Seventy years ago this week Adolf Hitler, the Nazi dictator of Germany, ignited the most cataclysmic war in history.
Some six years later, with over 60 million dead, a Holocaust conceived as the Final Solution for European Jewry, killing fields that left most of Europe scarred and, finally, the unleashing of atomic weapons over Japan, the carnage ended.
Mighty volumes of the war’s history have been written. Memoirs, official records and grisly details of unimaginable sufferings of victims have been published. Documentaries and record numbers of movies have been produced to understand how and why civilization could break down so utterly.
In retrospect it was a human calamity brought about by the quintessential fact of man’s inherent fallibility and his dilemma when confronted with evil.
Winston Churchill would later say, ‘There never was a war in all history easier to prevent by timely action.’
Seventy years later we still live in the shadows of the war Hitler started, and its consequences remain with us.
From the perspective of Sept. 11, 2001, and the terrorist attacks on America’s heartland, the lasting effect of the Second World War has been the near fatal weakening of will, or self-confidence, in the values of enlightenment that set the West as a civilization apart from others in the making of the modern world.
The war was immensely costly in human lives. But the cost that cannot be tallied in numbers was the loss of will, the erosion of belief over time in values of freedom, reason and democracy that are always imperilled when left inadequately protected.
Even before the war finally ended with Japan’s surrender, the result of the May 1945 election in Britain – the defeat of Churchill’s Conservative party to Clement Attlee’s Labour party – set the scene for an unseemly retreat of the western colonial powers from Asia and Africa.
The manner in which Britain handed over its imperial legacy – nearly 200-year presence in and rule over India – and the haste with which demands for independence was conceded by partitioning what was once her crown jewel, set the template for her retreat from the Middle East and Africa.
Other European colonial powers would follow on the heels of Britain sooner or later, or as France would be compelled to do so. But for the timely resolve of president Harry Truman’s America to contain the expansionist former Soviet Union, the red tide of communism might well have rolled further westward across Europe and into the Middle East.
The Cold War, or the containment of the Soviet Union for nearly half a century that took Americans into Korea and then Vietnam, would have its deleterious effects on the United States as the Second World War did on Europe.
Doubts, skepticism and, most importantly, guilt – the hallmark of the western civilization – would take its toll on the West that was once confident of its civilizational values.
Penance in politics might well take many forms and multiculturalism in the West is one form of atoning for sins of colonialism in the past.
On the 70th anniversary of the most horrendous war in history there is grief and remembrance, yet the loss of the West’s self-confidence is also palpable in its inability to name the evil raging since at least 9/11.