One of the deceptively striking features about World War II was how long it actually lasted. Americans tend to have a skewed view on this since we didn’t get into the conflict until the end of 1941, at which point, the war — as a declared fact of life — had already been destroying and killing for 27 months and six days. A lot of war history was already written before Pearl Harbor, and so much more would be added before the war’s end in 1945.
So, while we’re exactly three months removed from the solemn 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of France, this past weekend marked the 80th anniversary of the formal start of the war on Sept. 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland.
We tend to embrace the 75th anniversary of many historic events as last farewells to the remaining few who were there when they happened. They offer one final opportunity for the survivors to gather as comrades and for the rest of us to honor them. For all involved, the moment serves as a somber, affectionate, final hug.
But then what? What of the 80th anniversary? What motivates us going forward?
Last weekend’s commemoration ceremony in Poland may have offered a few clues. The occasion was suitably solemn — the Washington Post reported that some elderly Polish war veterans and Holocaust survivors were on hand — but there were also modern political subplots at work as 21st century Europe faces rising nationalism and shifting sentiments across the continent. Germany was represented and asked for forgiveness for its long-ago sins, and also called for unity. Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who was in attendance at the 70th anniversary event, wasn’t invited this time, not because his nation signed a non-aggression pact with Germany in 1939 but because of Russia’s recent actions in Crimea and elsewhere and its disturbing rehabilitation of the Stalinist/Soviet Bloc era. Even Poland itself is politically divided on the war’s legacy.
As World War II took its first step into that post-“farewell” age, this may have been a glimpse of the future: The fading memory of an old war used increasingly as a political tool by those who don’t remember any of it first-hand.
Meanwhile, last weekend’s anniversary got me thinking back to 1994’s 80th anniversary of the start of World War I. I felt as stunned then as I do now about the passage of time and souls. As I think back on ‘94, I’m not sure if I even knew anybody anymore who was a World War I veteran.
So, given all the World War II veterans I have known, talked to and been influence by throughout my life, this 80-year milestone is more than a little sobering.
Here, I could slip into the usual lecture about how we’re losing the remaining WWII veterans far too fast. But we know that, and over the past several years, we’ve been fortunate to hear and read their tales. They’ve told us so much.
But this 80th anniversary compels us to contemplate life without World War II veterans, for we are quickly morphing into that kind of place. Hearing those veterans’ stories first-hand is quickly slipping beyond our grasps.
With that in mind, what lessons will we draw from people who are no longer here to give them to us? How much of an impact will Pearl Harbor or D-Day have when the men and women who were there are all gone?
We should have concerns on this front.
Look, for example, at the legacy of World War I.
Once called the Great War and the War to End All Wars (before we, unfortunately, knew better), the observance of the 1918 armistice which ended that war — called Armistice Day and, later, Veterans Day — was once a momentous annual event across the planet. Businesses and schools everywhere closed and civic programs were held to honor those who fell on battlefields that were still scarred by war, just like millions of people.
Gradually, as another conflict arose in Europe, Armistice Day also began to remind us of the failure of that first war. We still honored those old soldiers, who were here to tell us what happened, but we couldn’t help to see that nothing had been settled, that the War to End All Wars was just the beginning.
Nevertheless, World War I stayed on the minds of people, even as World War II came and went.
But as the generation that fought and lived through the first world war faded away, so, too, did our connections with that conflict. Eventually, life no longer slowed down so much for Veterans Day, and the great community programs and parades began to vanish. Now, it’s a day that generically honors all veterans — which is certainly noble — but the original purpose is essentially gone. It’s more of a distant memory, a vague ghost, than anything else.
This past weekend, World War II reached an anniversary that tells us it’s not too far behind the path of its predecessor.
How will we remember World War II?
How will we keep its lessons without that “Greatest Generation” of teachers here to remind us?
We’re going to find out, and that day is coming at us a lot faster than we realize.
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