Five Partings of Way in World History

A Comparison- Translated by Bradley Schmidt and Bryn Roberts

by Gottfried Schramm (Author)
©2014 Monographs 381 Pages


This comparative analysis argues that there were four or, more likely, five major turning points of world history, whose lasting effects are being felt to this day. These turning points show striking resemblances to each other: An apparently coherent community of shared convictions and a shared way of life splits unexpectedly in two, with one section swerving off on the road to a radically new set of values. This has probably been true of the rise of monotheism in opposition to the existing polytheistic norms of Oriental cultures. It has been true of the primitive Christian Church breaking away from Judaism. It was true of the Protestants breaking away from Rome. It also has been true for two secular revolutions: the independence of the United States of America inventing the republican order of representative democracy, and the Russian Revolution, when the revolutionaries decided to give up on peaceful socialism and resort to violence.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Chapter I: By Way of Preface: the Result
  • 1. Similar Processes at the Beginning of Five Ways of Life
  • 2. A Content-based Connection between widely separated Situations
  • 3. Regarding Several Terms
  • 4. Regarding the Origin of this Book
  • Chapter II: In the 13th Century BCE: Emigrants From Egypt and Monotheism
  • 1. Israel’s Beginnings as Scholarly Challenge
  • 2. A Group of Small Animal Shepherds and the Reform of their Religion
  • 3. Midian
  • 4. Akhenaten and Moses
  • 5. A Cultural Transfer from Farmers to Herders
  • 6. Midian Once Again
  • Chapter III: Around 30 – 50 CE: Galilee, Antioch, and Christianity
  • 1. The approaching End of the World as Horizon of Expectation of Pious Jews of the 1st Century
  • 2. The Principle of Radical Pacifism before the Background of Peaceful Conditions
  • 3. Two Proclaimers of Judgment Day: John the Baptist and Jesus
  • 4. The Pharisees, the Law, and the Gentiles
  • 5. Jerusalem, the Priesthood, and the Temple
  • 6. The Community of the Resurrected
  • 7. Stephen and the Flight of the Christians in the Syrian Diaspora
  • 8. Cities around the Eastern Mediterranean as the First Mission Fields
  • 9. The Separate Paths of Christians and Jews
  • Chapter IV: 1510 – 1530: a Fissure through Central Europe and Protestantism
  • 1. The Place of the Reformation in the Series of great Upheavals
  • 2. Old and New Piety
  • 3. Neighbors in Spirit: Johannes von Staupitz and Martin Luther
  • 4. The Outcome of an Encounter in the Small Town of Wittenberg in Electoral Saxony
  • 5. Cities and Their Pulpits
  • 6. Resonance throughout Society
  • 7. Protestant Body Politic and the Emergence of Normative Confessions of Faith
  • 8. Early Modernity as Confessional Age
  • Chapter V: From 1760 – 1780: the English in North America and Representative Democracy
  • 1. Britannia: the might of the motherland and its admire political culture
  • 2. Legislative Assemblies with Broad-based Electorates
  • 3. A Society without Privileged
  • 4. The Enlightened, Republican Reordering of the Liberated Colonies
  • 5. The Formative Phase Rolls On
  • 6. Strict Separation of Church and State
  • 7. A World Takes Note
  • Chapter VI: 1860-1880: The Russian Intelligentsia and Revolutionary Socialism
  • 1. A New awakening on the Edge of Europe
  • 2. Atheism as Gateway to a Community of Protest
  • 3. Revolutionary Thinking Transplanted to Europe’s Eastern Edge
  • 4. The Emancipation Reform of 1861: Parting of the Ways for Reformers and Radicals
  • 5. The Uprising Begins: Proclamations, Student Unrest, and Joining the People
  • 6. Short Cuts Lead to Long Delays: Agitators and Terrorists Organize
  • 7. Blinds against Liberalism, Capitalism, Statehood, and the Rule of Law
  • 8. A Movement Without Normative Texts
  • 9. The Inheritance of the Formative Phase: The Strength to Endure
  • Chapter VII: Progress in Russia
  • 1. Strengths of the Victors of 1917
  • 2. Weaknesses of the Losers of 1991

← 6 | 7 → Chapter I
By Way of Preface: the Result

1. Similar Processes at the Beginning of Five Ways of Life

The paths we travel can fork without warning. Having never traveled these paths before, without signs to show us the way, we do not know which direction we should go. We stand – as Hercules once did – at a crossroads. We must choose.

Societies and cultures also come to crossroads from time to time. In this book we will be dealing with historic situations in which some of the traveling companions continued marching straight ahead, while others turned off. These forks in the road not only divided one path into two, but also divided the people who walked along those paths. A community of conviction bifurcates into two camps with differing convictions. Precisely because they are aware of and retain their shared heritage, they do not accept the necessity of separation and become entrenched against each other.

