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I recently spent 12 vacation days on a World War II tour in Europe, retracing the steps of Winston Churchill in London, the Allied troops in Normandy and Bastogne, and Adolf Hitler in Munich.
The tour began in coastal Normandy, France. On the first day, my tour group of about 40 Americans, mostly retired suburban couples, convened at the hotel bar for drinks. Sipping the famous local Calvados, we introduced ourselves and explained why we were on this historical tour. Several said they had family members who served in World War II, and we toasted to those veterans. Three men in our group were veterans themselves—two in the U.S. Navy and one in the Army—and we toasted them too. The others were history buffs who liked to read about aerial warfare and Soviet tanks.
During the introductions, several people mentioned their concern about the next generation. “Our youngsters don’t know their own history,” one woman said. “I don’t even know what they’re teaching in schools these days.” One retired Ohio man, who volunteers for Honor Flight Dayton with his wife, said with wide, concerned eyes, “Our children don’t even know what D-Day is anymore. They don’t know about our brave veterans who sacrificed their lives for our country, for freedom and democracy. It’s really sad.”
It isn’t just sad. It’s also scary. I used to think of WWII as the distant past, as something far removed from today, because I couldn’t imagine our contemporary society keeping silent while daily smelling the stench of burning bodies from concentration camps. I couldn’t imagine someone as odious as Hitler rousing thunderous crowds today with his wild speeches, convincing them to blame an entire population for their woes, to enthusiastically send their teenagers into a senseless war.
But having read more about the beginnings of WWII—and having been on this tour—the horrors of the 20th century now feel terrifyingly close. World War I and World War II weren’t so long ago, and neither were the ideological wars that erupted soon after, during which millions suffered and died. These wars fomented out of social unrest, radical ideologies, geopolitical tensions, and delusions of utopia. We see similar warning signs today in our increasingly polarized world, where people band themselves into ideological tribes and view “the other” as evil enemies who must be destroyed at all costs.
I was in London wandering the Churchill War Rooms and the Imperial War Museum when I read that retired astronaut Scott Kelly had apologized after facing massive public backlash for quoting Churchill on Twitter. The apology was ironic, because Kelly had used the Churchill quote to criticize the political divisions in the United States. Dismayed by the nation’s reaction to the Brett Kavanaugh ballyhoo, he had tweeted after Kavanaugh’s confirmation, “One of the greatest leaders of modern times, Sir Winston Churchill said, ‘In victory, magnanimity.’ I guess those days are over.”
Twitter users freaked out, calling Churchill an imperialist bigot who ignored a famine in British-colonized India. Poor Kelly—he meant well, but how was he to know that the hero he once extolled in school is now a villain in today’s cultural context? Chastened, Kelly tweeted, “I will go and educate myself further on his atrocities, racist views which I do not support.”
One young journalist with more than 58,000 Twitter followers was particularly indignant over Kelly’s faux pas. He tweeted that Churchill didn’t save the world from Nazism—the USSR did, losing 26 million of its people, compared with “just over” a few hundred thousand Brits and Americans. Apparently Americans and Brits should stop taking credit for winning the war, since they lost fewer lives than the Soviets and thus “there is no comparison.”
Scrolling through that journalist’s Twitter feed, I quickly saw many more tweets equating capitalism with neo-fascism and claiming that East Germany fared better under communism. He seems to have conveniently forgotten or dismissed the fact that the great Communist leader Josef Stalin launched ethnic killing campaigns before Hitler did, sent millions to the gulags, and allied with Hitler on an invasion of Poland in 1939, instigating WWII and the Holocaust. Another darling Communist leader, Mao Zedong, was ultimately responsible for the deaths of about 45 million of his own people. But why hassle with those annoying pieces of history when they don’t fit your worldview?
Toward the end of the WWII tour, we visited the Dachau concentration camp, the first camp the Nazis opened in 1933. As we hopped off the bus, I saw dozens of German schoolchildren also jumping out of their school bus. They looked about 15 or 16 years old, with healthy, rosy cheeks and golden hair that glinted in the sun. They were laughing and giggling and squealing as they fooled about, girls jostling each other and boys looking for opportunities to flirt with female classmates.
Then we entered the camp’s wrought-iron gate, which carries the slogan “Arbeit macht frei”—“Work sets you free.” Of course, the Nazis never intended to set any of their prisoners free—they worked them to death and killed off the weaker ones. We learned about the daily atrocities that took place behind those gates as we marched across the open courtyard where prisoners once had to stand at attention every morning, quaking with fear that an officer would call them out for any random, petty offense.
We observed the gas chambers and crematorium, where the Nazis stacked three corpses into each oven, baking the rigid bodies into stinking dark ashes that poured out of the chimney and rained over neighboring towns. We walked through the prison cells, where the Nazis held the undesirables and dissenters that included pastors and priests who dared oppose Hitler’s policies. We also passed the barracks, where prisoners were squeezed so tightly into wooden bunks that a typhus epidemic wiped out many of them.
By the end of the visit, all of our faces were gray. I looked across the yard at the German students, and saw that none of them was smiling anymore. Several kids were crying, some were hugging each other, and others were staring silently at the ground, dazed with mental images of past horrors.
I asked my tour guide what the German public schools teach their kids about their history, given that most likely, they’re related to someone who participated in Nazism or condoned it. The tour guide told me that every German student learns an unfiltered account of Germany’s role in the wars and the Holocaust. The schools spend a whole year’s curriculum teaching how Hitler rose to power and what evils his regime committed.
“You never have to worry about Germans,” he said. “They take great pains to teach their younger generation about their own history and why the past must not repeat itself. They keep the memory of the Holocaust alive. They will never forget what their forefathers did, and they feel responsible to never forget, to never let it happen again.”
Although my first thought was “Never say never,” I was also moved to see how seriously the Germans take history, even when it’s not flattering to them. That’s a far cry from how the Japanese sanitize their own history, which remains a major sore spot for the Koreans and Chinese who endured their worst brutalities.
I then asked the tour guide about the news I’d read about the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. He frowned: “There’s always been anti-Semitism. Some things don’t change.”
He’s right: Some things don’t change—and that includes our human nature, our instinct to blame and demonize others, our inclination to compromise on what’s just and right, and our instinct to curate history into a narrative that fits our own purposes instead of God’s.
And that made me wonder: We human civilizations may try our best not to forget history, but is that enough to prevent history from repeating itself?