living memory and mere history

Something I was unaware of when I was younger but have become very aware of recently is the process by which historical events cease to be part of the living memory of a society and become mere book history.
The most significant example is the Second World War. Even though the war ended before they were born for Baby Boomers and Generation X the Second World War was still very much part of living memory. Every member of those generations had parents or grandparents who lived through the war and would have communicated to their offspring vivid first-hand memories of the war years. Most members of those generations had a parent or grandparent who fought in the war. This gave those generations a certain personal connection to the war. It gave those events a certain concrete quality and certain emotional resonance.
This is not the case for the Millennials. Most have never had any actual relationship with a family member who personally experienced the war. To Millennials the Second World War is just history, as remote and as abstract as the Boer War or the Spanish-American War would have been to a Baby Boomer or the First World War to a Gen X-er.
This is important because the Second World War was an ideological war. As the war recedes into distant abstract history so too do the ideological conflicts that fueled it. Since 1945 words like fascist, Nazi and Stalinist have had an immensely powerful emotional resonance. Now they are becoming mere words. If you’re on the left a fascist is someone who disagrees with you. If you’re on the right a Stalinist is someone who disagrees with you. The words can still be used as insults, or as attempts to shut down a debate, or as a way of disqualifying someone’s opinion, but they no longer pack the emotional punch that they packed even twenty years ago. They are words used by people who could not explain to you what a fascist or a Stalinist was. As time goes by they will lose whatever power they still possess. Even comparing someone to Hitler, which used to be a surefire way to discredit someone, is going to become less and less effective. Hitler will be like Ghenghis Khan, or Napoleon, or Attila the Hun – a symbol of evil perhaps but not one that has any real emotional content.
There was a time when you could discredit an English politician by accusing him of Jacobite sympathies. That had little effect after the end of the eighteenth century. There was a time when you could draw blood by accusing a French politician of Bonapartist tendencies. There was a time when English nannies could frighten children into eating their broccoli by threatening them that Bony would get them if they were bad. Eventually a time comes when a terrifying monster, like the Corsican Ogre, becomes merely an interesting historical figure.
The Cold War also is receding into the mists of history. No Millennial has any appreciation of what living through the Cold War was like. They have vaguely heard of the Cold War but many probably have little idea what was at stake. In fact I suspect that many Millennials have so little historical perspective that they probably couldn’t tell you when the Second World War happened, or when the Cold War started.
Of course if you have sufficiently thorough political indoctrination you can to some extent keep ancient fears alive, witness the recent hysteria over the Confederate flag. But even the most rigorous indoctrination cannot compensate for the gradual fading of the emotional resonances of historical evens that are still part of living memory. In the case of the Confederate flag the hysteria was mostly confined to the media, to a handful of “activists” on college campuses and a few opportunistic politicians. I suspect that most Americans were bemused by the whole thing.
This fading of living memory into history can have momentous consequences. When history becomes abstract the suffering associated with historical events becomes abstract as well. After more than two hundred years the Terror that followed the French Revolution no longer has the power to make us feel the horror, outrage, revulsion and visceral fear that it provoked in those for whom this was an event within the living memory of society. What happens when our response to the sufferings inflicted by totalitarianism in the 20th century becomes purely abstract?
And it’s worth bearing in mind (although it’s a profoundly depressing thought) that the Post-Millennial generation will be starting to reach adulthood in a decade or so. To that generation the horrors of 20th century totalitarianism will be very abstract indeed. This may not be a good thing, to say the least.
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