Looking at the current political and cultural scene in many societies, one sees a pattern of tension between on one hand modernists and progressives, who see themselves as moving forward and being on the right side of history, part of some Hegelian historical process that is almost inevitable.

And on the other hand conservatives and traditionalists who see the new values and cultural norms being imposed on them as aberrant and irrational, and wish to return their society or community back to the way it was decades or centuries before.

Consider for example gay marriage, there are those who ideally would like to go back to where marriage was between a man and woman, i.e they want to reverse the changes that were brought about by the LGBTQ movement. But I wonder, has any such reversal ever been achieved before?

Are there any historical cases, were there was a definite move towards a new ideological or cultural direction, which then got reversed by elements of the society which wished to return the "old ways"?

I'm tempted to say that the decline of various empires (Roman, Persian, Arab, etc...) might be interpreted as such reversals, but upon further thinking, I don't see anything specially ideological about those declines, nor was any particular group pushing for some sort of reversal at the time (were there such groups?).

  • 6
    Reactionaries sometimes do take over. For instance the Weimar Republic became Nazi Germany... Jun 26, 2019 at 7:53
  • 3
    I'm not sure that I've the knowledge to do an answer justice but the English Civil War established a republic that was subsquently overthrown and the monarchy was restored (in modified form).
    – Steve Bird
    Jun 26, 2019 at 9:00
  • 3
    @AlexKinman: Weimar was also characterized by progressive attitudes towards feminism, homosexuality, etc. Berlin in those days was widely reviled as depraved by social conservatives. Jun 26, 2019 at 9:07
  • 9
    Prohibition in the US might fit the bill. Jun 26, 2019 at 10:56
  • 1
    @Annatar Before christianism, both (active) homosexual and heterosexual sex with early teens was deemed ok, if it wasn't rape. This trend was abolished on accounts of being sinful and it hasn't been reverted. Actually, sex with minors is nowadays at its lowest point of social acceptance ever - just a few decades ago it was regarded far more possitively as long as it was considered mutually consented.
    – Rekesoft
    Jun 26, 2019 at 11:35

4 Answers 4


I think the best examples are provided by post-WW1 emancipation of women in some Muslim countries.

The most salient episodes are Turkey (where Mustafa Kemal made women abandon hijab by requiring that prostitutes wear them) and Iran (where police removed hijabs by force). The result was that by 1970-ies women wore miniskirts and were going to colleges in Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan.

These changes have been successfully reversed by the Islamic Revolution, elections of islamists in Turkey, and Taliban. It remains to be seen whether these reversals are permanent or temporary.

See also Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa.

  • women abandon hijab by requiring that prostitutes wear them Very interesting strategy ! Maybe today we should force prostitutes smoke and to abandon trash on the streets in order for other people to stop doing that.
    – Bregalad
    Jun 28, 2019 at 7:01

I'll answer this with a firm, clear, "yes and no."

First, in an important sense the question answers itself: for a shift to be seen as large scale, it will usually have to be big enough that it can't be reversed. If it can be reversed, then history will probably look back and say that it was just a small movement that ultimately failed. (Can you really make a useful distinction between a movement that blossomed and failed and one which succeeded and was then rolled back?)

Secondly, history rarely (maybe never) repeats. The very fact of a cultural shift changes the culture enough so that even if it's ultimately undone in large part, it has a long-term effect.

Thirdly, sure. There are lots of cases:

  • Nazism. In 1939 it looked like it was here to stay. It had adherents world-wide. Modern Germans -- nearly everyone -- is now repelled by it.

  • Communism. Many intellectuals in the US and Europe were convinced communists in the 1930s and Khrushchev was still planning to bury us as late as 1960. Who is actually a communist today other than a few elderly people?

  • Look at the changes in sexual attitudes in England: Puritanism in the 1600s, the Regency in the early 1800s, Victorian morals later in the same century, and England was swinging 75 years later. You'd almost get whiplash.

  • On a much smaller scale, fear of crime led to a big law and order movement featuring long sentences in the US in the late 1900s. Now a consensus seems to be developing that this wasn't a very good idea and the laws are starting to be rolled back.

  • Japan was isolationist for centuries, then imperialist for 75 years, and now has been almost pacifist for another 75 years.

I think you'll find that there are many ideas which gain a following, sometimes a very big following, and then disappear. And there are many others that just keep on going.

  • I think "reversed by those who opposed it" was meant as "reversed by means internal to the society" or something. Like, presenting a good argument against communism, isn't of militarily? ... That crime one... Maybe, but I wonder how much of a lack of evidence is wanted...
    – Malady
    Jun 27, 2019 at 11:54
  • @Mark Olson - "Who is actually a communist today other than a few elderly people?" Most of Bernie Sanders supporters.
    – paulj
    Feb 24, 2020 at 17:50

In the Byzantine Empire, iconoclasm was a significant cultural and ideological shift in the 8th century that was successfully reversed in the mid-9th century after an unsuccessful reversal earlier. It's quite possible that this happens most easily in monarchies, for obvious reasons.

Another example would be the reversal of religious toleration in 17th century France, with the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.

More broadly you could view the counter-Reformation through this lens, at least in places like Austria, where significant cultural shifts toward Protestantism were reversed


My example is in Australia in my home state of Victoria. Two days ago, after 20 years of struggle, voluntary euthanasia became legal. It uses the Oregon model of the US. It allows self admimistered euthanasia for terminally ill people. Or certified doctors udner strict conditions can administer the euthanasia drugs.

The first attempt in Australia to pass a euthanasia bill was in the late 1990's in the Northern Territory. This was complex because there were two issues: euthanasia and its status as a territory. The opposition from the Australian Federal Government wasn't just loud - it was vicious. They stopped the Northern Territory from having euthansaia. But more than that a rump of religious, conservative politicians passed a bill that stopped the Northern territory from being able to attempt passing the bill again! That still applies 20 years later! That is vicious!

Now to my amazement I am in a state that is one of the few places in the world with legal euthanasia. I never thought that I would live to see it. As a supporter of it since the early 90's I am happy. Passing it involved getting votes from both sides of state poltiics including religious and conservative law makers who decided to support it.

It's not done and dusted yet. It is law. But there are some nasty party tricks that the conservative, often religious Australian Federal government could attempt. They could block the importation of the euthanasia drugs. They have done this in other issues such as safe injecting room trials for drug addicts.

The reason for most people not knowing about this historic event is that law makers have learnt to keep it a low profile; one of the mistakes of the Northern Territory in the 90's was to draw attention to it. For instance they allowed "euthanasia tourism". Whereas in this law only people who have lived in Victoria for a long time are allowed to access it.

What a struggle over 20 years to allow people to finally have the right to decide how they die with a terminal illness that causes severe pain. Everyone in Victoria who was involved is a hero.

  • 1
    The question was about ideological shifts which have been successfully reversed, not about ideological shifts themselves.
    – Bregalad
    Jun 28, 2019 at 6:56
  • 1
    Unless you can clarify where the reversal happens this does not appear to be answering the question as asked.
    – Semaphore
    Jun 28, 2019 at 9:46

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.