Sunday, April 15, 2012

Titanic: Precursor to the 20th Century

April 15, 1912: if you have been paying attention to the media at all, you recognize that as the date that Titanic, the majestic ocean liner, sank.
Most of you probably know more about the Titanic than I do. For some reason I have not been greatly interested in it, in the past or even now at the time of the centennial of its tragic sinking. I may be one of the few people in the U.S. who has not seen “Titanic,” the popular 1997 movie that is currently being shown in 3-D in theaters across the country.
Further, I am not likely to plunk down the $19.12 necessary to see the Titanic display now (and until September 3) at Union Station in Kansas City. (Actually, there is a 300 year, I mean a $3.00, discount for seniors, but still . . . .) I don’t know why I need to see any more than is readily available for viewing on the Internet.
This blog posting is about the Titanic because of how its sinking seems to have been a precursor to the 20th century. Yes, I know, the century technically began twelve years before the untimely demise of the luxury liner. But some historians and others have claimed that the 20th century really began in 1914.
According to that viewpoint, there was no significant change in the ethos of the 19th century until 1914. The British historian Eric Hobsbawm (b. 1917), for example, writes about the “short twentieth century” in his book The Age of Extremes (1994). So he claims that the 20th century really began in 1914 and ended in 1991.
It was the onset of World War I, of course, that marked the beginning of the 20th century according to Hobsbawm, and others. And the fall of the Soviet Union marked the end to that “short” century.
So, if we accept the idea of the 20th century beginning in 1914, which I think is a plausible idea, then it is certainly possible to interpret the sinking of the Titanic as a precursor to that century.
One characteristic of the 19th century, which carried over into the early 1900s, was a sense of overweening optimism and inevitable progress. Such ideas are seen in many places, including in the liberal theology of the 19th century. That sense of optimism and progress, chief characteristics of the Age of Rationalism, was embodied in the Titanic.
It has been widely reported, perhaps inaccurately, that one crew member of that ill-fated ship exclaimed, “God himself couldn't sink this ship!” Whether those words were expressed or not, it seems clear that many people saw the largest, most luxurious, and most “unsinkable” ship ever built to be a symbol of human greatness.
But the tragic sinking of the Titanic was the beginning of the end of the age of optimism and faith in the certain ability of humanity to create a better, brighter future.
If all of the current hoopla about the Titanic can help people see afresh the problem of human hubris, it will have served a useful purpose.


  1. I think you're spot on regarding 1914; although I'd mark it with the "Guns of August" rather than the sinking of the Titanic, but that they were coterminous is quite awesome. I'm troubled by your conclusions, though; not because they're wrong. It seems you have at least two--that the optimism of the 19th century was misplaced, and that we could then refresh our awareness of the problem of human hubris. It seems to me that the current culture is confused and far from being able to even know what you're talking about. Reinhold Niebuhr was probably the best at helping us sift through the issue of human hubris, but could anybody actually understand the man today? We have a populace today with a deep suspicion, even hatred, of government, but with, so far as I can tell, little concern about the power of global capital. Only in hindsight can we see what the early 20th-century folk couldn't--that they were on the deck of a ship headed for disaster (World War I and II). It seems to me we're on another such deck. We can see it, but we refuse to let go of the current gods of hope and optimism, just as they could not abandon their gods.

  2. Your referencing of 1914 as the opening of an era of changed outlook on the prospects for humans (i.e. the short 20th Century) reminds me of my experience of visiting the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial located in Kansas City. That visit brought home to me the significance of the shock and surprise of the horribleness of the war to both sides, to the military and political leaders, and to the general population. It made more real to me the prevailing change from optimism to pessimism regarding the prospects for the progress of human civilization that must have occurred at that time and its continued influences on our thinking now.

  3. Anton, thanks for your quick response and for your pertinent comments.

    You are right, I wrote with Reinhold Niebuhr in mind. But I don't think that Niebuhr is unread or incapable of being understood today.

    Sen. Barack Obama spoke of his admiration for Reinhold Niebuhr in a 2007 interview with "New York Times" columnist David Brooks. Obama called Niebuhr his "favorite philosopher."

    And at the beginning of 2010, "Daily Kos," the Internet political blog, launched the online Reinhold Niebuhr Book Club.

    At least some people reading and trying to understand RN.

  4. Clif, I appreciate your comments also.

    June and I visited Liberty Memorial for the first time last year and were much impressed by what is displayed there.

    Perhaps most of you in the Kansas City area have visited that World War I museum, but I recommend it to those of you who haven't and to those who live elsewhere if you should come to Kansas City sometime.

  5. A Thinking Friend just now sent an e-mail that including the following comment:

    "I'm familiar with the 'end of optimism' take on modern theology. If I remember rightly, some see Barth's "Roemerbrief" as an important milestone in that movement. I'm not at all sure how we fit Tillich or Bultmann in this schema."

    He is certainly correct about Barth's "The Epistle to the Romans," which was written in 1918 and first published in 1919. And if I remember rightly, Tillich was the first person I heard (read) refer to 1914 as the beginning of the 20th century. I don't know how Bultmann fits in.

    This same TF also wrote, "I'm not sure the 1914 break works well for American history," and that is probably true to a large degree, since the U.S. was not directly involved in the "Great War" until 1917. But, still, 1914 was the beginning of the first "world war."

  6. Leroy, you have posed some excellent thoughts today. Unfortunately the sinking of the unsinkable didn't give any less thoughts to leaders then of the invicibility of their alliances that began the first world war.

    With the war in mind, I am wondering how the world will observe the centennial of "the Great War." I suspect there will be more serious observances in Europe since since Americans watched from the sidelines those first three years.

    The war (or it's outcome) was certainly responsible for the elevation of American hubris--one might even say invincibility.

    Hopefully we will think seriously of it so that generations 100+ years from now will not be lured to learn about our country from the latest movie or a museum exhibit.