Thursday, May 7, 2020

75 Years Ago

75 years ago today, Germany surrendered unconditionally and World War II ended in Europe. (The Pacific war continued another three months more.) Normally, we would have expected to see large-scale commemorations of this event - as we saw last year for the 75th anniversary of D-Day.  But, of course, all such celebrations are cancelled this year, and our commemoration of that great moment in modern history is inevitably muted by the contemporary tragedy we are presently experiencing.

World War II remains somehow central to our cultural consciousness. World War II movies and documentaries remain a permanent staple. (That is why I look forward every Sunday to the latest episode of World on Fire on PBS.) The war was even more central to the consciousness of my parents' generation, of course. Their "greatest generation" came of age in the war and was forever formed by that experience, as was American and European politics pretty much until at least the end of the Cold War, which was in a sense the epilogue to the unfinished European and world conflict of the 20th century.

Much as World War II formed the political consciousness of those who came of age during it and participated in it, our present pandemic will likely form the political consciousness of those whose futures are being formed by it now. An important difference, however, is that World War II was largely a unifying experience for the"greatest generation." There was a strong sense of all being in it together and all pulling their weight in support of a common purpose. Perhaps if we now had the kind of high quality leadership the country had during World War II something similar would be happening now. But of course, we don't. Nor are we the same sort of society we were three-quarters of a century ago. This is a crisis that disproportionately damages the poorer and more marginalized and which has heightened rather than diminished the divisions and inequalities which have increasingly corrupted American society since 1980.

Maybe that is why World War II nostalgia is so strong, why World War II stories and movies exert such a perennial appeal. They remind us that evil can come perilously close to winning and that the cost of stopping it is high, but that a united society can do so, because it can call forth from its citizens the best in us.

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