Among the many acts canceled this spring due to the coronavirus pandemic, there is one that stands out.
The 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, which is commemorated this May, was to be a truly international event. In Berlin they had declared May 8 as a national holiday and a large celebration was planned. In London there were to be three days of festivities, including a parade of war veterans down the Mall. Thousands of street parties, concerts, festivals and memorial services had been planned across the continent. Almost all of this has been suppressed.
For veterans and war survivors, this would perhaps have been the last chance to participate in such a grand celebration. The next round anniversary of Victory Day will not take place until 2025, a date when very few of them will continue to be with us.
However sad as all these cancellations are, perhaps now we can take the opportunity to reflect on our way of remembering World War II. In recent years, the commemorations have become divisive and damaging.
Last year, in the D-Day commemoration in Portsmouth, a steel wall had to be erected around the space reserved for the events, because the organizers worried that they were activists to demonstrate against Donald Trump. They did not invite Vladimir Putin, and the reaction of the Russian authorities to the contempt was to say that D-Day was not worthy of commemoration anyway, because, at this stage of the war, Russian heroes had already won all the truly important battles.
In other parts of Europe, too, there have been similar tensions that have clouded the celebrations. Last January, the Polish President, Andrzej Duda, gave up going to Jerusalem, to a Holocaust remembrance ceremony. It angered him that Putin was going to make a speech but he had not been given the same honor. Putin replied by boycotting an equivalent ceremony in Poland, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
Many victim groups have also started boycotting these kinds of ceremonies. In Croatia, Serbs, Jews and Gypsies have for several years refused to attend the commemorations of the Holocaust, in protest against the rise of the Croatian far right. In Hungary and Austria, Jewish groups did the same in 2014 and 2018, alleging that populists in their respective countries were using the ceremonies for their own purposes.
The European Parliament is already so concerned with events that, last September, it passed an extraordinary resolution on acts in memory of the war. It condemned the growing trend across Europe to glorify fascists, communists, and their many wartime collaborators. However, while specifically holding the Russian authorities accountable, the text did not mention any of the EU Member States that have done the same.
In such an atmosphere, not celebrating anything this May may not be a bad idea. On Victory Day, confined to our homes, perhaps we should take the opportunity to examine what exactly we are remembering and – also very important – what we are forgetting.
In Britain today, we see war as a simple battle between absolute good and absolute evil. We have stopped appreciating the difficult moral decisions we had to make in the process, especially in relation to the bombing campaigns or our abandonment of Eastern Europe in 1945.
Not all of our war veterans were saints and heroes, as they themselves acknowledge before anyone else. Last year, during the D-Day commemoration, British war veteran Harry Bellinge assured a BBC journalist that much of what is remembered today is, in reality, “pure talk.” “Don’t thank me, and don’t say I’m a hero,” he insisted. “All the heroes are dead.”
American veteran Leonard Creo agreed. When I interviewed him at Christmas, just before he passed away, he told me that the commemorations did not interest him, because the cult of heroism of World War II seemed absurd to him. “We see increasing flattery with each passing day, because we are less and less,” he explained. “They will soon know who is the last. And then they will attribute everything to a single guy who may have been a cook, or an administrator, or whatever. “
In continental Europe there is also the cult of the martyr. On the continent, at least 35 million people died, and memories of the massacre continue to spark strong feelings everywhere. But, also in this case, not all the victims were completely pure.
Greece suffered terribly under German occupation. But many died at the hands of their own compatriots in the savage civil war that erupted afterward.
In France, 1944-1945 was not only a year of liberation, but also a period of shaving heads and revenge against the collaborationists.
One of the countries that suffered the most in the war was Ukraine, with one in five inhabitants dead. The Ukrainian partisans exercised heroic resistance against the Nazis and against the Soviets, but they also carried out a murderous campaign against Polish and Jewish minorities. Should we consider them heroes, martyrs or monsters?
Those who survived 1945 remember the moral complexity of that time. His generation knew that war was not something glorious, but something terrible from which no nation emerged with its principles intact. That was the reason why, from that year on, our grandparents set aside their disagreements to found a whole range of world institutions, including the United Nations and the European Union. One such institution – the World Health Organization, created in 1948 – is today at the forefront of the fight against the coronavirus.
The coming months will probably be among the most difficult in the past 75 years. Our national leaders are already comparing the current situation with the last world war. Perhaps the time has come for them to follow the example of our grandparents and learn to work together once again.
If we are able to overcome this crisis with dignity and cooperation – and, fundamentally, without reliving old resentments – then we, too, may have something worth telling our grandchildren.
Keith Lowe is the author of Wild Continent: Europe after World War II. His new book, Prisoners of History, will be published in July. @KeithLoweAuthor.
Translation by María Luisa Rodríguez Tapia.