In hindsight: Anniversaries become useful when we use them to ask hard questions about the present.

by Paul Steege

The year 2018 will be a big year for historical anniversaries. But do they do any good?

In just the past month, media outlets have revisited the January 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam. They’ve looked ahead to the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I in November 1918. Even the first jazz concert at Carnegie Hall in January 1938 has garnered renewed attention, eighty years after Benny Goodman and his band took to that renowned stage.

Media outlets are using anniversaries to look back at the past in interesting and sometimes innovative ways. But how do we decide which events make the cut? Is it enough to declare that those events “still resonate today?”

In fact, it’s never enough for people just to look back at that past, whether knowingly, in shocked outrage, or with a sense of longing. Unless we ask questions about what we see, we won’t gain further understanding about that past or how it relates to the present.

The New York Times has reimagined the tumultuous events of 1968 as a series of social media posts. The online feature is set against a backdrop of four photographs from the year’s events. Readers who allow their cursor to linger over each image encounter a series of pop-up notices, Twitter-like summaries of news items from the Times with links to the actual stories.

This feature functions as a kind of time machine — an impression reiterated by the fact that the application linking readers to archival newspaper articles is called “Times Machine.” The editors seem to assume that readers in 2018 will not require much additional explanation. On an emotional level at least, 1968 “feels familiar,” even if we have to retrospectively imagine cell phone technology as a way to process events in real time.

Screenshot of imagined 1968 “alerts” created by New York Times editors. Part of an interactive feature, “50 Years Later, It Feels Familiar: How America Fractured in 1968,” originally published on January 15, 2018 in The New York Times U.S. edition online.
It’s never enough just to look back. Unless we ask questions about what we see, we won’t gain further understanding about that past or how it relates to the present.

A Washington Post article pointed to 1968 as a year whose chaos “defined our world.” Referencing a series of panels organized at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, recently held in Washington D.C., the writer used the historians who had organized that series to help explain his headline. He remarked on a “generational shift” in historical scholarship as younger historians turn “away from first-person, character-driven accounts in favor of more detached analysis” that examines the period “through a global lens that isn’t tainted by nostalgia.”

The article’s author described a shift from a chronological looking back — seeing 1968 in relationship to “current events” — to a spatial perspective, exploring how 1968, that “quintessentially international year,” in the words of some of those younger historians, “shaped — and was shaped — by global events.” From this perspective, a generational shift in the academy might also help shift public conversations beyond mere nostalgia.

As the editors of a journal on the 1960s argued in their inaugural 2008 issue, “Nostalgia, in its most primitive form, entails the indiscriminate love of a particular past because it is one’s own.” They explained their scholarly engagement with that decade as a “more discerning” sort of affection. They recognize history not just as a path to the present but rather as part of that present. The editors thus call for us to recognize the sixties at once as a product of retrospect, of cultural constructs that developed at various times and places, and of ongoing battles over memory.

The crowd in front of New York Public Library on the day the armistice was signed to end World War I, November 11, 1918. Photo courtesy U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

In other words, history is always relational and a reflection of contemporary choices. Our understanding of and engagement with the past emerges only in the context of our arguments about the present. Anniversaries offer one way with which we can use the past to interrogate that present — and it’s not just historians who do that sort of work.

In May 1968, demonstrators in West Berlin displayed a banner made from an West German flag to decry the West German government’s planned “emergency laws,” which would grant the government extraordinary powers in case of civic or political crisis. Across the black, red, and gold stripes of the flag, the demonstrators had written “Notstand (state of emergency) followed by the dates 1848, 1933, and 1968.

Banners hanging on the Technical University in Berlin call for a strike to protest West Germany’s proposed “emergency laws.” The banners implicitly link a pistol-wielding policeman (labeled “State of Emergency”) with Germany’s Nazi (National Socialist or NS) past. Photo by Holger.Ellgaard, May 28, 1968. Source: Wikimedia.

The demonstrators used these anniversary dates to mark out the stakes of the ongoing battle over the shape of West German democracy. On the one hand, they claimed the mantle of the 1848 revolutionaries, whose democratic vision and black-red-gold flag had been adopted by both the interwar Weimar Republic and post-World War II West Germany. On the other hand they pointed to 1933, when the German parliament had adopted an Enabling Act that granted Adolf Hitler extraordinary powers to cope with a “state of emergency” and effectively ushered in the Nazi dictatorship.

Historians work in the public interest by posing questions, which help members of the public recognize that the path between then and now was never inevitable.

This example does not argue for simplistic historical equivalence. It does not imply that we should look back in order to find the one, correct parallel with which to diagnose the present. Rather, it helps to drive home the open-endedness of historical processes, the uncertainty faced by individuals and families, politicians and activists as they sought to discern the implications of the policies and events into which their everyday lives were woven.

Historical anniversaries can help open up windows onto pasts that are sometimes strange and at other times strangely familiar. But that connection should never go without saying. Historians work in the public interest by posing questions to help the members of that public recognize that the path between then and now was never inevitable; and that realization might allow us to say something about engaging the future as well.

This spring the Lepage Center will address the 50th anniversary of 1968 with a new podcast series, ongoing blog posts, and a mix of on- and off-campus events. Stay tuned to the Lepage Center website or subscribe to our newsletter for all the latest details.