Why Are Historical Anniversaries so Important to Us?

Dan Snow

3 mins

10 Dec 2018

15 years of TV shows, podcasts, online videos, social media posts, live events, books, articles and random conversations has convinced me of the power of anniversary.

People who would not otherwise give any thought to the sinking of the Titanic, or the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand suddenly become fascinated by them if you tell them that it occurred precisely 100 years before.

History lovers, by contrast, find them equally interesting on the other 364 days of the year, perhaps we don’t need that more obvious connection to engage with the past.  

What happened on your birthday?

It is not entirely surprising. Children, and a frankly disturbing number of adults, are obsessed with the day on which they were born.

This day, on which we celebrate or bemoan another completed trip around the sun, is a time when we pause to reflect on the passing of time, even though there is nothing different about that day to any others.

Birthdays give our own personal anniversary, but it is fascinating to know what else may have happened on the day we were born.

For the fallen

As a society we choose to remember the fallen on a particular day, Armistice Day, the anniversary of the guns falling silent on the Western Front. On that important day we collectively remember those who have died on our behalf and those who live with often complex requirements as a result of their wartime service.  

How politics frames history

Anniversaries matter. Alex Salmond managed to position the Scottish independence referendum as near as possible to the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, the crushing Scottish victory over the English army of Edward II.

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Slobodan Milosevic delivered an inflammatory speech on 15 June 1989, the anniversary of both the battle of Kosovo, in which the Serbs fought the Ottoman Turks to a bloody stalemate in 1389, and the assassination of Franz Ferdinand by a Serb nationalist in 1914. Milosevic’s speech is seen as an important waypoint in the descent of the former Yugoslavia into war.

The centenary of the Battle of Leipzig was turned into a giant celebration of the Germany military might by the Kaiser’s government in 1913. Politicians use anniversaries as a way of recruiting the past, and sending it into battle in the present.  

France’s decisive defeat to Coalition forces at the Battle of Leipzig (1813) was used to celebrate German military strength in the buildup to World War One. Painting by Alexander Sauerweid.

I find the effect remarkable. I often start speeches with a roundup of the anniversaries on that day. It is odd but it often feels like the events of that distant day in the past have more immediacy, more clarity on the anniversary. Perhaps the vastness of history makes these anniversaries more important.

We cannot hope to remember everything and everyone all the time, so by focusing on the day on which things happened, it is a way of accessing the enormity of the past.  

A smorgasbord of historical data

I have amassed a vast amount of data during my career. I am not a period specialist. I have been enormously lucky to make documentaries and podcasts from Greenland to the Falkland Islands and Hong Kong to the Azores. I have a slightly chaotic and sprawling way of collecting the snippets, facts, insights and sources that have fascinated me during that journey.

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One what in which I organise it all is by date. I have a huge spreadsheet with much of my data arranged by the day of the year on which the event happened. It is fun to approach it from this direction, and then, at other times, look at it through the prism of location or theme.  

I have written On This Day in History in which I use every date of the year to share some of the most important, remarkable, tragic and occasionally bizarre stories that I have stumbled across.

I have written 366 mini essays about completely different parts of history, from the Japanese shogunate to the fall of Troy, Mary Wollstonecraft and the invention of Google. Collectively they tell a story about who and where we are and how we got here.  

History is everything that has ever happened to anyone on this planet. There is plenty of it. Every single day in the anniversary of something utterly extraordinary.

On This Day in History by Dan Snow is available to buy now from all good bookshops. You can get a copy of the book for £8.99 at WH Smiths using code ‘Snow18’, or you can buy an annual subscription to History Hit TV and get the book for free.