We must not let D-Day veterans’ legacy be destroyed
It was not the speeches by the world leaders who gathered at Portsmouth harbor or in the cemeteries of Normandy to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day that left many of us profoundly moved, and in many cases in tears. It was the sight of the veterans, most of them now in their 90s, who survived the carnage on June 6, 1944, and who now symbolize the victory of good over the evils of ultranationalism, xenophobia and nativism embodied by the murderous Nazi and fascist movements of the first half of the 20th century.
Those former servicemen and women represent for us the hope that war, oppression and hate can be eradicated from the world.
Deep down, such ceremonies are not only about paying tribute to and thanking those who were prepared to sacrifice their lives to rid the world of authoritarianism and ensure a life free of tyranny for generations to come. They are also an opportunity to reflect on the direction in which the international community is currently heading, through the prism of these Second World War veterans who have seen it all.
In their youth, they witnessed Europe descend into the worst kind of nationalism and populism that led to the rise of the Third Reich and Adolf Hitler. It resulted in the most horrific bloodbath in history, which claimed the lives of tens of millions and visited genocide and utter devastation upon Europe and the wider world.
Nevertheless, the free world showed immense resilience, whether it was the home front standing firm or the bravery demonstrated on the battlefront. There was a unity of purpose and a determination that, whatever the cost, this war could not be lost, lest the spirit of humankind be extinguished for decades or even centuries.
Now the warning signs of discord are once again increasingly visible throughout the global community, some of which remind us of the events that happened in the early part of the 20th century. These coming months, leading up to the 75th anniversary of VE Day on May 8 next year, must therefore be a time for honest contemplation of our future. Has the passage of time since those dark days led us to forget that horrific period in our history, and thus left us without the power to prevent it from happening again? Are we all too nonchalant in our attitude toward the unprecedented period of peace, freedom, coexistence and prosperity that was achieved by the visionary and courageous leadership in the aftermath of the Second World War? Are we mistakenly taking it all for granted?
In a very short time after the killing fields grew still, the international community came together to give the world the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The cemeteries of Normandy that are the last resting place for thousands of soldiers and civilians, the gas chambers of Auschwitz, and the nuclear devastation of Nagasaki and Hiroshima are still within living memory. Nevertheless, nationalism, tribalism and populism continue to amplify what separates people instead of what they have in common, and are on the rise and taking hold of our societies. History might not repeat itself, but it can resurrect itself with too familiar a face.
Should the world descend once more into deep discord, and even perhaps open conflict, are there now the forces out there to stop it before it is too late? Or to bravely fight it, as those incredible young people did in the 1930s and 1940s?
Certain aspects of human existence remain constant, including the scarcity of resources and the aspiration for power and respect. Nevertheless, one of the insights of the free world post-1945 has been that, whatever the differences between peoples and nations, what they have in common as human beings far surpasses what divides them. What we can achieve by empowering each other and cooperating with one another exceeds by far what we can achieve by operating on our own, especially through aggression.
As we reflect on this remarkable anniversary, it is also time to look back at the tremendous progress that has been made in the promotion of human rights and accountable governments. In a very short time after the killing fields grew still, the international community came together to give the world the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which in one document presented a consensus of the rights that each and every one us should enjoy.
It was also recognized that punishing the defeated countries would be counterproductive to building a peaceful world order. Individuals were made to pay the price for their crimes, but Germany, Italy and Japan were not only allowed, but actively supported with massive resources, to reconstruct and rehabilitate their societies. And the nascent ideas of establishing collective security, through the UN and NATO, and daring to dream of a supranational Europe, are a credit to a leadership that was not only visionary and thoughtful, but also drew inspiration from the spirit of those young men and women who went off to contribute to the war effort knowing that they might never come back, but were not deterred.
They are an example to us all of a patriotism that does not have to lead to jingoism or hatred of the other. They served their countries in war, and those who were lucky enough to survive helped rebuild it in war’s aftermath.
Despite the fanfare surrounding the politicians’ speeches in Portsmouth and Normandy that paid homage to the spirit and sacrifice of a previous generation who helped build a peaceful world free from tyranny, many of today’s political figures are operating counter to that spirit, through their actions and, in some cases, their inaction. Replacing diplomacy with threats of war, and economic agreements with trade wars, undermining the EU instead of consolidating it, and appealing to the lowest common denominator of fear of the other instead of embracing diversity — none of this is what the Allies fought for.
This year’s D-Day commemoration was probably one of the last big anniversaries that will bring together hundreds of Second World War veterans, who can share with younger generation not only the horrific experience of war, but also the hope of overcoming the tragedy of a world with its finger hovering over the self-destruct button.
Our true respect for them, and for those who did not survive, is best shown by not letting their legacy be forgotten or even destroyed.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg