History is something that happens to other people.
November 7, 2007 11:17 AM   Subscribe

From an historical point of view, how much time needs to pass before an event is no longer remembered? How much time between 'oh god that was awful' until 'that happened a lot of time ago so I don't care about it?'

For example, the Black Plague, the Spanish Inquisition and the vaccine against polio are things that are part of our history but at the same time, they happened long ago so most people don't care.
On the other side, there is the World War II (and the Holocaust), which still cause reaction among people.

Does something more important need to happen before a previous event is forgotten by society (WWI for example) or is about time?

I know I'm oversimplifying but I'm not looking for more than an average.
posted by Memo to Society & Culture (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I think it begins to happen when most of the people who were directly affected have died. So, it's directly related to the passage of time.
posted by ittybittyteenyweenyyellowpolkadotbikini at 11:22 AM on November 7, 2007

Yeah, I'd say it's a generational thing. I'm sure remembrance day means more to the vets who took part in WWI and II then it does to the school children reading Flanders Fields at school assemblies.
posted by chunking express at 11:25 AM on November 7, 2007

It might make it easier if you think about the major events of your life time (depending on how old you are).

Assassination of JFK or MLK.

9/11 - how are reactions now compared to the days and months afterwards?
posted by dkleinst at 11:28 AM on November 7, 2007

Best answer: 1000 deaths to something fun for the kids takes less than 100 years.
posted by bondcliff at 11:28 AM on November 7, 2007 [2 favorites]

Not only time, but you need to add "geographical distance" to the equation also:

Rate of Forgetfulness = Time Passed X Distance

I'll leave it up to the mathematically inclined to come up with a more accurate formula, with inverse proportional to this and squared to that, added in.
posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 11:37 AM on November 7, 2007

Depends on if you were on the winning side or not.

Growing up in michigan I thought of the civil war as something out of the dim and dusty past. I was completely shocked when I moved to VA and realized that not everybody thinks that.
posted by selfmedicating at 11:47 AM on November 7, 2007

Best answer: I think it depends on whether there is a community that makes it a point to actively remember the tragedy/horrific event. I think of the destruction of the Second Temple as still having resonance within the Jewish community for instance.
Or the ritualization and memory that occurs around the American Civil War. There are still societies that trace their forbears to the Hugenots that fled France and so keep a live even in a minor way the memory of their persecution.

There was no "community" involved in the sinking of the Titanic or the Lusitania for instance. Those were events that happened to crowds for lack of a better term not to identifiable groups with a cohesion provided by history, culture or religion.
posted by MasonDixon at 11:47 AM on November 7, 2007

Depends on how motivated your local ethnic / national / family tree context is to keep stoking the fires. E.g. Battle of Kosovo, Siege of Jerusalem, etc.

On preview, what MasonDixon said.
posted by migurski at 11:48 AM on November 7, 2007

Living memory.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:50 AM on November 7, 2007

Response by poster:

Growing up in michigan I thought of the civil war as something out of the dim and dusty past. I was completely shocked when I moved to VA and realized that not everybody thinks that. #

In fact I was going to add USA's Civil War to the examples but not living in USA I have no idea about its current relevance.
posted by Memo at 11:52 AM on November 7, 2007

There are so many variables involved it's an impossible question to answer:

Were you or your family involved?
How did it affect an ethnic group or community with which you identify?
How strongly do you identify with that group or community?
How long ago was it?
Is there lots of still or video imagery still floating around the culture?
How many died?
How geographically far away from you was it?
Was your involvement on the losing or winning side (if conflict)
Did it happen in a media-rich area (US East Coast) or out in the sticks? (Oklahoma)
Was the perpetrator (if present) colorful or interesting to the media? (Manson)
Was there art made about the event that was of high and enduring quality?
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 12:07 PM on November 7, 2007

You're trying to measure emotional distance in units of time. That is both abstract and subjective. If there was a way to quantify emotion and attachment, you could extrapolate that into distance over time. I think this is something we've all been trying to do since about third grade, with each generation destined to repeat forever.
posted by iamkimiam at 12:08 PM on November 7, 2007

The northern view of the civil war is that it was about slavery, the good guys won, end of story. A lot of southerners, though, think it was about states rights, and about whether the USA was going to be an agrarian or an industrial society, and that slavery was just used as a rallying cry. MasonDixon's username comes from the line that divides north from south. It really is a big cultural division in this country. You'd be amazed at how many history buffs go out and re-enact civil war battles every year.
posted by selfmedicating at 12:09 PM on November 7, 2007

Point I am attempting to make: yes, it depends on people keeping the memory alive.
posted by selfmedicating at 12:11 PM on November 7, 2007

It's like when people measure distance in time.
"How far away is the golf course."
"About ten minutes."

