75 years ago, the Allies of World War II formally accepted the surrender of Nazi Germany, putting an end to the war in Europe and marking Victory in Europe day. Since then, we have celebrated the end of the war every year, and it has become a public holiday in many countries, which could have contributed to making it a little banal and void of sense for some. Should we continue to commemorate the end of the war? Is it useful? Also, we have seen many parallels between WWII and the Covid-19 crisis in the media. These analogies can be a little helpful, but are they really relevant?
We may ask ourselves if it is important to celebrate the end of the war. Indeed, most people alive today did not experience it at all, and the number of people who actually took part in the war grows smaller as the years go by. Yet, remembering the lives lost, even if the events took place decades ago, is necessary, and there are powerful reasons, meaningful justifications to continue to commemorate. First of all, World War II caused the death of around 70-80 million people, about 2.5% to 3% of the world population at the time, which means that a great number of people have relatives who died during the war. People laid down their lives in order to fight tyranny, and we owe them a debt of gratitude for their sacrifice and for their exemplary behaviour. These commemorations help bind together nations, as is often the case when remembering painful past events. Today, we must be united again, for we are facing another important crisis. Remembering the past can help us.
Most importantly, we can learn so many things from the war. The lessons that can be learned are countless, and learning from history helps us avoid making the same mistakes as before and thus avoid future potential conflicts, by reflecting on the good and bad actions of the past. David Hume wrote that studying history helps us ‘discover the constant and universal principles of human nature’. However, we must be careful not to actually glorify the war. That could lead to an undesirable increase in violent nationalist feelings and could be used to validate unjust actions.
Queen Elizabeth II evoked World War II in her special address to the nation the 5th of April. Many have said that the Covid-19 crisis is the greatest challenge since the war. Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, said ‘we are at war’ no less than six times in a televised speech. Whilst all of this may be true, the war that ended 75 years ago and the crisis we are experiencing today are not comparable events.
There are certainly similarities though. In both cases, the crisis is global, severe restrictions are put on individual liberties, all health systems are under monumental pressure and governments are making colossal financial commitments. Nonetheless, the differences are more impressive. During the war, the USA proposed contracts to electrical companies and carmakers to mass produce weapons on an unprecedented scale, and they achieved their objectives in an incredibly short amount of time, despite creating complex war machinery. Yet today, governments across the world are struggling to get face masks and other PPE materials which are far easier to make that artillery, pointing to a lack of competence at the highest levels of power. Moreover, unlike today, some countries, Britain especially, were prepared for the war, for there was increasing pressure during the 1930s from the risk of war. Covid-19 took everyone unawares. Finally, the scale of the situations are simply different. World War II was the deadliest war in human history. So far, Covid-19 has killed about 277,000 people in total. Just the battle of Stalingrad saw 2 million deaths.
What is more interesting is the aftermath: the end of WWII saw the creation of the United Nations, NATO, the early stages of the European Union, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and an increase in international cooperation in general. On the other hand, the League of Nations created after World War I was a failure and did not prevent the next war. What will happen after the Covid-19 crisis is over? There have been notable examples of global cooperation in the past few months, like the transfer of french patients to neighbouring countries due to shortages of hospital beds, or Cuba sending doctors to help in a great number of countries, in Lombardy notably, Italy’s worst hit region. Yet, the Discovery clinical trials that are currently testing antivirals and that began in March, are slow to show results because participating countries are failing to cooperate effectively.
Today, we must make some sacrifices. Like our forebears, we must strive to recover our freedom, and the only way to do it is together, through mutual assistance and collaboration.