Insofar as people did see it coming, WHAT did they see coming? Something like the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, I suppose. Imagine the First World War had been over by the Spring of 1915, which I'm sure in August 1914 was a widespread supposition. It wouldn't have been the First World War. The 20th century wouldn't have happened. No Russian Revolution, no Irish War of Independence, no sudden break-up of the Austrian and Ottoman empires, no Hitler, no Second World War, no Holocaust, no Hiroshima, no State of Israel, no 9/11. Some of those no’s are questionable but you get the point. It was the war’s unforeseen military history that made it into a cataclysmic event.
But what about "the lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime "? British foreign secretary Edward Grey is supposed to have said this staring out upon St James Park as lights were being extinguished on the dawn of August 4, 1914. So maybe here’s at least one key player who actually foresaw the First World War’s dreadful consequences. I should be interested to know if he really did utter these immortal words, and really was that prescient.
Talking of turning points that weren’t, when I was at school the Renaissance was meant to have occurred in the 15th century. Now historians talk of the 12th century Renaissance. Last year I heard of an 11th century Renaissance, and I think I may even have come across a 10th century Renaissance. Just take it back a century or two, and there won't be any need for a Renaissance at all. And at the time? Did anyone know the Renaissance was happening? The OED says that in English the word was used first in 1845.
These musings began 10 days ago when I heard the historian Philipp von Rummel interviewed on the BBC’s Today programme. He suggested that the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 may not have been the cataclysmic event that is usually portrayed, or that Saints Jerome and Augustine took it to be (neither of whom were there). No naked savages as in the Sylvester painting. In this interview von Rummel didn’t call it a turning point; though since it was viewed as one at time, and we still think of it as one, does that make it one? Does thinking make it so?
An historical conference will be held in Rome 4-6 November 2010, dealing with the event, its context and its impact.
As to the Visigoths, in 2006 I went looking for them in Spain and found that far from barbarians who had destroyed the Roman Empire, as I learnt at school, modern historians regard them as “late Romans”. Another turning point which wasn’t. See a note I made at the time.