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  • Writer's pictureKarl Koerber

May 8 - 1945 and 2020

Updated: Nov 20, 2022

The more things change...

Seventy-five years ago today, Germany surrendered unconditionally and the Second World War in Europe was over. In the past I have cited a body count of 60 million, but Wikipedia puts the casualties, including those in Asia, at 70 to 85 million—the deadliest conflict in human history.

By comparison, the worldwide death toll from the Covid-19 pandemic to date has been about 270,000.

It’s hard to imagine—impossible, really—the chaos and upheaval in Germany and the rest of Europe in the aftermath of the war. So many dead. So many physically and mentally broken. Millions of hungry, homeless, traumatized people, their families and communities ripped apart. The disruption to our economy and social fabric brought on by the current pandemic pales by comparison.

The horrors and devastation of the war seem far away now. Ancient history—something that happened to others in another time. We feel insulated by time, secure in the belief that we have changed and now have safeguards to prevent a repetition of that descent into madness. Democracy has evolved and become more securely entrenched in many nations around the world. The idea that an ideology-driven despot could seize control in a modern democracy like Canada or the United States seems extremely far-fetched—our constitutions are designed to prevent such contingencies.

Still, constitutions can be amended, as Adolf Hitler demonstrated in 1933, when he convinced the National Assembly to vote in favor of the “Enabling Act,” which essentially handed the Nazis unopposed control of the government. It was a coup carried out within the legal framework of the country. And the orchestration of such a coup, or something similar, is not outside the realm of possibility—any time, anywhere. A sufficiently strong and widespread populist movement can overturn any political system, however durable it may seem.

The thing is, we humans have not changed in any significant way. We are no different now than we were in the 1930s, when the fascist groundswell was underway in Germany and other parts of the world. That movement was a human response to a certain set of social conditions. Perhaps today we are better educated, and we have learned from our past mistakes, but we are still people. The ways we react emotionally when we feel attacked or threatened have not been transformed during the intervening decades.

It seems that there is always a certain segment of the population that reacts to difficult economic and social circumstances in a predictable way—lashing out at those they deem responsible. Unfortunately, their targets are usually those who least deserve their rage and abuse. The economic fallout from the Covid pandemic has shown us how quickly this can happen, as innocent people of Asian descent have found themselves cast as scapegoats through a bizarre calculus that, since the virus originated in China, all people who look Chinese must bear the blame. This article on the CBC website also describes how the racist and xenophobic reaction has not been limited to Asians. Targeted in what UN chief Antonio Guterres has labelled a “tsunami of hate,” are migrants and refugees of all origins, Muslims and, of course, Jews, routinely blamed by conspiracy-theorists for any and all crises or hardships that come along to afflict us.

There will always be political opportunists who try to exploit this kind of hateful sentiment to their advantage. Hitler did it in the 1920s and ‘30s. Today’s potential Hitler clones are on the rise around the world—Trump, Putin, Bolsonaro and Duterte leap to mind, but there are others as well. The post-pandemic recession or depression will provide fertile ground for the emergence of nativist strongmen (or women) who fan the flames of nationalism and fear of others. Our world community, painstakingly nurtured over the decades since May 8, 1945, is fragile and in danger of disintegrating.

That fateful eighth of May seventy-five years ago marked the end of a war, but not an end to the suffering caused by that war. That trauma reverberates, I believe, to this day. Nor did it erase the human foibles that led to the war, and that have been brought into sharp focus again by the present crisis in which we find ourselves. True and lasting change, in my view, must be built on emotional healing, but the fear and resentment that underlie racism and xenophobia and feed political extremism will not be eradicated any time soon.

I hope, as I reflect today on the great human tragedy of the Second World War, that the future does not hold another cataclysm of equal or even greater proportion. The possibility, however, is real and tangible. The economic consequences of the pandemic, ever-increasing human population and the impact of climate change on global health and food security will put more and more stress on the bonds that hold our world community, such as it is, together. Maybe—just maybe—the balance of human sentiment will lean toward cooperation, conflict resolution and social justice, and we can forestall the next disaster. But I’m not holding my breath.

I suppose we could all do more to promote positive change in the world, but we are only human—we do the best we can with what we have. Perhaps, as Pierre Trudeau once mused, the universe is unfolding as it should, whether we see it clearly or not. For me, this day is just a reminder to maintain my faith in the intrinsic goodness of my fellow humans and refuse to be drawn into the politics of hate and division. And continue to love, and to work for a loving society, however I can.

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