As leaders from across Europe, the US and beyond came together in France to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Normandy Landings on Thursday, they were understandably effusive in their praise for the veterans and the fallen on D-Day for “saving freedom” and the sacrifices made for a democratic, liberal world order. And, as much as the anniversary provides an occasion to remember and celebrate, it is also an opportunity to pause and reflect on the state of Europe and the West as a whole in terms of how much the values and systems set in place after World War II are now being eroded.
The elections to the European Parliament saw a strengthening of right-wing populist forces, such as the European Alliance of Peoples and Nations, and far-right groups increased their presence within more “mainstream” parties and alliances. While many expected the tide of populism in Europe to be far more sweeping, the decline of liberal values, internationalism and the consensus around it, is no doubt increasing. And one of the reasons could well be that D-Day, and the most devastating war and the political backdrop that led to it, are fading from memory to become the lessons of history that few seem willing to learn.
The end of World War II was marked by fatigue. The results of a parochial and militarised nationalism were that the large part of an entire generation was either killed or injured, mighty economies were in tatters and the boasts of my nation right or wrong were faced with the gruesome realities of nuclear devastation and the Holocaust. Those who saw the war in Britain, for example, did not re-elect their victorious leader, Winston Churchill, but preferred a man who wanted peace and to put an end to the empire of exploitation. As that generation has almost entirely passed on, people seem to be once again taking refuge in ideas of borders and race, and turning to strongmen who fan their insecurities. But this time, hopefully, it won’t come to another D-Day to turn the tide.