Anniversaries of important historic events have a different feel if one was personally involved.
Personal memories are certainly significant in assessing important events.
There are some things which you will always remember. One often cited is where you were when President Kennedy was assassinated. (The answer, for me, is the Ridgeway Hotel in Lusaka. I was covering the last weeks of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland as a journalist.) Inevitably, the assassination of John F. Kennedy has been recalled in recent days, following the death of his one surviving brother, Senator Edward Kennedy.
Another unforgettable memory for me is the declaration of the Second World War on September 3, 1939 by the then British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain. I was eight, and listened with my parents to the sombre announcement. When the broadcast had finished, my father took me with him to visit several small hotels in the village on the English Channel coast, near the town where we lived, to check that they had sandbags ready for use in case of attack by invaders. (He was involved in local ARP — Air Raid Precautions.)
This year — indeed, this week, as I write — is the 70th anniversary of the declaration of war, and it, too, has inevitably been recalled in recent days.
I am well aware that neither of these events can be remembered by the vast majority of people living today, who were born years after they took place. For this vast majority, there is probably no sense of difference, in chronological terms, between the declaration of war in 1939 and Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. An anniversary that is part of one’s personal memories will necessarily be different from one that is just a date in the history books.
Personal memories are certainly significant in assessing important events. Two deaths in July, of the last two British survivors of those who fought in the 1914-1918 war — Harry Patch, 111 years old and Henry Allingham, who was 113 — caused much reflection on the appalling slaughter which marked that conflict. Harry Patch made clear his belief that disputes should be resolved by discussion, not war.
No one should undervalue such views, based on personal experience that gives them particular credibility. By definition, however, arriving at a full and balanced analysis of major events — the task which a good historian must attempt to fulfil — demands a measure of detachment. That is not to argue that personal memories are unimportant. To the contrary, they can be crucial in ensuring that professional detachment does not lead to detachment from reality.
The memories provoked by the death of Edward Kennedy provide a good example of this, in that they encourage a reassessment of the role and achievements of his brother, President JFK. The anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War, in a different way, is leading people to look with a fresh eye at the context; to look, for example, at the nature of the politics of Europe in the 1930s, and, after the war had ended, in the 1950s.
For the United Kingdom, a major preoccupation of the two decades following the Second World War was to bring to an end the British Empire. At the time it was not understood in that precise way, but from the vantage point of 2009 it all looks much clearer. The independence of India and Pakistan in 1947, the independence 10 years later of Ghana, and then during the 1960s the coming of independence to some 30 African colonies of Britain, France and Belgium, was by any standards a dramatic series of events. Nor was that the whole of it. For example, the countries of the West Indies also moved from colonial status during the same period.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this Letter, I was involved as a journalist in this process of rapid de-colonisation. I was also involved later in the Oxford Colonial Records Project, carrying out for its oral archive some interviews with politicians and officials who had played leading roles in the process. Observing what was happening on the ground, and meeting some of those driving the change, was obviously fascinating. So was the opportunity to get from some of them their recollections of the “inside story”. Those are the kinds of thing which can make journalism stimulating and exciting.
Now, some 40 years later, many academics are turning their attention to the de-colonisation story. As with the Second World War and its aftermath, and the JFK presidency, the personal memories and recollections provide useful evidence, but the passage of time is essential in the search for a balanced judgment.
Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org