Friday, June 19, 2020

History: Still not dead yet

American Civil War veterans -- all gone now too

Many of this spring's commemorations of the end of the Second World War and of the D-Day landings were sharply curtailed by the pandemic. It was a shock to hear for the first time of a near-total absence of actual veterans at the observances that did take place. And then Vera Lynn died too. 

Now the terrible Covid-related
 mortality among the elderly survivors from the 1940s, is being equated with the death of ... history itself. Noting the Covid death of one-time Italian partisan Gildo Negri, a NYT reporter quoted one of Negri's colleague [emphasis added]:
The memory is vanishing, and the coronavirus is accelerating this process,” said Rita Magnani, who worked with Mr. Negri, at the local chapter of the National Association of Italian Partisans. “We are losing the people who can tell us in first person what happened. And it’s a shame, because when we lose the historical memory we lose ourselves.”
The Times reporter himself seems to believe that the disease, by killing history itself, is doing the work of neo-fascists.
The virus... has also created an opportunity for rising political forces who seek to recast the history of the last century in order to play a greater role in remaking the present one.
But it's not the deaths of elderly veterans or the Covid epidemic that is spurring neo-right activity. Indeed, there is surely much more Holocaust awareness and anti-fascist activity now than there was in, say, the placid 1950s. 

What is strange here is the odd presumption that when the eyewitnesses die, the history and meaning of the events they witnessed will die with them.

It is sad to see the pandemic hastening the end of the generation that experienced the Second World War and survived the Holocaust. But that is not the vanishing of the history of those times. Because, you know, there are historians. And libraries, and an unimaginably vast trove of evidence of all kinds, and oral histories of practically every veteran and survivor who got within range of a microphone or camera. 

Generations pass away.  History will continue.

Update, same day: Daniel Lee points out that the historical testimony most at risk of being lost is that of "ordinary Nazis," millions of whom were never called to account for, or even asked about, their experiences and activities 
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