The same is true for the far more sober-seeming practice of history. We pay attention to the big, bright, shiny events and personalities far out of proportion to their effect on the world and pay little attention to the dull stuff, however significant it might actually be. This is not to say that, e.g., the French Revolution or World War I (from a European history perspective) or the US Civil War were not important, but each gets thousands of books devoted to them, not to mention any number of movies, operas, etc.
However, they do tend to crowd out other developments, particularly those in close proximity. As a result, we tend to lose these fainter stars in our historical firmament.
This is part of the reason I wrote a set of world history lessons called “1905.” It connects seemingly disparate events and developments of that year: the Russo-Japanese War, the (first) Russian Revolution, the British partition of Bengal province in India, the British Parliament refusal to vote on women’s suffrage, and Einstein’s incredible writing of four papers that revolutionized modern physics. No, they’re not as dramatic as 1914 and the start of WWI, but they get lost in what I call the shadow of history.
Indeed, 1914 itself provides a fine example. Not knowing that their world would plunge into war in August, Europeans early that year were going about their business.
This is why I like to spend time in my relevant European history courses talking about the summer of 1914. The assassination of the Austrian Archduke, the diplomatic ‘to-ings-and-fro-ings,’ the downward spiral into a war of surprising length and destructiveness tend to push a bunch of other significant developments to the sidelines. Part of a historian’s joy in explicating the complexity of the past comes from the fact that these “secondary” developments don’t get the attention they deserve (and they give us some really good stories, too).
Just as in 2022 (when the Ukraine war pushed COVID off the headlines), so, too, did the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, pull attention away from the “top stories” of the Spring of 1914.
In Paris, everyone was enraptured by (their version of) the “trial of the century.” In March, Henriette Caillaux, the wife of a former Prime Minister, had shot the editor of a leading Paris newspaper who was blackmailing her husband. The murder trial started in July and raised a host of political and legal issues, exposure of the blackmail material, as well as providing a focal point for French society’s dealing with the “new” woman. At the end of July, Caillaux was acquitted on the grounds of women’s excitability.
Meanwhile, in London, the political leadership was dealing with the perennial problem of Ireland. While a “home rule” proposal was being debated in Parliament, Ulster Protestants took up arms against the British government plan. In March, 1914, rather than actively suppress their countrymen, portions of the British Army threatened to resign (the “Curragh Mutiny”). The resulting turmoil brought the resignation of the Minister for War and several senior generals, a high-profile political debate, and undermined the chain of command within the British Army and its morale generally—a great politico-military crisis only a few months before Britain was to start it’s bloodiest campaign ever.
It's hard to say what is “normal” when a major dramatic event comes crashing through everyone’s everyday lives. Things that appeared ordinary at the time, look strange in retrospect. Four days before the Archduke was shot, the Royal Navy made its annual friendly visit to the German Imperial Navy base in Kiel, with the Kaiser in attendance, while “German and British bluejackets made merry ashore.” Even after the assassination, on July 18, the German Fleet announced that they would make their traditional return visit to the Royal Navy base in Portsmouth. The visit, planned for August 8, never happened.
In July, the Kaiser went on his normal summer cruise off of the Norwegian coast. Radomir Putnik, the Commander of the Serbian Army still went to Hungary to “take the waters” and was there when the Austro-Hungarians declared war on Serbia (in a demonstration of bygone chivalry, the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph allowed him to return to his command!).
Every historical event has comparable stories. The larger the event, the larger the shadow cast by our focus on the grand developments of the day. This phenomenon is one way in which we always look at the (relatively) distant past through the lens of more recent events. Curragh and Caillaux would have been the featured facets of a history of 1914 which stopped on June 27. If the Nazi’s hadn’t invaded Poland in September, 1939, we might have remembered that summer for the premier of The Wizard of Oz and the inaugural telecast of a baseball game the previous week.
When historians of the next century look back on the last two years, which issue will get top billing: the defeat of Trump, the pandemic, or Putin’s invasion of Ukraine? We can easily spin all sorts of scenarios in which each one frames a decisive moment in world history. Of course, we don’t know which it will be, but the other two risk falling into the shadows.