On This Date
Anniversaries have value. Years pass rapidly and memories fade, even collective memories of events laden with watershed cultural or national importance. It is commonly understood, especially where published histories are involved, that anniversaries of certain numbers of years—10, 20, 25, 50, 75, and most of all, 100—carry more weight than seemingly random numbers of years. Not that certain events are more important just because they occurred 50 years ago rather than 46 years ago or 53 years ago. But such numbers as 100 provide a handy common reference point for everyone to turn attention to a past event.
The year 2015 happens to be a big anniversary for some world-changing historic events, many of them military. This issue of MHQ reaches readers in the anniversary months of some of those years. The final defeat of Nazi Germany occurred exactly 70 years ago this May. That complex event, a triumph aswirl in tragedy, may now—depending on one’s age—seem to belong firmly to the category of recorded history or may still lie within living memory. Either way, that climactic battle in Berlin marked the end of one era and the beginning of a new one.
Similarly, a single afternoon in June 200 years ago marked the end of Europe’s Napoleonic nightmare, when in 1815 the resurgent emperor’s loyal veteran infantry, artillery, and cavalry failed to overcome stubborn allied resistance and could not finally crack the enemy’s line at Waterloo. Again, one era perished on a single small battlefield, and a radically changed world came into being.
Memory and history are fickle. Some events, even some mere moments, seem to claim eternal life, while many others of great gravity inexplicably fade from common awareness. Historian Edward Lengel introduces To Conquer Hell, his comprehensive 2008 history of the epic Meuse-Argonne Battle of 1918, the bloodiest battle in American history, with a brilliant meditation on how “within a few years of its end, nobody seemed to realize that it had taken place.”
The value of those round-number anniversaries is that they do provide a logical cultural occasion for realizing what took place, for remembering, honoring, reconsidering, and perhaps learning from what happened 50 or 70 or 200 years ago.
—Michael W. Robbins