Top of the list in British history wasn't the start of World War II, or the 1936 abdication of King Edward VIII: It was the death of Princess Diana five years ago this coming Saturday. And the most significant event in world history wasn't the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1946, or humanity's landing on the moon in 1969: It was the terrorist attacks on the United States of Sept. 11 last year.
It doesn't get any better when it comes to personal history. More than one-third of 1,000 people questioned said they had nothing of sentimental value to hand on to future generations, and one-fourth said they'd rather have an exotic holiday than a completed copy of their family history.
"This is a pretty shocking result," said Nick Barrett, historian and consultant to the U.K. History Channel, a British offshoot of the U.S. cable TV channel, which commissioned the poll. "How Princess Diana's death gets rated the most significant event in British history in the past 100 years defeats me. But it shows how the impact of historical events is skewed towards more recent events where people's personal experiences come into play -- and particularly if they are recorded as moving images."
Age clearly affected the poll, as those with longer memories saw greater significance in more distant events. While 41 percent of all respondents said the Sept. 11 attacks were the most important event in world history, for instance, only 28 percent age over 65 thought so.
The British history priority dates, responding to a set list of events, were:
1. Death of Princess Diana, Aug. 31, 1997 (22 percent)
2. Start of World War II, Sept. 3, 1939 (21 percent)
3. Women win vote, Dec. 28, 1918 (15 percent)
4. Northern Ireland Good Friday Agreement, April 10, 1998 (9 percent)
5. End of World War I, Nov. 11, 1918 (8 percent)
6. England win World Cup soccer, July 30, 1966 (7 percent)
7. Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, June 2, 1953 (4 percent)
8. Falklands War starts, April 2, 1982 (4 percent)
9. John Lennon assassinated, Dec. 8, 1980 (2 percent)
10. Abdication of King Edward VII, Dec. 11, 1936 (1 percent).
The world history priority dates, responding to a set list of events, were:
1. World Trade Center attack, Sept. 11, 2001 (41 percent)
2. Atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Aug. 6, 1945 (19 percent)
3. Berlin Wall falls, Nov. 9, 1989 (11 percent)
4. Man lands on moon, July 21, 1969, (9 percent)
5. Nelson Mandela freed in S.Africa, Feb. 11, 1990 (9 percent)
6. End of World War I, Nov. 11, 1918 (2 percent)
7. John F. Kennedy assassinated, Nov. 22, 1963 (2 percent)
8. Pan Am Lockerbie disaster, Dec. 21, 1988 (2 percent)
9. Vietnam War cease-fire, Jan. 23, 1973 (1 percent)
10.Tiananmen Square massacre, China, June 4, 1989 (plus 0 percent).
Despite the fact that history is now considered the "in" subject in Britain, with increasing amounts of television time, movies, books and newspaper space devoted to it, Barrett conceded there is a sense that with so much history around them all the time the British may not feel the same compelling need to urgently explore it as a foreign visitor might.
"People grow up with it; they assume it will always be there," he said. "It's the same with their own family histories. But it won't be there if people don't record things or have something to pass on. This poll is a real wake-up call. It certainly suggests we need to re-examine the way we look at things as time goes on."
At the History Channel's U.S. headquarters in New York, Executive Vice President Abbe Raven said Americans were probably not all that different in their attitudes to history as the British, although their interest in family history was probably quite a bit higher due to immigration. "People look at history very much as it relates to their own lives, so more recent events will take on greater personal value," she said. "Many of the events have moving pictures, which help with recollection.
"I think Americans would move Kennedy higher up the list, and the moon walk without question. Nelson Mandela would probably come down a bit, and I think the Oklahoma bombing might well replace the Lockerbie disaster."