I’m watching a “Rockford Files” episode in which Nazis are about to figure (so it seems) in the plot, and something occurs to me: in 1977 when this episode was made, the Nazi era was precisely as recent as the Jimmy Carter/Ronald Reagan era is now.
To me, Nazis are part of “history,” but I remember Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan perfectly well, not as history but as lived experience from my childhood. In fact, in 1980, I was practically old enough to vote for (er, against) Ronald Reagan, so it doesn’t feel so long ago. But Jim Rockford (and, for that matter, James Garner) in 1977 would remember Nazis not just as childhood experience, but from their (earlier) adulthood.
As a child, I often wondered why so much of our popular culture (TV, movies, etc.) was “about” World War II, and Nazis in particular. Some sliver of this presumably had to do with the fact that the crimes of the Nazis were so extreme, and some part of it presumably had to do with the overrepresentation of Jews in Hollywood. But I realize now that most of it was simply due to the fact that World War II was a big disruptive thing that had recently happened to all the grownups in the world. Even my parents, young as they were, were old enough to have been affected by it — my father was even stationed at Great Lakes Naval Station in Waukegan, Illinois for a time, although the war ended before there was time to deploy him.
Similarly, I wonder whether the young political people I work with are curious about why Ronald Reagan looms so large in the popular consciousness. Part of it is no doubt due to the fact that he was larger than life even in life, and part of it due to his charisma, and part of it due to his ideas; but part of it is simply due to the fact that Ronald Reagan was a big disruptive thing that happened to all of the grownups in the world. Everyone my age and older — that is, basically, everyone old enough to have kids in middle school now, or older — has personal memories of that era.
And if you really want to blow your mind, consider this: when my grandmother was born (and she is still alive and well), the Civil War was as recent an occurrence as the Vietnam War is now, give or take a year or two. And I remember the Vietnam War, or at least the end of it; and I’m not that old. So my grandmother must have interacted with people in her childhood for whom the Civil War was part of their adult lived experience. And the oldest of those people, in their childhoods, would almost certainly have interacted with people who remembered the Revolutionary War from their adult experience. That’s a pretty remarkable formulation of the short duration of American history to date.