The honoring of those who died on the beaches of Normandy 75 years ago triggered some memories of early childhood and some stories told to me later. That war changed the lives of the survivors forever and certainly shaped mine. I confess that it influenced my political thought to this day as I fear the resurgence of fascism and ultra-right populist nationalism at home and abroad.
There are not that many of us left who remember much about the reasons we fought in World War II. I have often wondered how the blight of Nazi Germany came to be and how so many stood idly by as Nazi power grew. I later married a survivor of the Balkan theater of the war I met when I was a junior year abroad student in post-war Berlin. So many friends I have made since then also shared their stories. Even 12 years after the end of the war, the scars of the battle for Berlin were raw. The rubble had been cleared, but the mortar shell pockmarks were on buildings still left standing.
In Denver, in the 1960s, I met Holocaust survivors and adult children who later learned of their Jewish roots because they were left in the care of Christian families as their parents were shipped off to their death in the Nazi ovens. Others from Poland and Germany who had emigrated to the US in the 1960s rarely spoke of their tragedies. Some lost their mothers in bombing raids. For me, World War II seemed horrifyingly real. It was about human suffering, survival, and loss. It was not pages and pictures in books of some distant event. I have always wondered if it could happen again. It could, I believe, if we forget this history and how it came about. Ceremonies of remembrance of those who died have a special value so we do not forget why these wars were fought.
I was lucky living in America and so was our family.
World War II began for me, as my father told me when I was a year and a half old. My family living in Oklahoma and grandparents from the Fort Morgan area, were vacationing in Grand Lake, not far from where I live now, high in the Rocky Mountains. My father and I were awake and the rest of the family slept in the rented cabin. He took me to the car and turned on the radio. Germany had invaded Poland. The date in Europe: Sept. 1, 1939.
It was a couple of years later before the United States became part of the battle. World War II for us had its hardships and sorrows but we never suffered as those in Europe did, though we lost so many “boys” as those who fought in Europe were called. I remember tears and grim faces with news of the death of friends’ and neighbors’ “boys” Every adult male in both sides our family served abroad except my father who remained to manage essential communication services and a physician uncle. All of our family members who fought returned to our families. However, for four years even as a toddler and a young girl, I remember the tension in the air and on adult faces, muted conversations when I was near, and little laughter, waiting for a dreaded word of a son, brother or father’s death in combat.
So, excuse me if I seem so very alarmed at the rise of extreme right-wing race-based populist nationalism in Europe.
In some instances, followers are openly nostalgic for a Nazi past. It is difficult to imagine so many have forgotten the lessons learned from World War II. The outcome was terrible for all involved. Forgive me, too, if I seem so fearful of isolationism in this country. That same withdrawal from the world contributed to the unchecked rise of Hitler.
The most extreme politicians recently rising to the highest office in Hungary and Turkey got there by fanning the flames of hatred and fear of immigrants and detested ethnic minorities, as turmoil in the middle east prompted a vast migration of refugees. These neo-fascists gained office by the ballot box and popular support. Once in office, their tools of consolidating their power have been subverting democracy by the destruction of an independent judiciary, the control of media and the press. and domination of legislative bodies.
Other far-right political leaders in France, Austria, Italy, Germany, Croatia, and Poland are successively beating more moderate officeholders at the ballot box. I wonder if their citizens have lost their historical memories of World War II and the tragic results.
Something similar is infecting a significant minority in the United States.
When I see citizens in our own country supporting a president who invites to the White House such extreme right-wing leaders, who exhorts fear and hate of immigrants and others of different races and religions, who brands the opposition press as “enemies of the people,” who withdraws from alliances and treaties, and who uses cruelty to child immigrants as an anti-immigrant strategy, I fear for the future of American democracy for which so many died.
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