Monday, May 09, 2005

V-E Day: 60 Years Later

May 7th marked the 60th anniversary of the surrender of the Third Reich and the end of World War II in Europe (the Russians mark the anniversary on May 8th, which is when the USSR ratified the surrender document). Writing for National Review Online, Arthur Herman offers some thoughts worth reading on the war and its lessons for the present:

Despite the horrors of the Holocaust, Germany's defeat could hardly be called a victory for justice or humanity. After all, it left Hitler's brutal collaborator, Josef Stalin, in control of eastern Europe. Russian soldiers liberated Auschwitz on April 27, yet the camp was only a clone of Stalin's own gulag. In a few months, Soviet judges would be sitting solemnly at the Nurnberg trials trying German defendants for using slave labor — as odious a twist of irony as history has ever delivered.

So this was not a victory for justice. It was, however, a crucial victory for liberal democracy, the very system that had seemed to be on the brink of destruction four years earlier. It was that system that Hitler and others had blamed for plunging the world into the Great Depression, and which he promised to crush by defeating the liberal democracies and their "Jewish capitalist warmonger" allies. To Hitler, Britain and America represented a way of life that was decadent, corrupt, and grossly self-serving — precisely the same complaints voiced by Osama bin Laden and today's Islamic terrorists. And it was a way of life that in the fall of 1940 seemed about to pass into history.

It is important to remember how many people, especially Europeans, wanted democracy to lose and hoped Hitler would win. They included the world's Communist parties, who followed the directions of their leader Josef Stalin in enthusiastically embracing his alliance with Nazi Germany. They included politicians and intellectuals who, after Hitler's lightning victories in Poland and France, saw a new world order arising and wanted to be part of it. Denmark's elected government enthused in July 1940 that Hitler had "brought about a new era in Europe, which will result in a new order in an economic and political sense..." France's Robert Brasillach saw Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin as the men of the future and Roosevelt and Churchill as "grotesquely antiquated" relics of the past. Catholic mystagogue Teilhard de Chardin proclaimed that "we are watching the birth, more than the death, of a World....the Germans deserve to win..." Holland's Paul de Man, later the darling of the deconstructionist Left at Yale and other universities, announced that Europe's future under Nazi rule was brighter than ever and that "we are entering a mystical era, a period of faith and belief, with all that this entails," with the Third Reich at its center.

Such sentiments have frightening echoes in the weak European response to the threat of Islamist radicalism that has arisen in their midst. There are other disturbing parallels. When one goes back and reads what contemporary observers such as George Orwell had to say, it becomes clear that many of the criticisms of the Anglo-American effort in WW II are almost eerily identical to those now made about the War on Islamist Terror.

For all the negative parellels, however, Herman points out a key positive one as well:

Instead, the United States and Britain would forge an alliance that would not only be able to fight both Germany and Japan, but keep Stalin's Russia supplied and fed. British factories supplied aircraft engines for Russian planes, while American factories turned out the trucks and vehicles that kept the Red Army in the field. By the end of 1942 Britain's wartime production was 50 percent higher than Germany's; America's output of tanks, planes, ships, and ammunition was more than that of Germany, Italy, and Japan combined. By 1944 America had doubled that number again, while its army of 7 million men was performing feats of valor and sacrifice around the world that would earn them the title of "the greatest generation" and that democracy's critics, then as now, had predicted were impossible for a corrupt capitalist society like the United States.

This is in fact the basic lesson of the Second World War: that political freedom unleashes a material and spiritual power that dictators only dream about. That dream of power ended for Hitler in the rubble of Berlin; it would end for Stalin's successors 44 years later in that same city, with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Today it is ending for Osama bin Laden and Zarqawi in the streets of Baghdad and elsewhere. They should have learned the lesson of their predecessors: that the future still belongs to freedom.

A Stillness in Berlin

This nation owes an enormous debt to the "Greatest Generation" who defeated Nazism, and to their British, Canadian, Russian, French, Polish, and numerous other allies. They made sacrifices far beyond anything most of the current generation of Americans have had to endure. We must never forget what they accomplished. The best way we can honor the legacy of the "Greatest Generation" is by winning our struggle with totalitarian barbarism just as they won theirs.


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