60 Years After World War II: What Have We Learned?

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60 Years After World War II

What Have We Learned?

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On May 9, 60 world leaders gathered in Moscow to celebrate the end of World War II—"the Last Good War," as some call it. Over 40 million people perished in that conflict. It is fitting that Russia hosted the event since the Soviet Union lost more people, 27 million, than any other nation. Sixty years later they still reflect on what that conflict meant to the world.

In August the commemoration of the end of the war in the Pacific with the atomic bomb will follow, and we'll see more reflection over that event. Last year it was the 60th anniversary of D-Day that brought leaders to France to remember. Considering the age of the veterans of that astounding struggle—most of those still living are in their 80s—this will be the last great commemoration for the generation that fought in that global conflict.

Recently I heard former U.S. Senator Robert Dole, himself a veteran who was gravely wounded in Italy during the last days of the war, commenting on radio about how few Americans who fought then are still alive. The "greatest generation" is rapidly leaving us. Their story is truly one of heroic proportions.

Evil defeated—yet forgotten

Good and evil were clearly defined in that war. Nazi fascism was embodied in Benito Mussolini of Italy, Emperor Hirohito of Japan and, worst of all, Germany's Adolf Hitler. Had this original "axis of evil" won, it is likely I would not be writing to you in English. The whole history of the past 60 years would be much different.

But they did not win. America came late to that conflict yet made the decisive difference—turning the tide along with the other Allied powers.

But time marches on, and America's role in that conflict is gradually being forgotten by a new generation in Europe. This collective amnesia is part of the growing divide between Europe and the United States and has serious consequences.

One is that few Europeans today feel indebted to America for saving them from Nazism and returning freedom to their soil. World War II is the one item of European history about which Americans are likely to be well versed. It has been the theme of movies, books and memory for 60 years.

That is part of why Americans puzzle over the European failure to support U.S. intervention in Iraq. "We spent our blood to give you freedom; now why can't you support the same for another nation?," Americans ask. Yet the past is forgotten, as if it didn't happen.

Europeans avidly consume American films and follow American politics. They are generally better informed about America than Americans are about them and can explain reasons for the vast gulf. The European view of America was largely shaped well before the recent Iraq war.

Another consequence of the European amnesia is the failure to see potential for a sudden shift in governmental policy toward a reduction of personal liberties. People may vote for European anti-immigration parties without thinking they are supporting ideas that once led to the ovens of Treblinka or Auschwitz. Sadly, some have even forgotten what the names of these extermination camps stand for.

Some observers speculate that an attack on a major European nation on the scale of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America could quickly tip the scales of democracy toward a totalitarian form of government. Sixty years after the war one hears the strains of Rudyard Kipling's poem "Recessional," with its haunting refrain of "lest we forget, lest we forget!"

A war that shaped the century

The 20th century was one of mankind's bloodiest periods. World War II was really a continuation of World War I and represents the high-water mark of a century of tragedy. Its shadow defined the next 50 years, not only for the nations but for many individuals as well.

My father went to the war as a young man, newly married and with a newborn son, my older brother. Three of his brothers went off with him. They were descended from a stock of people who historically heeded the call of their country to fight its battles.

My father left the small family farm near a small Missouri town, not knowing anything of the horrors of war. He fought his way from the beaches of France to the forests of Germany before returning home.

What he did and saw during that time was locked deep within his mind and heart. But it altered his personality just enough that the woman he married could tell. Years later my mother would say, with a note of melancholy in her voice, that my father was not the same man when he returned from the war. The war cast a long shadow in our family.

How much have we learned?

From the ashes of this epic conflict came the idea for the United Nations, a world body dedicated to preventing another global catastrophe. The United Nations has a spotty record. It hasn't prevented many wars and sometimes its own troops have participated in acts of atrocity. At times it has given its stage to despots such as Yasser Arafat, whose legacy is terror and conflict rather than peace.

Senator Dole summed up much of the legacy of the past 60 years in a piece published in The Wall Street Journal May 6. He wrote: "Admittedly, our victory was not total. No victory ever is. As the Cold War demonstrated, our way of life remained imperiled, and millions of east Europeans were trapped in tyranny.

"Today, many have still not fully accepted the state of Israel, and the Middle East remains troubled. Many governments are no more willing than before to grant freedom to their people. The slaughters orchestrated by Hitler and Stalin have given way to mass murder in Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur. Though many claim to have learned from the unparalleled horrors of the 20th century, it is often not evident. Sadly, we know there will be more genocide."

God is in control

So let me go back to my question, what keeps evil from triumphing in this world? The answer is that there must be a God who controls the course of nations and keeps one nation, empire or ideology from gaining total control over all others. Should that ever happen the world could be plunged into another dark age.

Notice what the prophet Daniel was inspired to tell one of the great imperial despots of the ancient world, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. It is a message that helps us understand that God oversees the course of world events.

Notice in Daniel 2:20-22: "Daniel answered and said: 'Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, for wisdom and might are His. And He changes the times and the seasons; He removes kings and raises up kings; He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding. He reveals deep and secret things; He knows what is in the darkness, and light dwells with Him.'"

Here is one of the little-known keys to understanding world history. You won't hear it taught in most classrooms or discussed by newsmen and commentators.

Nebuchadnezzar ruled over a vast realm and desired to bring his version of "the good life" to all others. History has seen that when messianic rulers arise with the ambition to extend their world vision over all others, the result is always war and destruction.

You see, there has never been one political, religious or philosophical system with which all races and nations could agree. The world is too divided by language and ethnic custom to see everyone come together under one banner of thought.

Jesus Christ's window on the future

Jesus said that the biblical "time of the end" would be one of nations rising against other nations in constant conflict. Notice what Christ said to His disciples in His prophecy recorded in Matthew 24: "And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places . . . All these are the beginning of sorrows" (verses 6-8).

In this prophecy Christ gives a strong warning about some pretty bad world conditions. It reads like a lot of our news headlines today—war, famine, pestilence and bad government causing a lot of suffering.

Yet through this chapter runs a thread of promise from Jesus Christ that the Father is in control of events. And He assures us that "he who endures to the end shall be saved" (verse 13). He indicates that His protection will be on a small group of people who can discern the times and see the hand of God behind world events, and who remain close to Him no matter what.

He also says that for the sake of this small group, called "the elect," this time of turmoil will be cut short and the human race will not be extinguished (verse 22).

The horrors of war are both arbitrary and complete. The great wars of the 20th century destroyed and altered the faith of so many. The story of one 10-year-old girl perhaps says it best. One of the German bombing raids on London blew the roof off her parents' house. She struggled to understand where God was in all the destruction of her neighborhood: "I wondered why the God that my mother always prayed to had taken our neighbors' lives, but left our piano untouched."

That is indeed a lot to understand. God is the one who keeps evil from overcoming this world and bringing the human experience to a tragic close. God is the one who is ultimately overseeing events and guiding this world to a time when His good and His way will triumph over all other ideas. GN