Our collective memory is fading

The famous quote by George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, is echoed by Yascha Mounk, who writes, “One possible explanation for why young people are disenchanted with democracy is that they have little conception of what it would mean to live in a different political system.”

Today most of the millions who fought against fascism in the second world war have since passed on, their children are in their seventies and eighties, and Remembrance Day is held only once a year. Confronted by this huge, and ultimately tragic memory gap, Mounk suggests that “civic education…should spend more time pointing out that ideological alternatives to liberal democracy, from fascism to communism, and from autocracy to theocracy, remain as repellent today as they have been in the past”. (Richard Orlando, Westmount, Quebec, Canada)

I am one of those elderly men whose father fought in the Second World War. He was one of the first Allied serving officers to encounter and enter a Nazi death camp in Northern Germany. He gave me a leather-thonged whip that he had taken from an arrested concentration camp guard, who had used it to whip women and children. My father’s words to me were, “Keep it, and never, ever forget”.

My British father was a product of his time, but he believed passionately in democracy, in benign capitalism designed to improve the lives of everyone. He believed in honesty and integrity, in getting along with everyone, in moderation, equal opportunity, and using taxes to ensure that the less well brought-up and educated were respected and had healthy lives. And he voted Conservative. Yes, he was a Conservative! I never knew my wife’s American father, but my wife tells me that he was a Republican with a world view almost identical to that of my own father. Whatever happened? Certainly, the meaning of “Conservative” has radically changed since both fine and honourable men passed away.

One Comment

  1. We can add one more WWII vet to the list. My father, born a “British subject,” according to his wartime passport, was a Canadian “liberal” during the 30s and 40s. I’m not sure to what that translates here in the U.S. I am sure that his political views reflected the outlook you quote in the post. He was an Adlai Stevenson Democrat so the values outlined above were widely held. What we see today in the U.S. is the ascent to power of those who never accepted the New Deal and who have reemerged to degrade our politics across-the-board.

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