By Debra Adams Simmons, HISTORY Executive Editor
Each day, an average of 294 American veterans of World War II are dying. This Veterans Day provides an opportunity to honor those rapidly dwindling survivors, most of them now in their 90s and 100s. Of the 16 million American soldiers who fought, only 389,292 were alive this year, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“Every day, memories of World War II, its sights and sounds, terrors and triumphs, disappear,” says the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, which seeks to explain the Allied victory and the price of freedom.
The day now known as Veterans Day began in 1919, a year after the World War I Armistice with Germany, which occurred on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918.
In proclaiming the holiday, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson said he hoped the day “will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service, and with gratitude for the victory.” As we remember those who served, share your story with us at email@example.com.
Another anniversary: The fall of the Wall
Thirty years ago, on November 9, 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall came amid revolution, five days after 500,000 people gathered in protest. A spokesman for communist East Germany announced that its citizens could finally cross the border whenever they wanted, and the demolition of the wall commenced with hammers and picks.
After World War II, a defeated Germany had been divided into four “allied occupation zones,” occupied by the Soviet Union, Britain, the United States and France. As it created an Iron Curtain between communist East Germany and West Germany, Berliners could navigate freely across the divided city.
That ended in 1961. The Berlin Wall began overnight: Barbed wire, cinder blocks and then concrete dividing east and west. East Germany built the wall to stem the tide of East Germans—2.5 million of them—who had fled west. About 5,000 East Germans were captured trying to get over the wall; 190 were killed.
All that ended in November 1989. (Subscribers can see our original 1961 magazine story here).
Today in a minute
Before Putin: Yes, Russia had annexed Crimea before. And unlike Moscow’s current leader, a German-born empress took Ukraine as well. Catherine the Great did that in the 18th century, during her 34-year rule of Russia. Catherine’s Russia doubled in population, unlike Putin’s, which is struggling to maintain its level. “Catherine was an astute politician who, though personally fueled by Enlightenment-era ideals, acted within a world of traditional authority,” writes Erin Blakemore.
Pay up, Harvard: The Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda is demanding reparations from Harvard University. The reasoning: Antiguans were enslaved by an early benefactor, the Washington Post reports. “We consider Harvard’s failure to acknowledge its obligations to Antigua and the stain it bears from benefiting from the blood of our people to be shocking,” Prime Minister Gaston Browne wrote to Harvard President Lawrence Bacow. Bacow responded that the university has “more work to be done” to address slavery’s effect on the institution.
The honor of citizenship. It simplified Roman life. Improved it. Offered protection. Codified gender privilege. Citizenship, with its rights and responsibilities, became a central tenet of the Roman Empire. As Rome grew, concepts of citizenship expanded as well, causing tension, writes Clelia Martinez Maza for Nat Geo's History magazine. “Neither does the sea nor a great expanse of intervening land keep one from being a citizen; nor here are Asia and Europe distinguished,” orator Aelius Aristides said nearly two millennia ago.
Puritan tell-all. It became America’s first banned book. What stirred up Puritans and Pilgrims in 1637 about Thomas Morton’s New English Canaan? Morton critiqued the Plymouth Colony as uptight, joyless, and dedicated to suppressing Native Americans. In the late 1620s, Morton formed a breakaway settlement, built a maypole, and traded with and welcomed Native Americans. “It was,” Atlas Obscura wrote, “basically an early colonial version of Footloose.” Incensed, the Pilgrims broke up Morton’s community, chopped down the maypole, and left Morton for dead on an island off New Hampshire. He made it back to London, and began writing. If he were alive today, he’d have had a last laugh: A recent sale of his book went for $60,000.
Your Instagram photo of the day
"Unleashed fancy." The stunning interior of Palermo’s Casa Professa—or Church of the Gesù. The building is one of the most important masterpieces of Baroque art in Sicily, Italy. It is enhanced by incredible decorations in marble and stucco, which according to American art historian Donald Garstang, "belong to the world of unleashed fancy."
Are you one of our 125 million Instagram followers? (If not, follow us now.) +
Overheard at Nat Geo
A quiet adventurer. Midway through the latest episode of our podcast, Overheard, I heard National Geographic writer and editor Kristin Romey say she was diving into cenotes (flooded caves) in Mexico with Guillermo de Anda, the archaeologist who explored the ancient Mayan Cave of the Jaguar God. What? Oh yeah, Romey says matter of factly in the office. “Sometimes you'll be lowered down the hole into the water and you're just bobbing on the surface and the water is crystal clear in the cenotes. I'll just drop my flashlight, point it down, and 150 feet below me is a perfectly articulated skeleton next to like a piece of pottery sitting upright.” Oh, that explains it. Catch additional Nat Geo stories on Overheard. Subscribe here.
The big takeaway
Shedding a light. The just-inducted head of the Smithsonian Institution used to have a morning routine. Lonnie G. Bunch III would take an early walk past Emmett Till’s coffin, on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which he founded. The coffin had been donated by Till’s mother after the 14-year-old lynching victim was disinterred and reburied. Why did Bunch go there daily? First, he said, to honor the strength of a mother who struggled for decades to keep her son’s memory alive. But the other reason was to remind him of the deeper, less-told stories about American history. “There is no way you can tell this story,” he told a Harvard crowd last month, “without shining a light on the dark corners."
Want a newsletter every day?
Tomorrow, TRAVEL Executive Editor George Stone, inspired by the 30th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall, explores cultural as well as physical borders in traveling. If you’re not a subscriber, sign up here.
One last glimpse
How it was done. Yes, sledgehammers were used to destroy the Berlin Wall. Sometimes, you just have to see it. Not wielding a sledgehammer among the thousands of East Germans who streamed through the wall the first night: a 35-year-old physicist named Angela Merkel. The future German leader kept a weekly sauna appointment and had a beer with a friend before she joined the crowds heading west.