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Ten Iconic Moments from the 20th Century

Ten Iconic Moments from the 20th Century

By Tobias Lewis

Now that university has started again, so has procrastination season. So, in this spirit, I have written about ten iconic moments of the century arguably more eventful than any others (no doubt missing many). The century could perhaps best be described by quoting Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum: “Barbaric. Mystical. Bored”.

1)    Foundation of the WSPU, 10 October 1903

Although a brutal century, the 20th century was also one of much social progress. Women gained, for the first time, the right to vote. Of course, this was often not an easy process and it was something that had to be fought for. Perhaps no one was as influential in expanding voting rights to women as the famous suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, who founded the Women’s Social and Political Union on the 10th of October 1903 in Manchester. An iconic moment that helped bring into being many rights that are taken for granted today and did much to advance the role of women in society, from effectively second-class citizens into political equals.

2)    The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, 28 June 1914

On 28 June 1914, six assassins plotted to kill the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir-presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, on his visit to Sarajevo, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. One of them, Gavrilo Princip, succeeded. This then set into motion a chain of events that led to the mobilisation of Europe’s armies and began the First World War, a horrifying conflict of trench warfare that killed over 16 million people around the globe. The war fundamentally changed Europe’s political map and led to the downfall of four great empires: the Austria-Hungarian Empire, the German Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Russian Empire.

3)    Christmas Truce, 1914

Amid the brutal destruction and death of the First World War, a bloody conflict that was horrifying in the scale of the slaughter (the Battle of the Somme led to some 60,000 British casualties on the first day alone), there is a beautiful moment in December 1914.  Along parts of the line, men from both sides of the trenches organised an unofficial truce and left their guns behind and went into no-man’s land to meet. They exchanged food and souvenirs. They mingled. Indeed, there are reports of some men even playing football matches. In such a brutal and dehumanising conflict, this was a good reminder of shared humanity.

4)    Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929

After mass sell offs of stocks began on Black Thursday, stock prices continued to decline until they collapsed on Black Tuesday.  A record 16 million stocks were traded on the New York Stock Exchange, prices collapsed and investors lost billions of dollars, marking the beginning of the Great Depression – the worst economic downturn in the history of the industrialised world. Severe unemployment, dramatic declines in output and political upheaval (the Depression even contributed to the rise of the Nazi Party) followed. Suffering was worldwide and people starved, unable to properly feed themselves as the global economy failed them for the first time.


5)    The creation of the atomic bomb, 1945

No list could be complete without including the invention of the atomic bomb (and its subsequent use on Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Global politics changed forever with its invention and mankind gained, for the first time, the power to completely annihilate life on earth. When the first successful atomic detonation occured in the New Mexico desert in the Trinity Test, Robert Oppenheimer, the head of the Manhattan project, quoted the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”.

6)    Olympic Podium Protest, 1968  

Following their success in the 1968 Olympic games, athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos (with Australian Peter Norman beside them) walked to the podium to receive their medals and then raised a black gloved hand and made a fist in a Black Power salute. This was done in protest against the conditions and discrimination faced by black Americans at home. Although it was a very controversial act – as the Olympics are supposed to be apolitical – and led to the athletes’ ostracism from the sporting establishment, it remains one of the great protests. The most recent example of this sentiment can be found in Kaepernick’s kneeling anthem protests - another example of the use of sport as a platform for change.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos.jpg

7)    The nuclear attack that wasn’t, 26 September, 1983

An event that is not nearly as known as the others on the list, but arguably as if or more iconic than most of them, is the moment Stanislav Petrov single-handedly saved the world from nuclear destruction. Working as an officer in the USSR’s nuclear command and control centre, Petrov detected what appeared to be a nuclear launch from the USA – with missiles heading directly for the USSR. However, something seemed amiss and Petrov, rather than ordering a massive retaliation that would have initiated nuclear war and ended the world as we know it, ignored the warnings and disobeyed orders and protocol. It later turned out that a computer glitch had occurred and the launch was a false detection. Thanks to Petrov’s intuition, he saved the lives of many and it is possible that many of us would not be alive today if he had acted differently.

8)    Tiananmen Square Massacre, 1989

In 1989 students in China led protests calling for democracy, greater accountability of the government, and basic freedoms such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press. At its height, it is estimated that 1 million people assembled in China’s Tiananmen Square. These protests were brutally crushed by China’s military, much of which was captured by Western film crews and broadcast around the world. One image in particular is synonymous with this event and was seared into the West’s collective consciousness, that of Tank Man. Tank Man is the nickname of an unidentified protester who stood unarmed in front of an approaching tank and blocked its path, shifting his position as it tried to go around him. An unforgettable act of bravery.

Tiananmen_Square_protests_1989 (1).jpg

9)    The Fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989

In November 1989, as communism was collapsing all around Europe, the barrier that separated the communist East Berlin from the capitalist West came down. Germans were now free to cross and travel across the border as they wished. Aside from leading to German reunification, for many this marked the end of communism in Europe and was regarded as a major symbolic victory of the West in the Cold War.

10)  The Apollo 11 Moon Landing, July 20, 1969

“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. This moment, when man first left our world and landed on the moon, needs no introduction. Broadcasted live on television, this event was watched by millions and is one that continues to inspire us today. In a century of much brutality and suffering, it was a bright example of human ingenuity and our endless capacity to dream. To this day, it remains the only ‘world’ we have visited other than our own, but it will likely not be the last.


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