What makes an event important in history

What distinguishes historical events

For historians, events are milestones. You can use them to structure history. Most scientists agree that the modern age begins around 1500 AD. This turning point is linked, among other things, to the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus in 1492 and Martin Luther's posting of the theses in 1517, which heralded the Reformation. Historical events are more than just happenings. According to a definition by the historian Reinhart Koselleck, they divide time into before and after. Dirk van Laak, Professor of Contemporary History at the Justus Liebig University of Gießen:

"That means that an event leads out of the routine of everyday experience. It has to be something that does not fit into it, it is something that is not known, that is not common, that has not yet been understood."

Frank Bösch is a history professor and director of the Center for Contemporary History in Potsdam. He adds two things that make the event an event. First, the testimony. That means that an event must be observed. Second, the witness must share his observation with others. Since the modern era, this function has increasingly been taken over by the media. That's why Bösch also speaks of the media event:

"An event that is not communicated is not an event. If a person dies in the desert and nobody notices it, then it is a death, but not an event. However, if the media broadcast this and it is considered exceptional because if it is a prominent person, then it can only turn into a big event. "

According to Bösch, there are unexpected and staged events. Apollo 11, the first moon landing on July 21, 1969, is one of the staged. That means: the event was planned meticulously. NASA gave extensive information to journalists long before the flight. Many articles had already been written before landing and were only supplemented with the actual flight duration. The doctoral student Paul Berten is working on Apollo 11 at the University of Giessen. He thinks the mission actually had only one flaw. She was too perfect:

"Apollo 11 ran so perfectly, so seamlessly and was also described that way and, what you have to add, everything was already known. So there was nothing surprising, nothing new, so to speak. In the end, you already had all the images in simulations seen."

Apollo 11 was the media event par excellence: 600 million people, one sixth of the world's population at the time, sat in front of the television and watched it live. According to Frank Bösch, the media do not just transmit. They also offer a reading. They embed what is happening in what is already known, draw parallels to other events or tie in with established ideas. That gives them a specific meaning.

The moon landing was also interpreted. Western media stylized the astronauts as heroes who conquered space and the moon. This reading ties in with the so-called frontier story. Paul Berten:

"Yes, the frontier story refers to a myth that is actually inherent in the USA, very anchored in American culture, which describes this romanticization of the first pioneers in the Wild West. In the end, a heroic story with a little twist, in which the hostile environment is a very important one Rolle gets. And there is this place to be conquered in the frontier story, this very West, which is opened up by courageous men. "

The moon landing was a highly planned and staged event. As such, it succeeded. It worked technically and was at least interpreted by Western media as intended by NASA. Neil Armstrong already summed up their significance for historiography when he put his left foot on the earth's satellite: "One small step for a human being, one giant leap for humanity".

The 1972 Olympics should also be a staged event. The aim of the organizers was to give Germany a friendly and cosmopolitan face. However, that tragically failed. The Palestinian terrorist group "Black September" murdered eleven Israeli Olympians. In addition, five terrorists and one policeman died. The Olympic assassination belongs to the category of unexpected events. According to Frank Bösch, they are particularly suitable for dividing the time into a before and after:

"Especially with events like the 1972 Olympic Games, where the attack messes up the planned process, especially with events where the extraordinary emerges unexpectedly, these are points that actually shake people and the world into a before and an after subdivide. "

It is not always punctual, i.e. precisely delimited in time, what becomes an event in the historical sense. It happens over time as a reminder. This leads to a concentration of individual events, as Maren Röger from the German Historical Institute in Warsaw describes using the example of "Flight and Expulsion":

"It's a collective term that hides a whole chain of events. But everyone thinks when they hear the term 'flight and displacement' that they immediately know what it is about. And the common thing about 'flight and displacement' is that it is thought from the end, of the loss of the home that has taken place. While if you take a closer look at what flight and displacement was, you have a chain of individual events that could be very clearly differentiated from one another. We have a process that takes several years. Starting from 1944, from the flight from the Red Army, from the Soviet Army, and continues until the resettlement is almost complete in '46, '47, '48 - depending on which caesura is set. "

The factual core, what actually happened, plays a subordinate role for the cultural significance of events. What matters is how it is interpreted. For example, it is not clear whether Martin Luther actually nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg Castle Church. And Christopher Columbus wasn't the first European to set foot on America. This does not detract from the significance of these events for the turning point that separates the Middle Ages from the modern era.