Yesterday a friend asked, via Twitter, “Where were you 45 years ago today?” I hadn’t quite woken up yet so it took me a second to place the date: November 22. It was 45 years ago yesterday that JFK was assassinated.
History has a funny way of messing with your perception of time, particularly when something is still very much part of popular culture the way that Kennedy (and his assassination) is. That event always feels much older to me than how I perceive 45 years. While it happened before I was born, it’s not as if I’m unfamiliar with it…I’ve consumed a lot of films, documentaries and books about that assassination. In fact, when I thought about it yesterday, I found it mildly surprising that I was born only 12 years after John Kennedy’s assassination. I hadn’t thought about it in those terms before, and the two events seemed decades apart in my perception.
That thought stayed with me as I continued to read the first pages of Richard Evans‘ The Coming Of The Third Reich (amazon). He’s currently describing how antisemitism was alive and well, even fairly organized, in Germany in 1908, well before the start of even the first world war. 1908…that’s 100 years ago. It won’t even be for another six years that we hit the first anniversary of the beginning of WWI.
WWI seems like a big marker. We’re all taught so much about it that, to me, it seems like the starting point of what we perceive as ‘recent’ history; anything beyond that is just labeled history, full stop. I used to think recent history was whatever had transpired in the past hundred years or, when I was younger, whatever had happened earlier in the current century. WWI was that milestone for me, and probably for my father too, but I suspect it won’t be long until it fades and WWII becomes the new starting point. That’s strange for me, as I’ve been reading so much about WWI lately that it’s far more prominent and memorable, if that’s the right word, to me. History is delineated in our perceptions not by years, but by milestones, and their prevalence in our minds tricks us about their age.
Another example: it seems equally hard for me to believe that Nevermind by Nirvana was released 17 years ago as it is to believe that the one hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic is still nearly four years away.