestimated. Lasting historic changes are obviously less caused by military force and also primarily not by using financial or technical means but rather by the influence of changing mental views. This is probably substantiated by all the great transformations of the past 60 years.

 

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