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Editor's Note, January/February 2003

Of History and Memory

By Mary Lou Beatty | HUMANITIES, January/February 2003 | Volume 24, Number 1

“In times of crisis,” writes NEH Chairman Bruce Cole, “the humanities and the arts are often praised as sources of consolation, comfort, expression, and insight, but rarely seen as essential, or even high priorities. But they are much more than that. Indeed, the humanities help form the bedrock of civic understanding and civil order.”

He adds, “Our nation is in a conflict driven by religion, philosophy, political ideology, and views of history--all humanities subjects. To understand this conflict, we need the humanities.”

That concern will be showcased this February at a national forum on American history and civics. Along with the forum there will be a “Heroes of History” lecture sponsored by the NEH and held in Washington, D.C. The speaker will be Robert V. Remini, professor emeritus of the University of Illinois at Chicago and biographer of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and Andrew Jackson. At the event, scholarships will be awarded to five high school juniors for their prize-winning essays on “The Idea of America.”

What defines a hero? A warrior. . . visionary. . . survivor. . . witness. . . The interpretations are many. In this issue of Humanities, we look at some powerful lessons of history from the century just past. We see the horror of World War I through the eyes of the German artist Otto Dix. We explore the aftereffects of the terror perpetrated in the Nazi concentration camps. We look at a man--a hero, if you will--whose career spanned both wars: Winston Churchill. Historian John Lukacs tells us, “He did not win the Second World War, but he was the one who didn’t lose it. He was a single man in Hitler’s path.”

Churchill played two roles: as the leader of an embattled Britain and, later, as an historian of his own times. Lukacs is not troubled by the dichotomy. “There are passages in some works of Churchill that are stunning, not only because of his language, but because of his ability to summarize things in an almost Olympian way.” Churchill, he says, was relatively modest about his own work as a historian. “He says, ‘This is not really history. It’s a contribution to history.’”

We also consider later times of crisis and the imprints they left. Historian Edward Linenthal investigates the early reluctance to acknowledge that the Holocaust had occurred. “Shards of memory existed,” he writes, “but did not make up a whole story. The rubble of the death camps was material evidence of the killing and these would become places of pilgrimage for American and Israeli Jews. But they did not emerge as sites for remembering until the Holocaust was seen as a distinct event.” That would take place over two decades, Linenthal says, through Jewish resettlement, conflicts in the Middle East, and ultimately, a war in Vietnam.

Last, we look back at a defining moment in the earliest days of the United States, when the first transfer of power from one political party to another threatened to disrupt the new nation. What began as a legal battle over judgeships became a landmark Supreme Court decision that established the court’s power to declare an act of Congress unconstitutional. February marks the two-hundredth anniversary of Marbury v. Madison.