Warnings from history

How far have we come: IN June 1963, George Romney, father of losing Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney, marches for civil rights with in Detroit.
How far have we come: In June 1963, George Romney, father of 2012 Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney, marches for civil rights with NAACP Detroit president Edward Turner in Detroit.

The generation born after the Second World War, known today as the Baby Boomers, is widely associated with comfort, prosperity and what was once known as the permissive society. Their claims and their imagination created the Sixties—as cultural phenomenon not decade—and today they are blamed both for the decline of Western culture and for eating all the pies.

One difficulty with this narrative (and there are many) is why the ‘greatest generation’, who defeated fascism and eventually totalitarian communism, should have produced the most selfish.

As a child of the 1950s, of parents who survived the war, I don’t recognise the regressive interpretation of my generation’s values and history. The world of my youth—which the French look back on wistfully as ‘les Trente Glorieuses‘—was admirable in many ways, though certainly not all. But it was impossible to forget that our peace, prosperity and freedom had been won by our parents at unimaginable human cost or that war on an even larger scale was an ever-present possibility.

The events of the 1930s and 1940s were a constant reference point. Here were the mistakes that had cost seas of blood and mountains of ash. Here were the warnings that must be understood and acted upon. Here was the land of ‘Never Again‘.

st_pauls-bomb-damageBut with time, and with the passing of our parents’ generation, that idea has lost its anchorage. It has become, too often, a hollow mantra pressed into service for increasingly dubious causes.

The failure of Britain and France to challenge Hitler in the 1930s, itself a more complex story than is often allowed, is now used to justify wars of aggression. The failure to prevent the Shoah is used to justify ‘humanitarian intervention’, but on a curiously selective basis. And then there is the warning from the 1930s that has fallen silent: the danger of scapegoating minorities in a time of economic crisis and unemployment. In the 1970s and 1980s, we, the Baby Boomers, drew just that parallel in opposing the intermittent stirrings of the far right in Britain. Today, comparisons with Weimar Germany seem hopelessly distant, though the threat of populist nationalism is greater than it has been in my lifetime.

In Britain, the government indulges in a high-profile media campaign against irregular immigrants, inviting TV cameras to film Border Agency raids on corner shops. In Russia, the election of Moscow’s mayor has become a question of who can be toughest on migrants. In Australia, the Prime Minister is standing for re-election with a deal to imprison migrants in Papua New Guinea so that they aren’t even on Australia soil while their applications are assessed. In Greece, Channel 4 has filmed members of Golden Dawn fantasizing about turning immigrants into bars of soap.

Human beings face grave problems today, individually, collectively and globally. How easy it is for those aspiring to power to get support by stoking fear and hate. That is the real lesson of history and I learned it from people who’d lived it, as a child of the Baby Boom, of that moment of hope that grew from and in reaction to the ashes of death.

Srebrenica memorialAnd if that’s too far back now, think of Yugoslavia, holiday destination for so many in the 1970s and 1980s, and charnel house in the 1990s. The Greatest Generation gave us the best chance in history of making a good and just society in Europe. We owe it to them not to waste it.

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