Being born in 1969 I grew up with the Second World War.
This possibly seems an odd statement to make but it is true.
Throughout the seventies WWII was there. Ever present through the medium of the comics my dad used to buy me – Battle and Action – through toys like Action Man and model Spitfires which, despite the air superiority of the Hurricane, was the one that caught everyone’s imagination. And through the good old “war film” that the BBC and ITV would roll out every Sunday afternoon. Before I was familiar with algebra I was familiar with The Guns of Navarone, A Bridge Too Far and Von Ryan’s Express. My grandfather occasionally showing me his medals and my Nan’s reminiscences of working in a munitions factory during the 1940’s made the myth making very personal.
Although WWII faded from my mind during the 1980’s – my teenage mind finally progressed to the Cold War and the imminent threat (or so we thought) of nuclear holocaust – there are those who argue that WWII did not end until the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In reality, the world we have all been born into – all us post war babies – has been and still is shaped by the ongoing strifes and struggles that WWII either created or did not amply settle. The guns of WWII might be silent but the rumbles still produce shellshock in the unfortunates around the globe who found the taste of liberation merely a slightly less bitter pill to swallow than occupation.
In my mind, as a boy, 1945 must have been a great year. Celebration. Relief. Freedom. The end of suffering, death, starvation and chaos. The beginning of a better world.
In fact, 1945, even after the capitulation of Germany and Japan, was a horrific bloodbath. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed in reprisal and revenge attacks all across Europe and Asia. In some cases the Allies made attempts to keep a lid on it; in others they supplied the means – be it guns or a temporary policy to turn a blind eye. Thousands of German women were raped every day by the Russian Red Army – and this went on until 1947 when the Red Army was eventually confined to barracks. Thousands of POWS and Death Camp survivors died after liberation – not through maltreatment – but through well-meaning ignorance. Soldiers and medical teams would give them food not realizing that a body, in an advanced state of starvation, cannot cope with rich food. Women across Europe who were accused of being “horizontal collaborators” were tarred, feathered, beaten, publically humiliated and in some cases executed. Others, male and female, were accused of collaboration with the fascists, or the communists, or whoever was out of favour that week and executed in almost endless rounds of reprisals as those who perhaps were not as brave as they felt they should have been during the actual conflict crawled out of the woodwork to flex last minute muscles and do their bit for glorious freedom.
And there were, of course, the political betrayals which were ultimately no less bloody. The Cossacks sold back to the Russians, disarmed both martially and emotionally by false promises spouted by the mouthpieces of the West and executed within hours of being loaded onto the trucks. The Koreans who within days of declaring their independence found themselves occupied by the communists in the north and the western powers in the south; years later the entire country would be split into two – an absolute travesty of liberation. And there were the Jews – who nobody wanted and whose true suffering at that point in time nobody bar a precious few really understood – who were still being treated as pariahs.
1945 was bleak.
But humanity did begin to exert itself again. Within days of the cease fires the Allies were mobilizing themselves to save Germany and later Japan from starvation. It was at least understood that the economy of Europe and later the world depended on their survival. Less charitably it was also understood that leaving them to completely collapse would make them ripe pickings for communist ideologies. Because despite the uneasy alliance with Uncle Joe Stalin, the battlefronts for the Cold War were already being drawn up and marked out.
The big idea – the big ideal, in fact – that emerged from the chaos of WWII was the United Nations. A means to prevent such a costly, disastrous war ever happening again. A means to exert and make sacred globally certain human rights and essential freedoms. Freedom of speech. Freedom of worship. Freedom from want. Freedom from fear. High ideals. But even at the time the Allied powers would only go as far as making these rights a “declaration” and not “a guarantee”. How could they with Korea occupied? The Shinto religion banned in Japan? The communist zone in East Germany already closing like a suffocating fist? National re-education programmes put into place in both Japan and Germany to “civilize the brutes”. And a hundred other nudges, pushes and pressures as the Yanks and the Commies divided up the spoils of war and created the world in which we all currently live.
The modern world then, our world, was borne out of good intentions and unholy hypocrisy. And the guns of its collective war machine, it’s collective peace machine, rumble on and on and on.
Sobering to acknowledge as we take stock of the world around us in 2014, both at home and abroad, that although good intentions can never cancel out hypocrisy, hypocrisy can and does fully cancel out good intentions.
Are those four freedoms really so unobtainable? So unmaintainable? Is it time to admit defeat and present each one of them with a single white feather?
World Wars, it seems, never end but the peace we as individuals make with them sometimes, sadly, does.