“At war”—that phrase with which leaders everywhere flatter themselves, and us, when framing the fight against the COVID pandemic—should be used with special care this anniversary month, when we remember a real war of far greater danger and its own unexpected outcomes.
World War II, which began in earnest (apologies, heroic Poland) with Germany’s blitzkrieg into the Low Countries eighty years ago this month (May 10) and ended in Europe seventy-five years ago also this month (May 8), is that war. One might have thought VE-Day at three quarters of a century a major, press-worthy event. The celebration has been muffled at best. The competing noise is great, but there is something else. That V stands for victory, and victory in war, unless in a public health–related war like the one we are now supposedly waging, is to us post-moderns no longer a polite idea. True: 1945 represents a “good” victory because Nazism was “bad,” but even in the United Kingdom and the Dominions, which fought Germany the longest and at first alone, the year is more likely to be spoken of as marking “the end of the war” or “the return of peace” than the triumph over a dreaded foe. Lately, the Queen, in her second speech to kingdom and commonwealth in five weeks, did her matchless best to summon the old fighting spirit and remind her subjects they are still made of that same stuff. One wonders. The National Health Service (today object of a worshipfulness reserved in a different age only for the Royal Navy) calls the tune, advising that VE-Day celebrations be muted. Indoor family picnics were suggested. Not quite the same though: no bells, no bonfires, no real royals on the palace balcony, no conga-lines in the streets. Our caution collides with our need for enacted remembrance. This is sad and a missed opportunity, one that would have been worth some risk.
The Second World War has been documented and interpreted on a scale commensurate with the event itself. From Americans, it called forth bravery and heroism in battle, exuberant patriotism and prodigies of production at home. It summoned forth, we have subsequently learned, the “Greatest Generation,” though those men and women then thought themselves quite ordinary. It was dissent-free. Americans went to war determined to win it and win it for good, finishing the job left over from the first, 1914–18, installment. They succeeded in full, with the help of allies but as the single indispensable ally: primus inter pares.
To remember these anniversaries amid current frenzies is to confront two conflicting impulses that tend to arise from such shattering events. Reaction one: the breathless observation that “Everything’s changed now,” “This is going to change everything,” or some variant. Reaction two: the craving “to get back to normality,” to get back to how it was on Saturday, December 6, 1941, or for us now, say, New Year’s 2020. New is not what we want. Old will do just fine. And then, before we know it, both “everything’s changed” and “get back to normal” have morphed into another cliché—“the new normal”—and we are at sea. Which will it be? How to have our cake and eat it too?
About the Greatest Generation’s future, which is now history to us, we know a few things that might help put the rein to the more extravagant and anxious claims about the times ahead. Consider what happened in three countries: our own, our greatest ally (Great Britain), and our greatest foe (Germany).
In the United States, the biggest surprise in 1945 was the quick return of durable prosperity. Depression died during the war and did not come to life again with the peace. This made for a post-war America hugely different from the grim 1930s in which so many of the warriors had grown up. Millions had never known good times: “Everything changed,” indeed, and for the better, at least materially. Add to prosperity the promising rumblings of the Civil Rights movement and the blossoming of modern medicine and happy days seemed here again, at least for twenty-five years or so.
The British didn’t leave their postwar recovery to the market alone. They had a formal plan. The Beveridge Report, published in 1942 but in the oven since the 1930s, laid out how Britain would redeem promises made but broken after the First World War and become the proverbial land fit for heroes to live in. “A revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching,” as William Beveridge put it, and when Labor came to power in 1945 they left out little in forging the new normal of the welfare state: employment, education, health, housing, security in old age. The only problem, which should not have been a surprise, was that Britain was broke—bled dry by the war and unable to pay for all the nice new things. This meant that the new social(ist) order would march hand in weary hand with national decline for the next thirty years.
Germany experienced the most startling surprise of all. Not just defeated on the battlefield but having seen their homeland, which had been spared destruction in the First War, ground to dust in the Second, Germans in 1945 stared into a future of unimaginable bleakness. Everything had truly changed. There was even talk of forced deindustrialization to destroy Germany’s war-making power forever. Something different from expectations happened, however. Sanitized of Nazism but not of Germanness, the nation that so resoundingly lost the war in Europe just as resoundingly won the peace. With the benefit of American aid and reintegration with the West (thanks to the Soviet threat) and a native willingness to work harder than anyone else, the reborn Federal Republic roared to life in less than a decade. It never let up—a victory that, as Europe’s largest and richest economy, today’s reunited Germany still enjoys.
Everything was different after the war, everywhere. But in time, different grows tiring and changes to normal—until something else comes along to knock normal back on its heels and frighten us into action again. Everyone knows this, but no one plans for it. We are frightened now, but perhaps not so hopelessly crippled as we seem. The Allies seemed crippled in the spring of 1940, and Germany seemed crippled in the spring of 1945. They weren’t forever, or even for very long. Remembrance should be the corrective here, if we can get through the static.
Static was something well-known to the generation who grew up in the 1930s and 1940s, and even to the oldest of their offspring. Seventy-five years ago, we were still in the age of radio: broadcast, shortwave, walkie-talkie—when analog technology often delivered less-than-crystalline sound. Whether you were trying to listen to an FDR fireside chat or a performance from the Metropolitan Opera, the Grand Ole Opry or Amos ‘n’ Andy, if your receiver was too far from the transmitter, static was what you got. That interference might, however, have made us listen harder. A society that would keep contact with its past, George Steiner observed, must train up habits of shared remembrance. He meant society not as a collective but as a body of individual members to be safeguarded: “What is committed to memory and susceptible of recall constitutes the ballast of the self. The pressures of political exaction, the detergent of social conformity, cannot tear it from us.” As the distance grows between our moment and that of our forebears, it behooves us to use the opportunity of such anniversaries as May 1945 to listen harder, through the static of angry commentary, unmoored models, and officious directives, and to steady ourselves and our society with the ballast of the past.
However dire our current calamity, and whether caused more by pestilence or panic, the future awaiting on the other side of it will, between the impulse to admit “everything’s changed” and the cry to return “back to normality,” fashion some tolerable way ahead, partly new but partly not. Such has always been the habit of reality—although its means will probably surprise us.