There aren't many time periods as fascinating as the early 20th century, especially the years before, during and after World War I. So much happened in the three decades between the start of the 1900's and the start of the Great Depression, it's staggering. And yet, the era gets so little recognition for how important it was in the scheme of human events. Take two recent anniversaries that passed with nary a peep of acknowledgment. The first came April 6. On that day in 1917, the United States entered the Great War, turning the tide of the gruesome conflict, which was mired in trench and chemical stalemate.
Perhaps the Iraq War is more important currently, but perhaps, too, it's worth noting that 90 years ago the US entered a war that changed the face of the world forever, and which had repercussions that are still being felt. One of those is that without World War I, communism would never had taken hold in Russia, the Soviet Union would never have risen, the Cold War never would have started, and the resulting obsession with (dependence on?) arms and conflict in the US would never have happened. Another is that the United States would never have become a superpower. And a third is that, without WWI, the Ottoman Empire would never have been carved up by the Allies, and what we now call the Middle East (Iraq included) would never have existed in the form it does today.
America's entry into the Great War was something that didn't happen lightly. Despite President Woodrow Wilson's interests in keeping the country out of the war, Germany's declaration of unrestricted submarine attacks on all ships in Atlantic waters and an intercepted communication from Germany to Mexico pledging the return of Texas and other former Mexican territories to the country if it entered the war on the side of Germany and against the United States forced Wilson's hand. The US was only in the war for a little over a year, but the country's entry proved pivotal. France, England, Germany and Austria were all stuck in the mud and barbed-wire no man's land of the Western Front, and by this time Russia had had its revolution and pulled out of the war. The casualties on both sides were mounting, and the horrors of mechanized warfare were beginning to take tolls on both sides. But after the US entered, the momentum provided by fresh (if not inexperienced) troops and machinery tipped the balance and forced the war's end at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918 (the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month).
The media ignoring this anniversary isn't surprising (the WWI generation wasn't the "greatest," after all, and honoring an event where only four people are known to survive isn't "sexy"), but it's certainly disappointing. Without any sense of hyperbole, World War I isn't only one of the most important events of the 20th century but one of the pivotal moments in human history.
The second event that went nearly unnoticed is the 95th anniversary of the embarking of the RMS Titanic from Southampton to New York on April 10, 1912. The sinking of the Titanic, which happened April 15, 1912, is still one of those moments that grips the imagination and fascination of people in the Western world. Besides a couple news items online, this event, too, has passed nearly unnoticed. It will be interesting to see if, tomorrow, there's a discussion about the 95th anniversary of the ship's sinking.
It's understandable that with so much currently happening in the world that is of great importance, remembering two events from 90+ years ago is low on the list of news items. However, it seems symptomatic of this culture of the now that is being cultivated in this country. With a few notable exceptions, like the tributes to World War II and the "Greatest Generation," history encapsulates the events that happened in the '90s -- the 1990's. As Baby Boomers and the members of the Greatest Generation get older, interest in preserving memory seems to be waning. This is unfortunate. How is anyone supposed to grasp the significance of an event like the Iraq War without first understanding the history of the region and its history of conflict? How is anyone supposed to understand how devastating the sinking of the Titanic--a symbol of modernity, progress and humanity's triumph--was if the historical text is a Hollywood-created melodrama?
None of this is to assume that we need to become a backwards-looking country. However, in this era of loud, nonsensical windbaggery and inane TV specials about how totally awesome yesterday -- literally the day before today -- was, it would be nice to have substance born out of contextuality and engagement with the past rather than tuned-out eschewing of it. After all, as any history teacher is bound to tell you, those who forget about the past are doomed to repeat it.
(For more information about World War I, visit the National World War One Museum. USAToday ran a story last month about one of the last remaining American WWI veterans, which you can read here. And for more information about the Titanic, visit RMS Titanic, Inc.)