Martin Luther nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral in 1517, the Renaissance, the battle of Trafalgar in 1805, Waterloo a decade later, the outbreak of the First World War in 1914….are all regarded by historians (well at least some of them) as ‘turning points’ in history. But what does this actually mean? In Martin Luther’s case, his actions precipitated the Reformation; the Renaissance marked the divide between medievalism and modernism; Trafalgar and Waterloo were landmark battles that marked Napoleon’s final defeat on sea and land; while the First World War marked the end of autocratic regimes and the beginnings of European-wide democratic systems of government. But this is a retrospective judgement, a construct historians use to delineate the distinction between events and those events that have a retrospective significance. Take, for instance, Luther’s action. There had been criticism of the Papacy almost since it was established a thousand years earlier: it was too worldly, too corrupt, too concerned with economic and political aggrandisement than spiritual purity. In nailing his list of criticisms to the cathedral door, Luther was doing what others had done in the past and would do so in the future: he was suggesting that some reform of the Church was necessary to make in more spiritual and concerned with the spiritual needs of the people. It was a petition seeking support, comment and debate. Luther may have been seeking a re-formation of the Church as an institution but only later did he seek a doctrinal reformation. Had Luther’s criticism been addressed by the Church would there have been a Reformation at all? Possibly but equally possibly not.
So what is a turning point in history? If one accepts that the past is a linear progression from A to B (and it’s a pretty messy linear progression anyway), then a turning point marks the point at which individuals, groups, nations or states move in a radically different direction. It’s a bit like going up the M1 and intending to come off at junction 25 but deciding, for whatever reason, to leave at junction 23. You may not have planned it -- and turning points are almost always not planned – but it seemed a good idea at the time. Only later do you realise that it literally marked a turning point. Life, now as then, is made up of choices and possibilities and we all have pasts that could have led to different presents. Individuals in the past had myriad possibilities just as we do and it is historians who judge whether decision C marked a turning point or not and inevitably historians disagree over this and there is further confusion since what are turning points change over time. Take, for instance, the Suffragette movement. The early historiography of the movement established a linear connection between its growing militancy and women (some at least) obtaining the vote in 1918. More recently historians have suggested that militancy far from helping this process of voting changes possibly delayed it and that the role of non-militant suffragists was far more important in persuading male politicians that giving women the vote did not threaten Britain’s emerging democracy. So which was the turning point, the formation of the Nation Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in 1897 or the formation of the Women’s Suffrage and Political Union six years later? The significance of particular events in the Second World War also illustrates the problem of defining turning points. Which of the following marked a turning point? The defeat of the U-boat threat in the Atlantic, the Battle of Britain, Pear Harbor, El Alamein and D-Day. All? Some? None? Or were they simply part of the process that led to the real turning point: the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945?
The use of turning points is a historiographical short-hand for something of significance, a point where things change irremediably. But it is always a matter of debate and argument. If there ever was a collective noun for historians, it would be a disagreement.