But you can't say:
"What time will we arrive in New York?"
"About 80 miles."

This is because we cover distance at varying rates (not constant), especially when emotional attachment is involved.
posted by iamkimiam at 12:13 PM on November 7, 2007

I was shocked to read some high school students reactions to 9/11 and their general opinion was to "get over it". To them, 5 years ago (when it was 5 years ago) was ancient history.
posted by 45moore45 at 12:52 PM on November 7, 2007

How much time between 'oh god that was awful' until 'that happened a lot of time ago so I don't care about it?'

In the case of disco, about 3 years. Seriously, as a kid I was just floored at how disco took over the entire FM band in 1978, but by 1981 the nation had gone into complete amnesia (denial?) about it. OK, disco is not a tragedy but I think there is a common thread here about the way the masses relates to something in history.
posted by chef_boyardee at 1:01 PM on November 7, 2007 [2 favorites]

When I visited the UK, my favorite things were the chalk figures. These figures, usually horses, were made by carving into the earth to display the chalk below. They require maintenance, since surface soil can move quickly to obscure the design. In one of the books I picked up on the subject, they talked about a famous horse that went from famous to "what?" in 30 years. The maintenance was not done, the figure obscured and then lost, and then forgotten. I could not conceive of such a thing until I moved to LA, where they can tear down a building and two weeks later no one remembers it was ever there.

Strictly speaking, it takes until the bulk of the people directly effected by it have died.

What you can't control for though, is who decides to be directly effected by it.

In the Czech Republic, "Munich" is still sort of a dirty word and people who were not around to be hurt by Munich, are still very personally affronted by what happened.

A similar thing happens with sports fans. Cubs and Red Sox fans have held strong to events that happened 80 years ago.
posted by Mozzie at 1:02 PM on November 7, 2007

The Holocaust (in which six million European Jews and other minorities were murdered by the Nazis) happened some sixty years ago. There are of course those who deny it ever took place (anti-semitism anyone?), but the Jews continue to urge remembrance for a number of reasons. It's more and more difficult to feel the horror of that episode as it recedes in collective memory. The last survivors of the camps, who were children then, are now dying.

Do we still care? Every compassionate person ought to. Writers Elie Wiesel, Victor Frankl, Anne Frank and others have left first-person accounts and offered their interpretations. Others who had some connection to the horrors that took place (Art Spiegelman, the graphic novelist who wrote Maus, for instance) have created compelling re-imagingings that bring the events of that era closer to us. There's much to be learned from these horrific events, which is why they still matter. And the Jews have hope that they'll never be targeted by a similar program of institutionally orgnanized, government-sanctioned murder again. That's one good reason not to forget what happened, though the events get further away in time.
posted by frosty_hut at 3:11 PM on November 7, 2007

It's not just the jews, frosty_hut.
posted by migurski at 3:14 PM on November 7, 2007

I visited Dachau concentration camp several years ago and was appalled to see a group of young men standing on top of the Jewish memorial to have their picture taken. Tourists had also carved their initials in the bunk beds. Someone was rattling the gate to the crematorium because they were pissed off that part closed before the rest of the camp. It had the feel of a holy shrine to me even though I have no history associated with it and am not Jewish. It made me sob when I was standing in the open area between buildings. You don't have to be Jewish to appreciate the magnitude of the horror that happened there. I was just as horrified by how it had been turned in to one more stop on the bus tour and that people would have the gall to stand on top of the memorial to have their picture taken. The casual way people were acting while there made me realize then that it could easily happen again because there was no connection between the visitors and the events.
posted by 45moore45 at 3:24 PM on November 7, 2007

22.3 years
posted by hendrixson at 4:03 PM on November 7, 2007

You've answered your own question. You say that World War II still matters, but the polio vaccine doesn't -- but polio was cured ten years after the war ended. In short, it always depends.
posted by jjg at 6:18 PM on November 7, 2007

Response by poster: Well, the polio vaccine was the only example that wasn't a bad thing. I guess good events are forgotten earlier than bad events?
posted by Memo at 6:36 PM on November 7, 2007

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