From the President

Happy Anniversary? Historians and the Commemoration of the Past

Tyler Stovall | Apr 1, 2017

In French the word anniversaire means both “birthday” and “anniversary,” whereas in English the two concepts require separate words. The fact that each language approaches the relationship between these two ideas so differently has important implications for historians as we strive to remember and recreate the past. The distinction that English-speaking scholars make between celebrating personal landmarks and commemorating major historical events offers insights into the relationships between individuals and societies, both yesterday and today.

The year 2017 offers us the opportunity to consider a rich collection of historical dates. In the United States, for example, the year marks the bicentennial of the Erie Canal, the sesquicentennial of the Alaska Purchase, the centennial of America’s entry into World War I, and the 75th anniversary of Japanese American internment during World War II. Closer to my own home, 2017 is the 50th anniversary of San Francisco’s Summer of Love. Our commemoration of 1967 will help prepare us to consider that most turbulent of modern years, 1968. This year, several countries, including India, Pakistan, and Canada, will mark anniversaries of national independence, while the centennial commemorations of World War I (which began in 2014) will continue. Perhaps most notably, Russia will mark the centennial of the revolutions of 1917, and Protestants, Catholics, and many others will consider the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s act of defiance at Wittenberg, Germany, triggering the Reformation.

As dates on steroids, anniversaries permit us to consider the local and the global at the same time.

Historians often choose major anniversaries as ways of reassessing and mobilizing interest in the past. As Pierre Nora observed, national anniversaries are sites of memory; they have served as a key indication of how modern nations recognize their histories.1 Some historians use anniversaries to highlight studies of a particular event, while others study the anniversaries themselves, analyzing them as a window into the popular commemoration of history. This year’s AHA annual meeting featured more than 20 sessions dealing with historical anniversaries, ranging from the Balfour Declaration to the independence of Ghana. Seven panels discussed the quincentennial of the Reformation alone. Moreover, authors and publishers often plan to release historical works to coincide with anniversary celebrations. In 2014, the 70th anniversary of the Allied D-Day landings, Mary Louise Roberts published not one but two books on the American and French histories of the event. My own recent monograph on Paris in 1919 appeared seven years before the centennial, but I am currently considering my own anniversary project for that year.

What role do anniversaries play in our construction of history, and how do they relate to the more pervasive and personal celebrations of birthdays and family anniversaries? The latter greatly contribute to charting the landmarks and transitions of individual lives; annual birthdays celebrate a person’s origins and the passing of the years. Wedding anniversaries commemorate the shared life of a couple. Both cases mark events that are (or are at least presumed to be) causes for celebration. Very few people celebrate or even mark the anniversaries of the deaths of loved ones, for example, even though “deathdays” would logically parallel birthdays. Wedding anniversaries have no counterpart in divorce anniversaries. Birthdays and anniversaries thus not only celebrate happy events but give an idea of personal histories as positive narratives of progress.

Bastille Day is France’s “national birthday party.” Joshua Veitch-Michaelis/Wikimedia CommonsIn stark contrast, historians tend to analyze the anniversaries of major events, dramatic ones that changed the lives of millions. Wars, battles, declarations of national independence, and major cultural landmarks preoccupy us. We rarely concern ourselves with how happy these events made people; rather, we tend to see them as particularly vibrant examples of our main concern, change over time. For historians, anniversaries also offer a perspective on how peoples see their own histories; many studies of anniversaries compare different commemorations of a specific event over time. For example, how did popular views of Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas differ between 1892 and 1992? At the same time, historical and personal anniversaries sometimes coincide, notably when the birthdays of great public figures like George Washington or Martin Luther King Jr. become national holidays (although in such cases the historical significance of these individuals largely overshadows memories of their personal lives).

For historians, studies of anniversaries also represent the enduring importance of dates and the history of events. In a profession that has long rejected the simplistic view of history as an amalgam of chronological facts, emphasizing instead processes and changes in mentalities, anniversaries show not only that dates matter, but that they offer their own insights into different types of historical processes. Just as historians use specific anniversaries to illustrate broader processes of change, so more generally do they deploy chronology in the service of historical argumentation and ideas. As dates on steroids, anniversaries permit us to consider the local and the global at the same time.

Finally, it is worth noting that most histories of anniversaries tend to regard them in isolation, not from other anniversaries of the same event but from commemorations of different events.2 For example, 2017 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War in the Middle East, the 70th anniversary of the United Nations vote to partition Palestine, and the centennial of the Balfour Declaration. What is the relationship between these anniversaries, and how does that relationship speak to and shape the entangled histories of Israelis and Palestinians? The coincidence of the sesquicentennial of Das Kapital and the centennial of the Bolshevik Revolution raises similar questions. Making such comparisons could also serve to challenge the emphasis on the nation-state that has often shaped the history of memory. One of the most prominent groups in the Summer of Love was the Diggers, which took its name from the 17th-century English Protestant activists inspired by the radical Reformation. The arbitrary, coincidental nature of dates and anniversaries can produce comparisons both strange and meaningful.

For historians, therefore, the study of anniversaries serves both to facilitate an intensive, microhistorical study of a given event, and to mobilize and benefit from public interest in that event and in history in general. To be sure, our interests differ strongly from those of individuals and families celebrating major landmarks in their own lives, although there are important points of convergence. The most public anniversaries, notably national holidays like Bastille Day, occasion massive communal celebrations—in effect, national birthday parties. Here anniversaries become a public version of intimate private rituals, like them emphasizing happy festivity rather than critical historical analysis. To study the ways in which nations and other groups celebrate such events is to approach an understanding of how private and public lives intersect. The history of Thanksgiving, for example, involves both the story of early encounters between Native Americans and Europeans and also that of Thanksgiving traditions created by individuals, families, and communities over time. The same is true of many religious celebrations and rites of passage. Studying anniversaries, therefore, can help historians consider not just the presence of the past in the present, but also the various levels of human experience from the most intimate to the most global.

Tyler Stovall is president of the AHA.


1. Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire,” Representations 26 (Spring 1989).

2. Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider, The Holocaust and Memory in a Global Age (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006).

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