Memorial Day honors men and women who died in military service. It follows hard on the heels of Victory in Europe (V-E) Day. Both commemorations encourage us to reflect on the political and personal meaning of liberation and sacrifice.
As a child, Ned Lebow was a refugee from Nazi-occupied Europe and just old enough to remember VE Day. He is a political scientist who has devoted most of his career to studying the causes of war and ways of preventing it.
Christian Wendt was born in postwar Germany, and knows first-hand the incentives he and his peers had to develop a commitment to democracy and tolerance. He is also a professor of ancient history and has studied the relationship between liberation and democracy in ancient Athens.
Celebrations in New York
On Victory Europe Day, 8 May 1945, Ned was a young lad in New York City living in a neighborhood of row houses and apartment buildings with many immigrants.
We were a mix of Jews, Italians, Germans, and other Europeans, most of whom had voted with their feet against Nazi and Fascist regimes.
The German family across the street were anti-Hitler Social Democrats from Hamburg. The breadwinner was a carpenter and his two sons served in the American air force. One was missing in action.
On the morning of VE Day, my mother and I watched through our front window as a staff car pulled up and an officer knocked on their door and disappeared inside. He delivered good news: the missing son had been liberated from a POW camp by the British Army and, with the wounded, had the highest priority for shipment home.
There was a grand street party that night to celebrate victory, with everybody drinking to the good fortune of this family, but also wondering about the fate of overseas relatives and those still engaged in the war against Japan.
For my family and our neighbors the commitment to tolerance, the rule of law, and respect for others transcended national identifications and cultural differences.
Liberation of Europe meant more than the defeat of barbaric regimes and freeing occupied countries and their peoples.
It was a triumph of our values and we looked forward – naively, it turned out – to a world where they would be universally cherished and practiced.
The ‘liberation’ of Germany
As to the Germans, like Christian, born in post-war Germany they understood why German president Richard von Weizsäcker described VE Day as “the liberation” of the country.
Today commitment to the rule of law, toleration of political, religious, and cultural differences is deeply entrenched in Germany, but far from universal or secure as the rise of Pegida (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West) and violence against immigrants demonstrates.
Some Germans regard the comments of Weizsäcker (or what they heard about them) as relieving them of any responsibility and even allowing them to portray their countrymen – as novelist Günter Grass partly did – as passive victims.
Freed citizens must not become complacent or construct liberation from Fascist or Communist regimes in an illiberal and self-serving way. Liberation is equally a task for the victors; they must remember what they, and especially those we remember on Memorial Day, fought for.
Liberation requires all of us to strive to become truly autonomous, freeing ourselves from problematic and destructive assumptions that are in the way of commitment to tolerance, sacrifice for the good of the community, and respect for the rule of law. This is not a moment in history, but a constant necessity.
Because of its democratic and economic success, Germany risks, in our view, becoming a lazy place where there is no real struggle for liberation from a past of nationalism and racism or the more recent present of self-centered materialism.
But Germany is not unique.
The growth of anti-immigrant sentiment
Nationalism is on the rise everywhere in Europe.
The popularity of anti-immigrant parties such as the National Front in France, Golden Dawn in Greece, UKIP in Britain, the Sweden Democrats and Fidesz in Hungary (where it controls the government), all testify to this phenomenon.
In Britain and elsewhere, the tragic plight of the Mediterranean boat people has led to an escalation of anti-immigrant rhetoric.
The UK’s second most popular tabloid, the Sun, published a piece by TV personality and regular columnist Katie Hopkins calling for the use of gunships against would-be immigrants. Her remarks were widely condemned, but it is troubling that she found a voice in a national daily.
More vicious anti-immigrant and racist commentary infects the blogosphere. Some right-wing groups have adopted outright the symbols of Nazism or do so in coded ways, as the comedian and activist Dieudonné M'bala M'bala in France has used his “quenelle” or “vaguely menacing hand gesture” (in the words of the New York Times to incite support for Hitler and hatred of Jews.
All these events indicate the precariousness of Europe’s liberation.
Freedom of speech must remain inviolate.
But those of us revolted by hate-mongering and troubled by the willingness of mainstream parties and their leaders to legitimize anti-immigrant sentiment by courting votes among this segment of opinion must stand up for our beliefs.
We can do this at the ballot box, but voting is not enough. We must support the rule of law, tolerance and respect for others, whether citizens or not, through our daily practices. Victory brings the same responsibility in this regard for Americans that defeat does for Germans.
This is the best way to remember the victims of Nazi and Fascist tyranny, honor those who gave their lives to oppose them on the front lines and home fronts, and make liberation a living truth, not a fast-fading historical memory.