Four years ago I visited a major Canadian university and asked students questions about World War II. FDR? Never heard of him. Churchill? There’s a statue of him but I don’t know what he did. The Allies? Can’t tell you who they were. D-Day and the Beaches of Normandy?
It wound up in a video which has been downloaded 90,000 times.
This November 11th marks 100 years since the end of World War I, also known as the Great War and the War to End All Wars. Only it didn’t. One century later and almost three-quarters of a century after the end of World War II, where are we?
The most powerful nation on earth is led by an ignorant demagogue who has no respect for democracy or freedom, and tens of millions support him through thick and thin, thinking he’s a Messiah who will take them to the Promised Land. Right-wing political parties are gaining ground and it’s okay to be a white supremacist or neo-Nazi as long as you call yourself the Alt Right.
But it’s not okay.
When I was a reporter I once covered a reunion of Belgian citizens who had been liberated by Canadian soldiers in 1944, and they were meeting with some of those soldiers thirty years hence. All these people were much older, but the emotion and camaraderie at that thing was so palpable I can still feel it in my bones.
Those Belgians hadn’t forgotten what it was like to be occupied by Nazi Germany, and to this day Belgium continues to honour the Canadians who liberated the nation.
Years after that reunion I was a guest of the Canadian Armed Forces, doing talks at military bases in the former West Germany. We had a German chauffeur, Herbie, a man in his 50s. We had stopped at a traffic light in this charming little town in the Black Forest when a group of straggly, long-haired youths walked across the road.
“You know,” Herbie said, “Hitler did a lot of bad things but he wouldn’t put up with that.”
I often discuss the issue about our young knowing nothing about history. They know nothing because that is what the schools teach them.
Last week I read an op-ed by an immigrant to the West who doesn’t think we should wear poppies at Remembrance Day because, he said, we shouldn’t recognize militarism. So here’s what I think.
If you’re new to a country that still relishes the principle of liberal democracy and don’t think we should observe such things, kindly pack your bags and return to where you came from.
If you’re a young person, a Millennial or a schoolteacher who doesn’t see the need to know about the last century, tune into the recent Munk Debate in Toronto about the rise of populism between former Trump aide Steve Bannon and journalist David Frum. It’s online.
Frum, senior editor of The Atlantic, delivered a passionate and eloquent defense of liberal democracy. But to fully appreciate what he said it would help to know about the past.
Ignorance might get elected, but it is not bliss.