Historical commemorations serve a double purpose. They remind us of events that should never be forgotten. But also, and more subtly, they should give pause for thought – underlining that however momentous the events in question, they did not stop the march of history.
Thus it was with yesterday’s 70th anniversary celebrations of the D-Day landings. Quite possibly, they were the last of their kind, at least in scale. Few of the surviving veterans are aged less than 90; a decade hence they will be virtually all gone. All the more important therefore to meditate on “a day that changed history”, in the words of the French President, François Hollande. D-Day opened the final act in the drama of the Second World War that ended with the destruction of one of the vilest regimes produced by man, at the hands of an unprecedented alliance of East and West, united against a shared existential threat.
But even D-Day cannot escape history’s shifting perspectives. Once the invasion was seen as the paramount symbol of how the Allies won the war, but no longer. Whatever one thinks of communism then, or of Vladimir Putin now, the fact is that no single factor – not even the Normandy landings, the largest combined air and amphibious operation ever – contributed more to the defeat of Nazi Germany than the Soviet Union’s colossal human sacrifice in the Third Reich’s defeat on the Eastern Front. The combined war deaths suffered by Britain, the US and Canada, the three countries that spearheaded the D-Day assault, total about one million. For the Soviet Union alone, the corresponding figure is put at about 27 million.
Victory, therefore, was a collective triumph, and it was absolutely fitting that Mr Putin was invited to attend the ceremonies, along with the modern successors of Churchill, Roosevelt and De Gaulle. No less fitting was the presence of Angela Merkel, leader of a reunited Germany, today one of the world’s most liked and admired countries, and that once more is Europe’s most important economic power.
Mr Putin’s autocratic and aggressive behaviour, culminating in his land grab in Ukraine, may be seen as a reversion to the past, evoking warnings of a second Cold War, or worse. D-Day, however, helps to remind us that despite the Ukraine crisis, despite the tensions and resentments within the EU, a continent-wide hot war on the lines of the Second World War is unthinkable. For that, the advent of nuclear weapons is a main reason. By the same token, if Europe, the US and Russia have a common enemy now, it is not the perverted regime of a nation state – but the protean, non-state threat of terrorism; shadowy, stop-at-nothing militants in possession of a nuclear warhead.
And much else has been transformed since 6 June 1944. War’s end was followed by Cold War and the supreme decades of “the American century”, that culminated in the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. But even then, and contrary to the title of the briefly famous book by Francis Fukuyama, it was not the “end of history”.
The era of Western supremacy may in its turn be drawing to a close. Europe, inward-looking and shorn of empire, burdened by sluggish growth and an ageing population, is almost peripheral to the sweep of world history. Meanwhile, the economic, even the military power of the US is in relative decline, amid the rise of a new East, embodied by a reawakened China and an ever more dynamic and productive Asia.
But, as the crisis in Ukraine shows, the old East is still very much with us. On the eve of the D-Day anniversary, the established industrial powers – a G8 now shrunk to a G7 – held their annual summit in Brussels. The group has always (and unwisely) refused to have China as a member even as the latter became the world’s second largest economy. Russia’s admission, a reward for the steps to democracy during the Gorbachev/Yeltsin era, has now been revoked to punish Moscow for its behaviour in Ukraine. The step only underlines the G7’s role as a purely Western club, and the return, for now, of a de facto division between East and West.
Set against all this, the celebrations in Normandy, their guests of honour a dwindling band of white-haired veterans, might seem of little contemporary relevance. In fact, they were a salutary reminder of a more heroic and certainly a simpler time, when rivals could set aside their differences to achieve so much. If only one could say as much today.