The very recent past should be considered history. That’s the result of a BBC History Magazine survey, which found that the majority of respondents believe the cut-off between current affairs and history occurred no more than ten years ago. Close to a third insisted that even a second before the present counts as history.
We commissioned this poll to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, a momentous event that has perhaps only recently begun to be thought of as history. We asked members of BBC Magazines Insiders (formerly the Reader panels), “When in your view to events in the past become history?”
Of the 1897 respondents 31% stated that a single second in the past could be considered history. The most common argument for this point of view was summarised by one individual who wrote: “One second ago is the past, and the past is history.”
Of course not everyone shared this view. The second most popular response, with 28% of the vote, was that a decade ago was when events shifted into the realm of history. “I believe 10 years is sufficient time to develop some useful perspective on the event yet not dismiss it simply because it happened too recently.” said one respondent.
Earlier options were distinctly less popular. Only 6% felt the cut off was 20 years ago, 4% opted for 30 years ago and a mere 1% believed that 40 years ago represented the boundary between history and current affairs. The days when anything after the Second World War was considered too recent for history appear to be long gone as just 4% plumped for history having begun 50 years ago, with a further 4% arguing it began earlier than that.
Some people preferred a more personal response. Of those surveyed, 4% felt that history began before their own birth. “If I can place myself with regard to the events, even if I was very young, I can’t look backwards to it,” said one.
Others thought that broader human memory was an important factor, believing that history comes into being when nobody is left alive who experienced an event. This answer was chosen by 5% of those surveyed, one of who wrote: “For me, history is anything which is not within living memory. If someone can still remember and talk about an event, it is still current and alive and could be classed as ‘recent past’ events. If it has to be read about or heard via [a] second generation or more, then it has passed into history.”
When do events in the past become history? The survey results in full
A second ago – 31%
10 years ago – 28%
20 years ago – 6%
30 years ago – 4%
40 years ago – 1%
50 years ago – 4%
Over 50 years ago – 4%
Before I was born – 4%
When no-one is alive who experienced that event – 5%
Other – 12%
This article was first published in the November 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine.
To find out how a group of historians answered this question, click here.
To have your say on this subject, visit our fourm.