My word: When dates with history are lost in cyberspace

This weekend is the 81st anniversary of Kristallnacht. Not a round anniversary but worth commemorating every year.

DESCENDANTS OF the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps prepare for the centenary re-enactment in 2017 of the World War I cavalry charge known as the ‘Battle of Beersheba.’ (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
DESCENDANTS OF the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps prepare for the centenary re-enactment in 2017 of the World War I cavalry charge known as the ‘Battle of Beersheba.’
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
I used to work with an editor who hated anniversaries. Not weddings and birthdays, but anniversaries of the historic kind. He mainly objected to the widespread practice of marking centenaries and full decades of any particular event. These he treated as an occupational hazard and he advocated instead for articles and opinion pieces marking such things as “87 years since...” and “53 years of...” It seemed like every day was a holiday – but very few were celebrating the same time he was.
I thought of him recently when I read more than one “Back to school”-type article (another journalism staple) in which education experts called for a move away from traditional, formal teaching in the classroom. Some went as far as claiming that in the age of Google, children do not need to learn events and dates by rote as they could look them up on the Web.
While I understand the need to adapt teaching methods – to keep kids engaged and to help prepare them for a world in which knowledge does indeed lie in the palms of their hands via their phones – I nonetheless worry about how children will know what to search for without having learned the basics. Relying on Google in this sense is similar to claiming children don’t need to know how to add and subtract in the age of calculators.
And what happens to history without context? Historical events aren’t just a date in time, they were preceded by happenings that helped form them and they in turn influenced what came next. The Internet helps people around the globe connect with one another but it doesn’t necessarily help in connecting the dots. Algorithms do not supply all the answers.
Of course the Web can be used to great advantage. Documentaries and TED talks provide endless information. But if the viewer knows nothing about the background, there’s a danger of ending up lost in cyberspace, without a timeline.
If he hasn’t changed his opinion by now, my former colleague is probably having a hard time this year. What 2019 lacks in roundness – starkly missing that “0” or “5” that automatically makes a year stick out – it compensates for with historic events.
Among the noteworthy anniversaries this year are, in no particular order: 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall; 40 years since the development of the Sony Walkman; 50 years since the moon landing; 50 years since Woodstock; 100 years since Bauhaus architecture left its mark; 40 years since the Iranian Revolution; 25 years since the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan; 40 years since the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt; 75 years since D-Day; 80 years since the start of World War II; and 100 years since the Treaty of Versailles was signed.
The words “in no particular order,” are, in this case, disingenuous. You can Google them if you want, but D-Day has no context outside of World War II and there would not be a “Second” World War without the “First”; the Treaty of Versailles brought World War I to a close while arguably creating some of the conditions that led to the Second World War. You can examine them individually, but the events can’t be understood in isolation.
Able to teach and inspire through personality and interesting tidbits in the pre-Google age, my high school history teacher, the late Miss Morant, explained how the development of railways was a contributing factor to the First World War: Whereas in the past, mobilizing troops and getting them to the borders was a long process, with the advent of rail soldiers quickly arrived to the frontlines, escalating tensions.
Moving on, Woodstock and the counterculture movement of the Swinging Sixties make no sense without the context of the Vietnam War, the Cold War and the end of the post-WWII austerity of the 1950s. My favorite Sony Walkman trivia, by the way, is the opinion that its advent marked the dawn of the age of individualism. People could choose to walk out and about listening to their own personal favorite songs through earphones; listening to music suddenly became less of a social activity.
And if you agree with me that there’s no such thing as useless facts, this is the year you could be celebrating the 40th anniversary of the creation of Trivial Pursuit.
MY DESIRE to preserve context and a place on history’s continuum is being challenged by current events. Of course it is often difficult to provide a full background in every news item, article, movie or TV series, but the choice of what to leave out is as telling as the decision of what to include.
This month in Israel, for example, the combination of the ongoing political stalemate and the anniversary of the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin (albeit 24 years, not a round anniversary) has led to a lot of reexamination of the circumstances surrounding his death. Charges of “incitement” abound. According to many – if not most – on the Left, “incitement” killed both Rabin and the Oslo process. But look on the timeline: Along with mounting hate speech (some of it instigated we now know by agent provocateurs) was the increasing number of victims of terrorism.
I utterly condemn the assassination of Rabin (and violence by extremists at either end of the spectrum), but it can’t be seen without the context of the Hamas bombing campaign.
Similarly, talking about the Israeli “occupation of the West Bank” makes no sense without considering the attempts by the Arab world to eliminate Israel in the war of 1948 and the 1967 Six Day War. “Occupation” didn’t happen in a vacuum. And look back and you’ll find Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, rooted in history and uprooted in war.
In a historical twist – or a twisted history – Palestinians this week marked the (unround) 102nd anniversary of the Balfour Declaration by calling on Britain to apologize for its pledge to support the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.” But the tragedy of the Palestinians does not stem from the Balfour Declaration. It comes from the lack of a leadership willing to create a flourishing state alongside Israel instead of trying to destroy it.
The Iranian Revolution wasn’t the result of some Big Bang. The oppression and ostentatiousness of the shah played a role in his own demise, especially combined with a period of inflation in Iran. (Miss Morant also used to note the role of the educated middle class in revolutions.) The ayatollahs’ takeover of Iran – now the Islamic Republic of Iran – took place 40 years ago, but the resulting tremors can still be felt in the growth of Islamist terrorism (both Sunni and Shi’ite) and the realignments in the Muslim and Arab worlds.
Much has changed since hundreds of Iranian students took over the US embassy in Tehran 40 years ago this month – holding the staff captive for a whopping 444 days. But as French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr expressed it 170 years ago: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Taking into consideration the history of post-revolution Iran, it’s wiser to assume that the regime’s drive for nuclear capabilities has nothing to do with a desire to make progress in nuclear medical research. (Especially keeping in mind what – or rather who – the ayatollahs describe as a “cancer.”)
This weekend is the 81st anniversary of Kristallnacht. Not a round anniversary but worth commemorating every year. The Night of Broken Glass marks the Nazi organized pogrom during which Jewish homes, businesses, institutions and synagogues were destroyed and in Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland. Some 100 Jews were killed and thousands were arrested, simply for the crime of being Jewish. We now know what happened next (or should know): The Holocaust and World War II. Kristallnacht was a turning point: A turning point for the worst.
There is nothing new under the sun. Hajo Holborn, the American-German historian who died 60 years ago, said: “History gives answers only to those who know how to ask questions.”
The Jewish religion is founded on the biblical admonition: “Zachor!” “Remember!”
There’s no present without a past. And there’s no future if we don’t know and learn from what came before.
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