A version of this piece was delivered at Wilfrid Laurier University’s 2021 Remembrance Day Ceremony, organized by the History Student’s Association.
This morning, I would like to share some thoughts on the legacy of the end of the Second World War, the 75th anniversary of which we were unable to mark as planned back in the spring and summer of 2020.
Why is this event still important to our society three-quarters of a century and four generations later? Is it just muscle memory, or is there something deeper there?
Calamities of this scale dominate and define lives with no regard for the individual, and yet they are made of individual experiences, all unique and sacred to the people who lived them, but callously swept into a brutal, chaotic, unforgiving whole.
It’s a terrifying thing, one that we have had some small taste of these last 20 months as we grapple with a pandemic that has upended our society more completely than any event since the Second World War. Suddenly our individual experiences are part of a brutal, chaotic and unforgiving whole.
It is a shame that we are facing this challenge at a moment when living memory of that last great test is fading. This is no one’s fault. But without some imagination, we will be diminished by it.
I have had the great privilege of travelling to a few of the battlefields of the Second World War. In a chapel at the centre of one of the Allied cemeteries in Normandy I came across a simple inscription:
Think not only upon their passing. Remember the glory of their spirit.
Seventy years ago, this sentiment was inescapable. Canada was physically untouched and economically buoyed by the Second World War. The elation of victory was everywhere, woven into the million plus vets and their families enjoying the immense benefits of postwar life in a thriving democracy.
Accordingly, Second World War memorials were usually public buildings like arenas where the dead watched over the civic pleasures of postwar life. This was a marked contrast to the cenotaphs erected in the wake of the FWW, formal Edwardian structures that eventually soaked up and reflected the tragedy and disillusionment that came to be associated with that conflict.
Of course, arenas aren’t built to live in perpetuity like cenotaphs, and a large part of their emotional power as memorials to the Second World War dead came from their use by the men and women who knew and loved those who did not come home. Now that many of these civic buildings and most of the wartime generation are gone, we’ve fallen back on the somber, immortal cenotaph, and now, quite by accident—we think only of their passing.
And thinking only of their passing leaves most of their story untold and deprives us of great strength and optimism.
There seems to be no limit to the hyperbole that surrounds the Second World War, but I think that in some instances it is warranted. Fascism’s response to the ills of the interwar years was to blame misfortunes on an ‘other,’ and to persecute those ‘others’ with the whole power of the industrial state.
In our office we have a small library named after Robert Vogel, an Austrian-Canadian historian who was only ten when he and his family fled the Nazis in 1939. He wrote that during the age of fascism:
“An evil stalked the world […] from which no one could really escape. […] the beliefs of the […] Axis Powers were like distorting mirrors that filtered out nearly everything that was good in mankind and enlarged everything that was evil. The war was about recognizing and defeating this evil, not only in the enemy but also in ourselves.”
Those who returned faced this as squarely as those who did not. And those who returned did so burdened with the certain knowledge that defeating one manifestation of evil on the battlefield did not eliminate the potential for evil lurking inside everyone.
Caught up in the enormity of the Allied military effort, simply witnessing the violence and human suffering that finally defeated the Axis powers, it is remarkable that the Canadians who returned home in 1945 did so, in Vogel’s words “unsullied by ideas of military power [and] uninfected by political fanaticism, to build a calmer, more rational and more tolerant Canadian society than any that had previously existed.”
“Those who did not come home” he continued, “helped to give the world a precious opportunity to reconstitute itself in a more peaceful and tolerant manner.”
This is the glory of their spirit.
It connects those who went and died with those who went and came home. And it connects us to them in that precious opportunity.
That precious opportunity is still with us. It is open-ended. It was not realized at a particular moment. It does not belong to one time, one place, or one set of people. It is the expectation that each new generation will take on the hard work of interrogating the status quo, identifying injustice, and doing their level best to make it right.
The Second World War generation was as fallible, as human as any before or after it. They were not saints, and injustices lie at their feet as they lie at the feet of every generation. But writ large, after fighting for six years, after losing friends and loved ones and confronting the darkest corners of the soul, they did not look for an ‘other’ to blame. Wary of the demons lurking in every person, they embraced the hard, unending work of making things right.
And it is hard work. We do our best and fall short. We do nothing for fear of unwittingly causing harm. We worry that the brutal, chaotic, unforgiving forces of our own time are so powerful that our best efforts might be for naught. But the wartime generation would tell us that it is worthwhile work. And fortified by the glory of their spirit, I believe we are up to the task.
Matt Baker works at the Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies. For Robert Vogel’s full reflection on the end of the Second World War, see this piece published in memoriam at the time of his death in 1994.