How Many Steps from History?

How far are you from the past? I started thinking about it again the other day as I watched the New Year’s concert from Vienna and listening to Julie Andrews talking about Franz Josef, the last Habsburg to die in office. Less than 100 years has passed since the Habsburg Empire fell apart. We are less than 100 years, three generations, from the end of WWI, two from WWII. Operation Desert Storm/ the First Gulf War has not quite hit the magical 30 year point where it becomes history instead of a relatively distant current event (although my students might disagree). How far are you from the past?

I know people who fought in WWII, so I am one step from the war. A late acquaintance of mine recalled veterans of the Army of the Confederacy coming to her school to talk about the war in the 1920s, so I am two steps from the American Civil War/War Between the States/the Late Unpleasantness. My father and uncle served during Vietnam, and I have friends and co-workers who participated in Desert Storm and/or Afghanistan and Iraq II. I grew up during the Cold War, watching the Strategic Air Command flying command posts lumbering out and back twice a day. The fall of the Berlin Wall is still crisp in my mind’s eye, as are the feelings of utter disbelief – the Iron Curtain had always been there! It would always be there! I was at an award ceremony for writing a paper about “Is Russia still a threat to the United States” when Desert Storm began. (FWIW my answer was yes, and indeed, of the four scenarios I theorized, three came to pass, although not quite as I had envisioned. At the time I wanted to be an intel analyst. What might have been . . .)

To my students, WWII is ancient history, the Gulf War is not quite as far past, and 9/11 is history. To me 9/11 is a slightly distant current event. WWI is the past, although it is a past I’ve been living in for the last two years as I wrote the three Powers novels. Some days I get mildly frustrated that my students don’t seem to appreciate the importance of stuff that happened, oh, 500 years ago, or why they need to know who Charles V of Spain was, and why it is important to know the difference between Louis XIV and Louis XVI. But I wasn’t so deep in history when I was their age, although I read military history almost daily.

Some days I feel like the Kathy Mattea song “33, 45, 78 (Record Time)”:

“I hear them talk about a great depression/ I hear the drumming of the war machine,

I wonder if I’m stuck in the past/ or if it all repeats, just like a CD.”

Long ago is not so far away for me. I realize that sometimes I see connections that don’t really exist, simply because people are people and tend to do the same things in certain situations (like, oh, peasants revolting against taxation or against the imposition of new duties or the termination of traditional rights). But WWI is less than a century ago. The Habsburg Empire was shaky but still standing less than 100 years ago. We’re still sorting out the results of the French Revolution and the Ottoman occupation of southeastern Europe, and those were 225 and 300 or so years ago. I listen to the president of Hungary and nod as he invokes memories of the 150 year slog to push the Ottomans out of Hungary and reunite the three major portions (now found in 7 different countries, thanks to WWI’s aftermath and Woodrow Wilson’s invocation of the nationalism touched off by the French Wars of Revolution and Napoleon.)

How far are we from the past? Too close, I suspect, in some ways, too far in others.

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2 thoughts on “How Many Steps from History?

  1. As a very young child I met my great-grandfather, who (assuming a positive truth coefficient – not a certain thing with him, alas) lied about his age and wound up in an artillery unit in France in WWI.

    At my grandfather’s funeraI recall a couple guy talking about cold they were in France – in ’44.

    I also recall sitting on his neighbor’s steps with the two of them as the neighbor talked of his bootlegging days, and how they attempted to disguise the booze with, of all things, Paris green. “It was poison against poison.”

    It’s a bit jarring to realize that some of the futuristic stuff is now, in some ways at least, considered obsolete. The Star Trek communicators that link to a ship (or even ‘just’ satellites) aren’t here, yet the flip-phone is seen as old fashioned. The ever-present reels of tape of BIG computers in movies of the 1960’s and 70’s is no longer manufactured. LED’s have replaced neon and incandescent indicator lamps.

    And this is just the recent stuff!

    • Do NOT get me started on the unavailability of incandescent lightbulbs or halogen/normal flashlights. Especially do NOT get me started on my opinion of LED flashlights!

      I don’t remember much for people that served in WWI, but knew quite a few, including both grandfathers, growing up that served in WWII. And have had relatives serve in every major and most minor wars/conflicts since. I remember playing “SCUD-killer” with balls on the playground, during Desert Shield, and had friends serving in Desert Storm. So no, the Gulf War (wars?) isn’t really history.

      On the other hand, I understand your students not being extremely interested in long dead Europeans, after all, they were in Europe. Europe is just a bunch of Podunk little, county sized countries, that don’t produce anything, and certainly don’t offer much of a threat to anybody. They are kind of like that Welfare family down the street. At least that is they way I saw Europe at their age, and it certainly hasn’t done anything much of note, since then.

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