Anniversary History 1914

I used to disdain what I call “anniversary history”–the commemoration of historical events only on their centenaries, a temporary historical consciousness–as not serious and media-driven: a History Channel approach to history. I tried to engage in a bit of anniversary myself back in 2012, and the results were indeed a bit superficial! I still believe that “history” happens every day and everything is “historical” but I also realize that it’s impossible for the average person to go about their day (or their life) in a historical fog so the marking of anniversaries of events large and small, public and private, and global and local is important, and even necessary. They make people stop and think about the past–and its relation to the present–at least for a little while.

From my perspective(s), 1914 promises to be a big year for anniversary history:  this summer marks the centenary of both the Great Salem Fire and the beginning of World War I in Europe. Over there, commemoration of the latter has already begun in earnest and will intensify over this year; I expect American engagement will really commence in 2017, the centenary of our entry into the Great War (although President Obama visited Flanders Fields a few days ago). This coincidence of local and global  “Great” events is interesting to me because it mirrors historiographical and cultural trends, and because both events were so very disastrous, testing the mettle of men and women in myriad ways. Here in Salem, we began our commemoration of the 1914 fire last night with a presentation by the scholar Jacob Remes, author of the forthcoming Disaster Citizenship: Urban Disasters and the Formation of the North American Progressive State, to a standing-room-only crowd at the National Park Service Visitor Center (the former drill shed, or what remains of the Salem Armory, where the Fire relief efforts were based). Remes’ focus, on the aftermath of the fire both in the camps (where fire refugees were called “inmates”!) and the rebuilt factories a bit later, bridged the local and the global with its emphasis on labor, and started us off on a thoughtful and reverent note. There will be a centenary symposium in June, on the weekend before the date of the Fire (June 25) and just before the commemoration of the Great War really kicks off across the Atlantic.

Salem Fire-001


World War One Soldiers

Faces of the Great Fire and the Great War:  In Salem, after the Fire, unidentified men and Mrs. Henry Reed and her daughter Helen, from the Dionne Collection at the Salem State University Archives and Special Collections; Soldiers of the West Yorkshire Regiment sitting in a captured German pillbox awaiting their orders at the Battle of Polygon Wood, 1917, Ministry of Information First World War Official Collection, Imperial War Museums:  ©IWM (Q2903).


5 responses to “Anniversary History 1914

  • Brian Bixby

    I suppose much the same can be said for historical holidays: how much do we really thing about the Presidents on Presidents’ Day? This can even become absurd — I doubt many Irish Bostonians were really thinking about the events of 1776 when celebrating Evacuation Day.

    The happiest personal use of anniversary history I’ve had was reading through the Wikiepedia March 16 page a few years ago over breakfast on that day, and remarking to my girlfriend that it was Caroline Herschel’s birthday. That drew a blank, so I explained that Caroline (1750-1848) had not only been the sister of the discoverer of Uranus, but a noted astronomer in her own right. Next thing I knew, she was writing and drawing a minicomic on Caroline, which weirdly enough got a good mention in a New York Times home schooling blog!

  • Cotton Boll Conspiracy

    Your points on the issue of “anniversary history” are well taken. World War I, for example, didn’t spontaneously occur 100 years ago. Unfortunately, without at least some in-depth understanding of the events that led to the outbreak of war in August 1914, it’s difficult to comprehend how the European powers came to blows that summer.

    Often, preceding events are seen as much less glamorous than the battles or other well-known episodes, but they’re crucial. I’d like to think that anniversary history instills an interest in critical events that inspires some to learn more about what before, serving as “gateway history.”

  • Bradford Green

    It is interesting to me that we often remember the event and cannot remember the cause. The causes for WWI – socially – were certainly more powerful than were the politics. Nationalism and all the hubris which fathered it certainly fed the design. And the assassination of Duke Ferdinand is really the least of reasons. I cannot help but wonder if the Great Wars are not forgotten simply because they do not lend themselves to the type of political narratives that serve contemporary needs. And as we proceed to chronicle our history as it is happening – a modern and alarming phenomenon – it is with concern that the lessons of the past will be caricatured in some perverse fashion to fit a narrative that never happened. The advent of Holocaust history – for instance – could as easily erase the deaths of somewhere over 50 million people in favor of remembering the history of one race (the Jews have certainly been more maligned than any other race and deserve the attention, but not at the expense of a holistic view of things).World War One seems like it might become a casualty of disinterest because of the specialization of historical interest. Perhaps I am wrong – I hope so.

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