WSJ: The Real Lessons of WW II

Roundup: Talking About History

Editorial, in the WSJ (June 4, 2004):

This Sunday, Gerhard Schroeder will become the first German Chancellor to take part in a D-Day ceremony. It will mark the final chapter of the liberation of Europe that began 60 years ago and only belatedly reached Eastern Europe.

Mr. Schroeder's participation isn't completely uncontroversial. Some Allied war veterans are furious and a few refuse to take part in the celebrations.

We have to respect the feelings of those who risked their lives to storm the beaches of Normandy and who saw so many of their comrades killed by Germans. But for most Americans and Europeans, the participation of Chancellor Schroeder now comes quite naturally. Germany has become a free and democratic country and the post-war generation can't be held accountable for the sins of their fathers.

In order to attend these celebrations, Germans didn't only have to overcome the resentments of their former enemies, but they also had to defeat their own ghosts. It took a long time before the country came to terms with what the Allied victory meant for them.

That victory was "no cause for celebration," said German President Walter Scheel in 1975. While he acknowledged that it marked the liberation from a "terrible yoke," he added it also marked the day the German fatherland fell, "the fatherland which we all loved." A lot has changed since then and Mr. Schroeder can now unequivocally say that June 6 has "become a symbol for the fight for freedom, democracy and human rights."

Of course, this year's celebration doesn't take place in a political vacuum; the war in Iraq is on everyone's mind. Mr. Schroeder refuses to see any parallels between America's past fight to rid the world from the evil of fascism and disposing the butcher of Baghdad.

"Germany owes it to its history . . . to stress the alternative to war." Here, Mr. Schroeder errs. The kind of militant pacifism that many Germans have taken away as their lesson from fascism did not defeat the Nazis. It took the largest armada the world had ever seen, almost 7,000 ships, to take the Normandy beaches. Sometimes there is no alternative to war, and appeasement only invites greater calamity at the end.

Simply pointing to the human suffering to call a war unjust is not good enough. At Omaha beach, American casualties on the first day were so high (3,000 dead and wounded) that General Omar Bradley considered for a moment abandoning the operation. And as a result of the fierce resistance of the German Wehrmacht and SS units within French cities, about 14,000 civilians were killed in the Normandy operation between June and August 1944. Are we to conclude that these deplorable deaths render Operation Overlord unjustified in retrospect?

The next time Mr. Schroeder calls for a speedy transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqi people and a quick departure of American troops, he should remember that his own country didn't form a government until four years after the end of the war. Even to this day, American troops are stationed in Germany, protecting his freedom as well.

Simply following the French lead, as Mr. Schroeder has been doing, doesn't qualify yet as an independent foreign policy. Mr. Schroeder will have to do better if he is to gain the permanent seat on the Security Council he so forcefully seeks.

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