We have two important anniversaries this week: tomorrow is the 20th of the massacre in Tiananmen Square. Saturday will be the 65th of D-Day. Both events retain “educational value,” and today I shall try to remember why.
I was not around for D-Day. Recently I buried a father who was, and at an age to make me realize that the Second World War will soon exist only as book knowledge. Include, in that book, what was incised in stone over the battlefields of France, where Western leaders will gather on the weekend for verbal tributes, and where a few surviving veterans will recall the comrades of their vanished youth.
Much is forgotten, but nothing is lost. The whole history of the world is inscribed in God’s living memory. We will, according to this religious view, again glimpse that record on a Day of Judgement. I do not believe for one moment that what is forgotten therefore disappears. For that is the ostrich view of space and time, suitable only for those who are in hiding.
Everything that has happened, has happened, irreversibly, down to the little sparrow singing in the vine leaves, which we heard on waking, decades ago. And the loves and longings, the vain hopes and terrors, the poignancy in every heartbeat of lives lived under the death sentence, remain—everything as and when it was. God knows the name of every soldier who fell for freedom, on the beaches of Normandy, and on the pavement at Beijing.
I am saying something that would have been understood, generally, in my father’s generation. It would have been understood in the prison camps of Europe, where news of the D-Day landings travelled, with the exhilarating wind: “Our liberation is at hand!”
D-Day was the herald of a very great victory, over very dark forces. It was a moment when huge cosmic truths were stated in the language of historical time; and it happened among people still overwhelmingly Christian, in their understanding of things.
But the acts of the heroic are eventually forgotten, in this world. The battle against dark forces continues, and will continue indefinitely.
On battlefields and off, the front line between good and evil will continue to pass through every human heart. No final victory is ever won down here; nor any final defeat suffered. It is not in the dispensation of time, to deliver what lies outside time.
Which is why I mentioned the memory of God, in relation to acts of true heroism.
The Second World War ended in split decision. There was victory in the West, and nominal victory in the East, but as Churchill said, an Iron Curtain fell, and those to the east of it were abandoned to a Communist tyranny little different from the daily Nazi tyranny that had preceded the war; indeed, worse for being prolonged. Two generations were condemned to slavery: whole lives passed under the twitching thumbs of party apparatchiks, with only the briefest respites, in Berlin, in Warsaw, in Budapest, in Prague. And each of those respites, bloody.
It was a mixed result also within the West, for it seems today that we learned nothing, and the principles for which men and women once died have been progressively abandoned in our public life. Yes we have democracy, of a sort: mass democracy, and rule in the name of numbers. But the numbers have been used to establish Nanny States that deeply impinge our freedom, and to advance the very cause of atheist materialism that once marked Nazi, Fascist, and Communist regimes as exceptional.
The people of China are now passing out of the third generation of Communist tyranny. Outwardly, it has eased. The Red Chinese state has relaxed its controls over minor arrangements in everyday life, to the extent of permitting the kind of “capitalist” consumerism that can enhance its own power.
We have been left with less to choose than we think, between the two systems, for we now have centrally-administered materialism in both East and West.
The soldiers who fell in Normandy were not fighting for swimming pools and home entertainment centres. They had before them a view of the dignity of man: of things worth more than life itself. The students who stood in Tiananmen Square—who raised the home-made statue of Lady Liberty—did not die for the sake of cellphones, and skyscrapers in Shanghai. They faced the tanks and bullets of the “People’s Revolutionary Army” with something more substantial in their hearts.
Yet the generation after them, there as here, has been largely bought off with the false promise of material prosperity. There, as here, we have agreed to become a kind of indentured labour, on the promise that we will be taken care of, cradle to grave.
Let us at least celebrate, for a moment in time, men and women who were better than we are.