Sunday, November 9, 2008

There is Only the Past, Happening Over and Over Again - Now

A year ago today, I read Newsday and saw the familiar "On this Day in History" feature that you can find in almost every newspaper. It is always an uninspiring rote listing of a dozen significant events that occurred over the past 500 years. On this particular day, this lackadaisical approach troubled me, because two of the events were momentous; Kristallnacht in 1938, and the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. I was embarrassed that I knew less about these events than I should - and puzzled why Newsday would not devote more space to conveying an understanding of these events that were so rich in historical significance. The older I get, the more interesting history becomes to me. As a college student, I remember being struck, for reasons I did not fully comprehend, by the intro to Leon Uris' Trinity, which was borrowed from Eugene O'Neill's "Moon for the Misbegotten":

"There is no present or future - only the past happening over and over again - now."

And so I wondered; what was the ultimate significance of Kristallnacht ? I remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, but when was it erected, and why, and how long was it ? I did some research and learned that Kristallnacht was merely the most overt manifestation of an evil hatred that had been festering for years. I also learned that, after 2.5 million citizens had fled East Germany from 1949 to 1961, the 28-mile long Berlin Wall was erected to stop citizens of East Berlin, which was in East Germany, from fleeing to West Berlin, which was in democratic West Germany; the Berlin Wall was only one small segment of an 860-mile barrier that rendered East Germany a veritable prison. And I also learned that nearly every adviser in Ronald Reagan's cabinet implored him not to demand "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall", and he said it anyway, and it became the seminal moment of his presidency.

And so I decided that our Beyond the Headlines section would henceforth include a well-researched exposition of a significant event that occurred on this day in history. We choose our events by mining the innumerable lists on the Web; oddly, some days are quite rich in truly momentous events, while on others we're scraping the bottom. We usually avoid very recent history, as there is not much perspective to bring to these events yet. And we try to steer clear of the few events in history that are generally quite well known already.

And only today, when we published our treatment of these two events, did I realize the irony that on the same date, we commemorate the most overt manifestation of the emergence of one murderous regime and the most overt symbol of the fall of another.

User response to this feature has been very gratifying. Of the top 10 most popular articles we have created, 6 of them came from this category. We've told of Japan floating balloon bombs across the Pacific during WWII to try to set our forests on fire; of the Polish spy who gave himself up to Nazi soldiers so he could report first hand on the atrocities at Auschwitz, and explained the significance of the Charge of the Light Brigade.

findingDulcinea is a phenomenal resource for students at every level. And when it comes to history, all of us need to be students. But don't take my word for it; Eugene O'Neill said it much better than I ever could.

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uncle sissy cry baby said...

Our family drove West through "Checkpoint Charlie" in 1978 and camped on a lake in West Berlin. I had to warn my kids about letting their inner tubes float too close to the barbed wire fence in the middle of the lake -
preventing East Germans from swimming across.

The following week we spent 5 or 6 hours touring the camp at Aushwitz.
The kids were so sickenned by what they saw, they could not eat lunch.
Even years later, they all refused to watch Schindler's List - saying
they had seen it first hand.

conorian said...

One word about the "tear down this wall" moment. It made for great theater but Reagan's advisers might have been right about it. When the wall finally did come down, Bush '41 was president. He was roundly criticized for his low-key response to it. Many wanted him to go to Berlin; others wanted at least a major speech on America spreading democracy, etc. Bush replied this was a moment for the German people, not an American victory. In this way he did not embarrass Gorbachev or force him to clamp down on Soviet satellites as the hard core Soviets were demanding. The thinking is, had Reagan still been president and had thumped his chest over this, Gorbachev's hand would have been tied and the outcome for the rest of the Soviet states could have been quite different.

CMM said...

My mother always said that in particular concerning Ireland, it's hard to escape the past. One must know the past though to avoid its mistakes and understand the present and future. My cousin served as a commander in Turkey of a US base in the 1980's and he said just because the embargo had ended from the US ( this was under Reagan, I believe), it really meant nothing to the Turks as they remember vividly slights and things that happened 500 years ago. Just as in Russia, the memory of the Nazi invasion is still very fresh in the minds of the Russians. The US is one of the few countries being so new I guess, that doesn't look back as much as it should.

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