New College of the Humanities

A Watershed in World History

Paul Dukes surveys how historians of 1900 viewed their pasts and the prospects of the 20th century.

Is there some kind of special importance in the centuries and their turning points? Certainly we all think about the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth as distinct entities, while to look no further than the United Kingdom, 1603, 1707 and 1801 are all dates of significance in its unification. And when we come to consider the years around 1900, the broader case is overwhelming. For the race for empire had brought about a division of virtually the whole world between the leading powers.

Alfred T. Mahan's The Influence of Sea Power upon History, published in 1890, and Halford John Mackinder's lecture on 'The Geographical Pivot of History' introducing the concept of the 'Heartland' in 1904 were just two of several key contributions to the new study of geopolitics analysing imperialist competition. Meanwhile the world was even more clearly shown to be a small one as Marconi led the way towards instant world communication, thus rendering less than fantastic Puck's boast that he would put a girdle around the earth in forty minutes. In such circumstances, other academic investigators accompanied the geopoliticians into fresh treatment of place and time.

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