VE Day and the Ongoing Fight against Fascism
On May 7, 1945, German commanders surrendered unconditionally to the Allied Forces in a French schoolhouse, bringing to an end the ruinous, genocidal 12-year reign of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Nazi Germany was directly responsible for untold suffering and the deaths of an estimated 50 million people.
Seventy-five years ago yesterday celebrations erupted around the world. The day designated as “VE (Victory in Europe) Day” was one of the greatest days in human history.
Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic forced a subdued celebration of this important historical milestone. Many planned commemorative ceremonies were relegated to online spaces.
Nonetheless, throughout Europe national leaders participated in rituals of remembrance; Great Britain observed two minutes of silence at 11am to honor the fallen.
Alas, few people in this country seem to have paid any attention. This is due in no small part to widespread historical illiteracy. This illiteracy is one result of the abysmal state of education in the U.S., especially in the embattled humanities and social sciences, in both K-12 and post-secondary education.
But in the spirit of carrying on the fight against fascism — a fight that did not end in 1945, but is instead an ongoing responsibility for anyone committed to preserving and advancing the cause of democracy — I want to share some personal reflections inspired by this great day in history.
1) I have many friends and colleagues who are filled with despair at the sorry state of our country in these exceptionally trying times — especially the mediocrity, mendacity and malevolence of the current administration. This was true even before the coronavirus pandemic!
But VE Day reminds us that preceding generations faced great hardships and went through great trials, and that there is light at the end of the tunnel — if we redouble our efforts in the struggle for human rights, justice, fairness…and public health.
Beginning in the 1930s and leading into the war and Holocaust years, the rise of Hitler and the Nazis cast dark and ominous clouds over Europe and the world. Once the Nazis started invading country after country in the late 1930s-early 1940s, it was never preordained that they would or could be defeated.
But due to the extraordinary commitment and sacrifice of hundreds of millions of ordinary people in Europe, (including the former Soviet Union), North America and elsewhere — and the inspired leadership of towering figures like Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill — the inspired forces of democracy (however imperfectly practiced) beat back the malignant forces of fascism.
The multitudes were dancing in the streets on May 8, 1945 because all the pent-up feelings of the war years — among them omnipresent fear, deep anxiety, sadness, loss, and rage — needed to be expressed publicly.
2) I have now reached the age where I am no longer a “young, upstart know-it-all,” in the words of my friend and veteran civil rights and anti-war activist Tom Gardner, but “one who gets to be a wise, sage know-it-all, an elder.”
Part of that “elder” role — at least as I see myself trying it on — is to transmit information and insight to the next generation. That is what parents and other mentors to young people do as a matter of course. Those of us who choose to write and teach — especially about history and social change — have further responsibilities.
With specific reference to World War II, I am a member of a kind of “bridge” generation. My generation is young enough to have grown up in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s with sex, drugs, rock and roll, and the societal convulsions resulting from increased racial/ethnic diversity and inclusivity, feminism and LGBT rights. But we’re old enough to have had direct and immediate connections with the war in our families — my parents’ generation lived through and fought in that war — and in the cultural psyche.
I’m reminded of this generational legacy — and the responsibilities it confers — each time I see and hear a Holocaust survivor speak. I had Holocaust survivors — some of them with numbers tattooed on their arms — in my own family. Unlike younger Americans today, for whom World War II took place in a distant past of newsreel footage and black and white photographs, that war was alive in my childhood and adolescence — even if its effects remained largely unspoken.
My wife and I, on the other hand, have had to seek out opportunities for our teenage son to see and hear first-person testimonies of survivors — most recently through Zoom!
The World War Two generation is aging fast; out of sixteen million Americans who served in that war, only 389,000 were alive in 2019. Approximately 294 die every day.
Tens of millions more — including millions of women — served the war effort on the home front. Think Rosie the Riveter, and all the women whose work in factories manufacturing planes, jeeps, trucks, armaments, uniforms, supplies, etc. made vital contributions to the Allied victory.
Whether or not they served or worked in war-supporting industries, countless others in that generation were deeply affected by the war, both in Europe and the Pacific. Of course not everyone’s experience was the same. For example, Japanese Americans experienced overt racism: more than 120,000 were forcibly interned in camps in California, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Arkansas. African-Americans served in segregated military units, and returned home to Jim Crow laws in the south and discrimination and racism across the country.
Few members of that generation will survive beyond this decade. For people whose grandparents or great-grandparents lived through the war years, I urge you to interview them, ask them questions about their experience. Record the conversations if you can. There is nothing like first-person testimony to bring history to life.
There is also no substitute for serious scholarship and analysis, especially when the lessons of the World War II era — including the years of Hitler’s rise to power in the 1920s and 1930s — have so much to teach us in the current moment. Maybe it’s true that “it can’t happen here,” at least not in the precise way that it happened there.
But every ruling by the Attorney General of the United States that erodes the rule of law, every time political leaders and cultural influencers make racist or anti-immigrant comments that “good people” fail to condemn, every time protesters show up at State Houses with military-style assault weapons to protest government-mandated shutdowns to protect the public health in a time of pandemic, our society moves further down the slippery slope away from democracy and toward authoritarian rule.
3) On VE Day — and many other days — I remember and honor the service of my father and stepfather, both long deceased, who served during the war in the U.S. army in Europe. I have many friends whose fathers — and mothers — similarly served in combat, medical or other roles.
My father was a medic and medical non-commissioned officer (NCO) who served from 1943–1946, 23 months of which were in the European theater of operations in northern France, Rhineland Germany and Central Europe. He was 21 years old when he enlisted. Alas since he died of a heart attack at age 37 a few months before I was born, I never had the opportunity to speak with him about his experience in the war.
And because he died long before it became common knowledge that many veterans suffered from what came to be known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), I never knew if his early death was directly or indirectly related to his war-time experiences.
My stepfather served in the Army Corps of Engineers that followed Patton’s Third Army. He didn’t speak much about his experiences, but his work involved building and demolishing bridges. And despite whatever fears he might have harbored as a young man in his early twenties facing possible death, he did what he was told, and played a small part in the titanic struggle of democracy against fascism.
I have great respect and gratitude for the service of the men in my family, and the millions of men and women of their generation who stepped up — many of them giving their lives in the process, and many more their limbs — not to mention their emotional and mental health.
And while I can’t presume to speak for them or anyone else who served in World War II, I would like to think they would be dismayed by the rise of far-right movements in Europe and the U.S. in the 21st century. Down that road lies nothing but pain and misery.
Our parents and grandparents didn’t fight to defeat Nazi Germany only to make way for a kinder and gentler version of fascism to erode democratic progress in our time.
I think the best way to honor the legacy of the generation that fought and defeated the Nazis is to continue the fight for democracy. It’s a historic struggle; democracy is a fragile and relatively recent form of government that is far from the norm in human history.
The gift the World War II generation gave us is that the site of our struggle is not on the battlefield, but out in the streets (with social distance!) and at the ballot box. Will we rise to the occasion?