The town of Portree, on the Isle of Skye in Scotland has a population of 2,149.
At the center of the town is a cenotaph, a memorial dedicated to those who have died in the First World War.
Almost every town in the UK has one of these (and you can find them throughout much of Europe).
Inscribed on the cenotaph are the names of the war dead.
In the little town of Portree, upon the cenotaph, are inscribed more than 125 names.
A terrible price to pay. Of the 557,000 Scots who enlisted in The First World War, 26.4% were killed.
A whole generation wiped out.
Portree was not alone. In the First World War, Europe suffered remarkable casualties. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, for example, Britain alone suffered 57,470 casualties – on the first day!
By the time the First World War was over, Europe had suffered more than 38 million casualties.
But even that was not the end, because a mere 21 years later, the Second World War would cost the world another 60 million casualties.
By 1945, Europe and indeed most of the planet, had been reduced to little more than a smoldering charnel house of ruined cities and dead bodies.
The almost unbelievable (by today’s standards) result of having experienced those two traumas within a single lifetime made people brave enough to abandon ideas and principles that they had clung to for a thousand years.
Since the fall of the Roman Empire in 476AD, European nations had been at each other’s throats in an almost never-ending cascade of wars and invasions. The English killing the French, the French killing the Germans, The Germans killing the French…. It was a give, a part of daily life.
The sheer scope of death and destruction from 1914-1945, however, was finally enough for everyone in Europe to say, ‘enough’.
What they did instead was decide to unite and work together. It was not easy. It was not easy to abandon a thousand years of hatred and mistrust, but they did it, and they formed the EU.
Now, with the Brexit vote, Britain is prepared to walk away from that rather miraculous invention. And other nations seem prepared to follow. They are rather eagerly, (at least in some quarters), publicly praising the idea of returning to the concept of little nation states – the world pre EU.
If you were in Britain in November, you saw the usual Armistice Day celebrations. They happen every November 11th, commemorating the end of the First World War. If you saw it on TV, you could see that they were rolling out the last living survivors of the Second World War. Soon there will be none at all. Soon, anyone with a living memory of the absolute horror of those two World Wars and what they did to the world will be gone. And with them, so goes, it seems, the motivation to overcome a thousand years of fear and hatred that once, for a moment, transcended petty nationalism.
This is a tragedy.
In 1969, Dean Acheson, Secretary of State 1941-1953 published his memoirs. The book was called Present At The Creation. The Creation that Acheson was present for was the creation of a new world, one that has kept the peace for nearly 70 years now. It was a world based on cooperative organizations like the United Nations or NATO or the EU.
That world too is being rendered asunder. It is being rendered asunder by Mr. Trump and his friends, who do not seem to believe in NATO or the UN. He is a nationalist. He will ‘Make America Great Again’. He and his followers are the post ‘greatest generation’. They have no memory of the two world wars. They have no memory of the trauma that gave birth to our collective world today. They have only known peace and stability and they find it, I think, boring.
As in England, as in Europe, the last few living survivors of the World Wars are also almost gone, as is the memory of the absolute horror that those years wrought on the world.
It is too bad.
It is too bad that we live in a world of collective amnesia. It is too bad that the History Channel no longer shows history, but prefers Reality TV shows. It is too bad that history is no longer taught in our schools. For 16 years, I taught at both Columbia University and NYU. My students had almost no basic grounding in history, and what was worse, did not really seem to care.
They were not concerned that they did not know what years the American Civil War took place in. It did not bother them. They told me that if they needed to know, they could always Google it.
They felt history had no impact on their lives.
They are about to discovery how wrong they were.
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