My late Uncle “Boots” Van Pelt was almost killed 70 years ago. He went ashore on Omaha Beach with the 29th Infantry Division on D-Day. After the initial troop landings, he was found and thought dead, but he roused as they were putting him into a body bag.
He got to Paris with the American forces and was later wounded at the Battle of the Bulge.
On the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy, we reflect on the heroism of those who fought to liberate Europe. But we should also consider why the conflagration of World War II occurred and why Europe found itself in need of liberation to begin with.
Rise of Enlightenment
We need to start with history. Europe’s civilization at its best flourished because of the ideas and values manifest in its culture and institutions. Its philosophical culmination was the Enlightenment.
Enlightenment philosophy acknowledged the power of human reason to understand the world and to transform it in order to make life on earth for human beings better. It recognized that individuals are ends in themselves, with their own happiness as their legitimate goal. And it accepted that individuals have the right to live their lives as they will, dealing with others based on mutual consent, with the implication that the purpose of government is to secure those rights.
This philosophy, which transcended national borders, helped transform Europe, but only imperfectly and incompletely; that philosophy was best manifest in Europe’s stellar child, the United States.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the European countries and peoples were still very nationalistic and tribal, not simply celebrating their own cultures but denigrating others. The interlocking treaty system that European nation-states set up almost ensured the outbreak of a major war.
The appalling 20 million battlefield deaths of World War I did not give leaders, citizens, and subjects of European governments the wisdom to prevent another war. The defeated Germans, for example, resented the crippling reparations with which they were burdened. They were incensed by the requirement of the victors that they sign a “War Guilt” clause acknowledging that they were solely responsible for World War I. While they were a principal cause of the war, the victors and the treaty system deserved censure as well.
Hitler is the single individual who deserves the most blame for World War II, though we should never forget the role Stalin and the expansionist Japanese government played as well. But more fundamentally, fascism and communism both arose because of an eclipse of the Enlightenment principles. Fascism and communism held the group—the “race” and the “proletariat” respectively—as superior to the individual. They rejected reason as a guide to life in favor of a mindless, emotional obedience to authority. And they accepted force as the way for individuals and nations to deal with one another.
Add to that a value malaise in France, England, and elsewhere and the stage was set for war and repression.
A new heroism
World War II resulted in over 60 million dead. And at least in its wake, the countries of Western Europe have overcome many historical animosities and avoided launching a World War III. With the help of America, Europe avoided coming under the yoke of the surviving collectivist tyranny, the Soviet Union, which finally collapsed under its own contradictions.
But Europe and the West today have not recovered the Enlightenment principles that they need to flourish. The welfare state and Euro-socialism are forms of collectivism that, though ostensibly kinder and gentler, are today going through their own version of the collapse that occurred in the East Bloc 25 years ago.
The soldiers like my Uncle Boots who landed in Normandy 70 years ago to help liberate Europe were true heroes. Today we need a new heroism, the courage to stand up for the Enlightenment principles that are necessary to make sure that the horrors of tyranny and world war never plague the planet again.