At certain moments, new ways of life emerged that marched in opposition to the culture of origin. Once sharply contrasting, the grinding, aggravating contradictions between old and new might not always remain as clear as when the camps were formed. Today, there are movements toward reconciliation between Protestants and Catholics, even Jews and Christians. By now, American democracy and English parliamentarianism with a monarchical head are but variations of one and the same political system. In Europe, previously socialist states have turned to a democratic line that they had long reviled as merely masking class rule. Where communism survives, it is outside the West from which it arose and its goal has been fundamentally altered to modernize stunted countries through firm central control. This has little in common with the series we are tracing.

We devote our attention to newly developed communities of conviction, although the old traditional cultures – their native soil and opposite – will always remain present in our deliberations. The movements that formed each of these breaking ranks are strikingly similar, particularly in their formative phase, during which they developed their lasting characteristics. If this has not yet been noticed, this is because these upheavals are so far apart in space and time. They are chronologically spread over three thousand years: from the 13th century BCE to the 19th century CE. They unfolded in scenes scattered across a vast area, encompassing ← 7 | 8 → the northwestern outskirts of Egypt, the hinterland of the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as Central Europe, North America, and Russia. The points of contention over which cultures broke also differ. Three of the cases, which led to reorientation of religion in antiquity and early modernity, were followed by two upheavals in the 18th and 19th centuries that were more concerned with fairer political and social ways of life. As such, it is unsurprising that things so chronologically, spatially, and substantially disparate have not yet been examined and surveyed as typologically related.

It is time to make up for that. We will be concerned with the following situations in world history:

The appearance of Moses, with whom Israel’s path to monotheism began.

The short-lived, abruptly terminated public activities of Jesus of Nazareth, which continued into Christianity.

The tumultuous emergence of the Reformation in Central Europe as the beginning of Protestantism.

Thirteen North American colonies’ renunciation of the British motherland and the establishment of modern, representative democracy.

The formation of revolutionary cells in the Czarist Russia between 1860 and 1880, from which Communism would ultimately emerge.

Despite their differences, these five upheavals portray a whole bundle of common systemic characteristics. It appears we can entirely rule out this particular grouping in other cases. The concurrence between these five cases form a list of ten common characteristics.

The First Similarity

Let us set aside the Mosaic Reform, about which we know very little with certainty. In four other cases, significant cultures, which were also communities of conviction, unexpectedly drifted apart in two different directions at a crossroads. While some members followed the old course, others found their way to a fundamental reorientation that placed key areas of life placed on new intellectual supports. Altering the basis of legitimacy, upon which the previous way of life had rested, resulted in numerous individual reforms. In doing so, the trail-blazers in the second through the fourth cases, perhaps even in the first case, did not intend to overthrow the existing order, but rather to renew it. Traced to its core, its true nature, a culture of origin should perfect what is inherent in it. The first Christians were concerned with a reformed Israel. The aim of the Reformation was reformed Christianity. The founders of North American democracy wanted to create a reformed England on the new continent. The Russian ← 8 | 9 → revolutionaries of 1860 ultimately had a democratic ideal in mind that did away with the inequality of political rights within society and rendered everyone equal, including in their economic situation. (This is precisely the original meaning of Social Democracy). This appears to be an extension of the French and American Revolutions. However, the achievement that was ultimately produced in Russia represents an exception in our series. It was not a reform democracy intended to cleanse and perfect a valuable heritage. Rather, it signified an unprecedented radical break; an irreverent, do-or-die reform that threw the most valuable intellectual, political, and legal achievements of Western civilization overboard.

In contrast, I carefully suspect Moses fits neatly into our series. For the time being, the fact that he wanted to renew the religion of his fathers and simultaneously create a reformed Midian should be added as a mysterious formula. This will be deciphered in the first part of our considerations.

The First Explanation

The fact that Christians appropriated the entirety of the Jewish Bible fits the concept of renewal. Even if it gradually opened its attitude towards orthodox doctrines, Protestantism held to the traditional creed. It severely distanced itself from the Antitrinitarians, who shook the traditional teaching of the triune God. With the Ten Commandments, a central element of the normative heritage was assumed into the corpus of Protestant creedal texts.

It is characteristic for North America that an entirely new political type was introduced with representative democracy based on a written constitution. The intent was not to do away with, but rather to continue and perfect the English heritage, for example in firmly established civil rights and liberties and a legal system without codified laws, even as the the European continent was already on the path to modern, systematically structured statutes in the 18th century. But the German Social Democrats – with deeper consequences than their initial dreams of revolution – had sought an alliance with radical, but not with socialist Democrats. Thus up to this point we are dealing with renewers.

At first sight this is also true for the revolutionaries of 1860, because they viewed themselves as the continuing and completing the achievements of the French Revolution of 1789, even, indirectly, of the preceding American Revolution. But the pattern of renewal and perfection of the traditional was already shifted before it was clearly formulated because the Russian radicals had grown up far from living democracy and never learned to develop a reform program in the following and advancement of the order that was reached in developed countries. Instead of an expansion of valuable traditions they quickly dreamed ← 9 | 10 → of a demolition from which an ideal world would arise. The task of showing that the Russian radicals do in fact belong to our series, yet simultaneously fall outside the parameters in several fundamental specialties, will be a major theme and highlight throughout this book.

