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The dawn of the 'Short 20th Century'

One hundred years ago this week, what had started as a crisis in a backwater of one of Europe's tottering empires was transformed into a global upheaval that changed almost every facet of society around the world — after 37 million civilian and military casualties.

On Tuesday, July 28, 1914, Austria declared war on Serbia, one month after the assassination of the Austrian Crown Prince, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Sophie by a Bosnian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip. A complicated system of alliances and mobilization plans was thus activated, and what is now known as the First World War began.

Even though the war changed the established order so profoundly that the world before 1914 seems farther back in time than a mere 100 years, we are so closely connected to the second decade of the 20th century — through our grandparents and great-grandparents, by modern history —  that it seems like less than 100 years. But after all, a century isn't just measured by 100 year increments.

A century, in the western sense, is also, and more importantly, measured by the historical chains of events, evolutions and effects it contains. One century can therefore be considered longer than another.

By the same token, a century just doesn't begin on the dot at the Year 00. There is often a fading out and fading in, a type of season between the seasons.

Take, for example, the "Long 19th Century," beginning roughly with the French Revolution in the 1790s, and running through the Napoleonic Wars, the rise of constitutional monarchies and liberal democracies, worldwide European hegemony, imperialism, etc.

The 19th century faded into a period of prosperity, relative peace and optimism, known in France as "Fin de Siècle" and in England as the "Edwardian Era." This is the season between the seasons.

The "Short 20th Century" * — violent, disruptive and revolutionary — began 100 years ago this week, when the First World War broke out, and ended in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. And if the Edwardian period was the sleepy anti-climax to the 19th century, then the Clinton years could be considered the pause between the 20th century and the 21st (which began on September 11, 2001).

Here at the Daily Townsman we have the front pages of the Cranbrook Courier, detailing events at home and abroad as they unfolded 100 years ago. We have these pages preserved under glass, for a century, however short it may be, doesn't treat a newspaper page kindly. The pages discolour quickly, they crumble into dust, they break down when exposed to sunlight. But a newspaper is still remarkably tough as far as news media go. Those Courier pages are one of the few windows into Cranbrook's history, how the news of the outbreak of war was presented to the community, and how Cranbrook reacted.

Starting Tuesday, August 5 — 100 years to the day after Canada officially declared war on Germany, the Townsman will run a special four-part feature on the opening days of the First World War, as reported by the Cranbrook Courier. Stay tuned.

* The term "The Short 20th Century" was first proposed by Ivan Berend, of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and defined by British historian Eric Hobsbawm. Hobsbawm also coined the term "The Long 19th Century."

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