By Dr. Sander A. Diamond, professor of history
This year marks the milestone anniversaries of seven events that changed our nation and the world, altering the lives of the witnesses and all that followed.
The Battle of Gettysburg (150 years), Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg (150 years), the inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as president (80 years), Dr. Martin Luther King’s defining oration in Washington, D.C. (50 years), and the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas (50 years) helped define the American journey and continue to impact our lives. Adolf Hitler’s ascension to power (80 years) and the Battle of Stalingrad (70 years) altered the course of world history in ways that were unimaginable at the time.
On Jan. 31, 1933, Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany. Within a year, he consolidated his power, the Third Reich was born, and the course of world history was soon to take a different course.
Three months later, FDR stood on the steps of the Capitol and was sworn in as president in the midst of the Great Depression. Unlike Hitler, who told the German people that the depression was caused by a great conspiracy, FDR told our nation that “all we have to fear is fear itself.” FDR led the the nation through the darkest days of the Great Depression and World War II. Rarely has there been a sharper contrast between good and evil, between all that was embodied in FDR and what Der Führer represented.
In the annals of military history, there are battles that turn the tide of warfare. In World War II there were two: D-Day, June 6, 1944 and the Battle of Stalingrad, which came to an end Jan. 31, 1943 with victory by the Red Army. It was after Stalingrad when Hitler acknowledged to his close associates that the war might not end as he imagined.
In World War II, it was Stalingrad and D-Day June 6, 1944. This year we will commemorate the 150th anniversary of a battle that took place in Gettysburg, from July 1-3, 1863. The hilly landscape, with outcroppings of rock and names like Seminary Ridge, Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Ridge, became a killing field. When it ended, 56,000 were dead or wounded, and Lee’s shattered forces retreated to Virginia. The tide of war had turned and when it ended in April 1865, more than 750,000 men had died, according to recent estimates.
The battlefield was dedicated Nov. 19, 1863, with the grave sites still fresh and much of it still littered with pieces of weapons of war. The words delivered by President Lincoln that day transcend what occurred on that blood-soaked battlefield, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth.”
One hundred years later, on Nov. 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy, the embodiment of youth and vigor, was shot and a few minutes after 1 p.m. the nation and the world were in a state of shock as they listened to the report from Parkland Hospital. After JFK’s death, American politics and foreign policy moved in a different direction. We are left to only speculate what would have happened had he been elected for a second term.
Four months earlier, on Aug. 28, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial overlooking the mall and delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. In the shadow of Lincoln, he called upon the nation to complete its work, the promise of equality for all 100 years after Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. The Civil Rights Movement had moved to the top of the nation’s agenda.
We can never forget the evilness of Hitler, but as we stop and commemorate so many defining events this year, we should be thankful that each generation brought forth people like Lincoln, FDR, JFK and King who in word and deed gave us a better world. Their monuments are less in stone than in ourselves.