The Second Similarity

New cultures that emerged from the five awakenings superseded the cultures of origin. Each time, the separation of the camps took place in an amazingly short period of time. Barring the Mosaic reform, of which we do not know the speed for certain, we have, without exception, a period of about two decades. No more time was necessary to stake out the outline of Christianity, Protestantism, representative Democracy, and revolutionary Socialism.

The Second Explanation

The suggested two decade period is a rough attempt to connect far flung events with a common denominator. It is common to estimate the formative phase of Christianity to have been forty years– from the fall of Jerusalem to the writing of the oldest gospel. But it can be argued differently: around 50 CE, when the church planting in Rome made strides and Paul achieved the beginnings of a Christian literature, the new movement had already formed firm, fundamentally lasting contours. With the reformation and the American Revolution, we must calculate a preparatory phase to reach twenty years. Note that we are not looking for physical laws as in natural sciences, but rather approximate similarities. It goes without explanation that the five forks in the road that led to new and stable communities of conviction developed very quickly. This should give us food for thought and make us curious, Technical inventions or other principles of success that sometimes spread like wildfire were not exactly asserted in our cases. Rather, it was a transformation in the realm of fundamental beliefs, which according to a rule of thumb of historic experience, in no way tend to precipitate rapid upheaval.

A glance toward two other new ways of experiencing the world that continues to have an effect today. The new attitude towards life beginning in Italy, which Jacob Burckhardt classically described in his The Culture of the Renaissance in Italy, crystalized into a long process that finally developed into a first Enlightenment. Nearly two hundred years were necessary before the foundations of the new, mathematically formulated worldview of classical physics was developed: from the Commentariolus, in which Nicolaus Copernicus first sketched his heliocentric planetary system at the beginning of the 16th century, to Isaac ← 10 | 11 → Newton’s Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica from 1687, in which astronomical insights of Copernicus and Kepler were unified in revolutionary physics to a sole, closed system by Galileo Galilei. Both processes are chosen as counterexamples that have also deeply influenced the consciousness of the West, and therefore took much more time than each of our five cases.

The Third Similarity

None of the upheavals could replace the way of life that was intended to be renewed. Polytheism, Judaism, Catholicism, the English Kingdom with its traditional constitution, Western Democracy and its capitalistic economic system: they all possessed enough vitality to survive the challenge. But also to survive the challenger. This is how it came to separation that has been long-lasting, or even final in the second and third upheavals, for the time being. These crossroads of history have more deeply influenced the face of the world in which we Western people live than all other turning points that become apparent in a long history.

The Third Explanation

In the two last cases, the contrast – exposed at the crossroads and initially hostile – no longer exists. As already hinted at, these contrasts cancelled themselves at various times and due to various reasons. By contrast, in several other cleavages that continue to the present, if the two communities of conviction opposing each other do not want to give up their identity at any price, there are at least convergences that relativize the old partitions. More than ever, Jews and Christians have become aware that they agree on their historical roots and their spiritual core – the belief in the one and only God. At the same time, a divided Christianity comes together – with even more apparent results – in an ecumenical movement from which firm institutions of cooperation have emerged. Christians are beginning to heed that everything that separates their confessions is much less important than the shared foundation. Thus the emergence of hard fronts between firm and often dogmatic convictions, which alternatively consider themselves the nonnegotiable truth, is by no means the last word in world history. The direction that it proceeds has always been unpredictable and will remain so.

The Fourth Similarity

Characteristic of the type of upheaval we are following is that it was not in the service of certain social or cultural sectors of society, although at least twice – ← 11 | 12 → around 1520 in Germany and around 1860 in Russia – the reorientation arose from a tightly delineated social milieu and reflected its intellectual imprint. None of the upheavals were the expression of any particular interest that was near and dear to a certain social or cultural segment of society. Instead, every time there was a message for all: towards a goal beyond class barriers. With the exception of the fifth case, where the message initially did not reach the peasants who should have been converted, the echo of upheaval was not found to be restricted to certain circles of society.

An egalitarian ethos and pathos belonged to the spirit that filled the new communities of conviction. Instead of elites, previously elevated through privileges and often inherited, representatives of a new kind emerged, which often achieved the position through popular election. Instead of insisting on traditional privileges, they earned their authority as functional elites.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (January)
Monotheism Judaism Christianity Reformation Revolution Democracy
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 381 pp.

Biographical notes

Gottfried Schramm (Author)

Gottfried Schramm held the chair of Modern and East European History at the University of Freiburg (Germany) from 1965 to 1994. He has published widely on the history of Russia, Poland, and the Balkans.


Title: Five Partings of Way in World History
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