Asked whether 9/11 could be seen as a watershed, he said: “All I would say is what [former Chinese premier] Zhou Enlai (周恩來) said when he was asked about the consequences of the French revolution — it’s too early to tell.”
Historians distrust immediate judgments: Evans, a purist, thinks the interpretative fog might start to lift after about 30 or 40 years.
“What interests journalists and the reading public is often very different from what interests historians,” he said. “Journalists are interested in the moment, whereas historians write about longer trends.”
Overy makes a similar point.
“The headlines,” he said, “will mask some of the underlying continuities, or the things that were not in fact damaging or dangerous but nonetheless contribute a great deal to molding the future.”
And it’s not just journalists who deal in headlines, he said. Some historians are attracted by them, too, overplaying the “moments of drama.”
Niall Ferguson, whose most recent book is The Ascent of Money, thinks all decades are tumultuous.
“Name one that wasn’t,” he said.
I offered the 1950s. His riposte was instant.
“You’ve got an enormous upheaval over the Suez crisis, the collapse of empires around the world, the Soviets going into Budapest ... There’s not a decade without a crisis. A decade’s an artificial construct: we’re always characterizing them because it’s a journalistically attractive thing to do, but these are arbitrary time periods and very few historical phenomena keep like trains to those time frames,” he said.
Ferguson believes our economic crash is more akin to the one in the 1970s than the 1930s, and that proper remedial action has now been taken.
The expenses furor is “a completely parochial British story, totally trivial, the opposite of world-historical,” he said.
Historians pride themselves on seeing the truly significant trends that lie beneath our transient, often sensationalist, concerns, and Ferguson believes he can already see the one that counts.
“The big turning point is nothing to do with radical Islam or, for that matter, the United States,” he said. “The biggest turning point of our lifetimes is the transformation of China, which started in 1978. That’s the game-changer.”
The last word, though, must go to Eric Hobsbawm, here to mark the 90th anniversary of the Treaty of Versailles — an event that his birth predated by two years. Hobsbawm neatly manages to have it both ways. The noughties are a watershed because of the mid-decade economic meltdown, but it is too early to say how far-reaching the consequences will be.
“Clearly the break in the world economy is the main thing that distinguishes this decade,” he said. “It’s the end, it seems to me, of a period of world history that began in the early 1970s. That period had begun with the failure to operate of the old Keynesian balanced economy of the postwar world, which had worked extremely well — better, actually, than anything since.”
He dismisses the war on terror as “a public-relations phrase invented by the Bushes.” The instability in Pakistan could be a new source of danger, but again it is too early to say precisely how the story will develop.
So when will historians have a settled view of this decade?
“I don’t think historians will ever have a settled view,” Hobsbawm said. “The view depends on where you stand. Just as I, looking back on the 1950s, have a different view now from what I would have had in the 1970s, so in the 2030s people will have a different view from what they will have in the 2040s. I don’t think there is such a thing as a settled view.”