Last Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War.
Is the world more or less safe now than at the 25th, 50th, or 75th anniversary of this Armistice? A popular opinion, is yes. However, I am not so sure.
There are many ways to study this question. Specifically today I’d like to focus on the general decline of personal family connections to WWI and WWII. The specific thesis is that it was the intimate knowledge of the horrors of these wars that helped sustain the motivation and energy required to maintain the period of the Long Peace we have benefited from since 1945.
The concern is that with the rapid loss of this first hand historical connection, we are at risk to lose a driving force for peace, and risk to repeat the past.
[In a similar way, is the rise of the anti-vacination movement (and the new hotspots of disease) closely related to the loss of collective memory? An erasing of the morbidity and mortality of conditions such as polio / iron lungs, diphtheria, whooping cough, and pertussis?]
1. The Dinner Table
1.1 I know someone…
For decades after World War I and World War II there was almost always someone at the Sunday dinner table with a direct connection to the war. Such as a parent, grandparent, child, aunt, uncle, or other family member who either who fought during the war, or who lived during it (either at home or abroad).
This connected citizens personally to history, and served as a reminder of the horrors and hardships of wartime.
I believe it is this personal proximity to the Twentieth Century, that has been an important factor in helping maintain the Long Peace [wikipedia].
I am concerned that as we lose this connection to the history of the 20th century, we lose the memory and consequent willpower that has helped maintain peace.
This chart shows 500 years of international war in Europe. Connection to family members and conflict has been the norm. There is an abrupt decline decline after 1945, (and later in communist countries).
This 2011 Pew Research Poll demonstrates how youth today are much less likely to have family ties to military.
On a personal note, my attitudes towards Nazism and Communism, war and peace, freedom and tyranny were heavily influenced by stories of my grandmother and her family growing up during the Second World War in Yugoslavia, oppressed first by the Nazis and second the Communists. In addition, to my grandfather’s deadly Canadian fighter jet crash.
2. Wide reaching impact of World War II
To fully grasp the far reaching impact of WWII let us look at how the casualty numbers affected countries around the world.
2.1 Deaths by country
The finally death toll (civilian + military) was 60-70 million. That was 3% of the world’s population in 1940 [Wikipedia WWII Casualties].
Breaking down deaths by country in absolute number, and as a percentage of the population, provide a stark result. Note how almost 20% of Poland died, and the very high absolute number of deaths in the Soviet Union. This graph is also a bit deceiving because the numbers are so large. When we look at the USA they had 420,000 deaths, and and additional 670,000 wounded.
2.2 Deaths in perspective
I highly recommend you watch online The Fallen of World War II. An 18 minute documentary by Neil Halloran that uses graphs to place the number of casualties in the war in perspective.
Such as the number of military casualties in WWII vs the following years:
2.3 Post WWII Years & Democide
In the decades surrounding WWII the world witnessed the largest episodes in history of democide: the killing by a government of its own citizens.
The expert on democide is the late, Professor Rummel. His website/online-book is worth a thorough review. The most important figure is the one below tallying 20th century mortacracies.
As you can see the 20th century saw 262 million deaths as a result of governments causing the death of their own people. This is six times more than all the people who died in 20thcentury wars.
As the 20th century progressed, many of the regimes that practised democide fell and their horrors tragically served to the remaining population as a reminder of the extreme value and rarity of both freedom and peace.
2.4 Percent deployed
Another way to look at the impact of WWII is the number of military personal deployed. This graph shows the number deployed per 100,000 people in the population in the USA, around 12%.
Below, we can see how this number compares in absolute number of USS military personal in service or deployed in WWII compared to other conflicts. 16 million.
3. The forgotten past
As we lose direct ties to the past via family connections, the role of education and remembrance becomes even greater in order to maintain our commitment for ‘it to never happen again’.
Regretfully, despite ‘wonderful advancements in education’ more people than ever before leave school completely ignorant of history and evils of the last century.
3.1 Ignorant of WW1 and WW2
From History Channel UK:
“Although over half (53%) of the nation claim to be knowledgeable about World War Two, almost one third (30%) had no idea that the Blitz was a World War Two event….
…Furthermore, an alarming 1 in 10 (10%) had no idea Adolf Hitler was involved in World War Two with some even believing Germany and Britain were on the same side (8%).
…Despite being widely recognised as the battle that ended the Second World War, the poll reveals that 60% of the UK population can’t name 1944 as the year the D-Day landings took place.
…Over a third of UK adults polled (35%) didn’t know that the Battle of Britain took place during the Second World War; and 32% didn’t know that the attack on Pearl Harbour took place in Hawaii.” [History.co.uk]
From The Telegraph 2009: survey in UK of people age 15-19.
“Almost half did not know in which year the war began.
…When asked who had used the famous words "We shall fight on the beaches", over a third did not recognise the speaker as Winston Churchill. 7% attributed the quote to Adolf Hitler whilst other responses included Stalin and Henry VIII
…We have to remember that for these children, the war is as remote as the Middle Ages. For many of them, their grandparents did not even live through it.” [The Telegraph, August 15 2009]
3.2 Ignorant of the Holocaust
I place ignorance of the Holocaust in its own category, because over the last century, countless dollars have been spent on education campaigns, museums, memorials, and significant efforts around the world to educate people about the Holocaust. Regretfully, the data shows awareness is low.
NPR has a worthwhile 3 minute summary of the importance of ensuring people know first hand of the horrors of the concentration camps, “so they could give their accounts to history for all times, so we would never forget”. [Listen Here].
In February 2018 a survey of 1350 adults over age 18 was conducted in the United States. [Survey commissioned by Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, original results WP Article]. (I can’t find how Schoen Consulting defined millennial, but it is someone in this case between age of 18 to around 36)
- 11% of adults and 22% of millennials are unaware or not sure of hearing about the Holocaust.
- 31% of all US adults, and 41% of millennials believe 2 million or fewer Jews were killed.
- 45% of all US adults, and 49% of millennials could not name a single concentration camp or ghetto
- 41% of all US adults were not sure / incorrect about what Auschwitz was. 66% of millennials were unable to identify what Auschwitz was
- 80% of Americans have not visited a Holocaust Museum, and 66% do not know or know of a Holocaust surviver
These numbers are not unique to the United State. This chart from the Roper Center, show even higher levels of ignorance in the UK. 47% of people didn't know what Auschwitz, Dachau, or Treblinka were.
4. Threats to peace
6.1 Loss of collective history of the horrors of the past
The strength of a Nation is in many ways proportionate to its collective stories.
The generations who lived through the World Wars are mostly passed on. The school system has been incapable of educating students in history (in either a quantitative or qualitative understanding).
With the continued loss of those connected directly to WW1 and WW2, and with decreased enrolments in the military, few civilians have a first hand connection to the horrors of the 20th century.
I believe it was in part the extent of the horror, that helped drive its survivors to work for peace and prosperity in the post war decades.
As we lose this historical memory and collective story, we place ourselves complacent to repeat the atrocities of the past. To forget how bad things can be. And to fail to take the necessary steps to avoid conflict, preserve peace, and fight against injustice and evil.
“It's hard to tell people to never forget when they haven't heard.”
- NPR, Scott Simon April 14, 2018
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?” -
Lest we forget.
Thanks to Will, Mason, Liam, and Alain for their feedback.
Coverphoto: Nazi Concentration Camp: Camp Vaught, Netherlands. 2018. GJS.
While researching this, I came across a Pew Research Center (Nov 23 2011) poll showing that there was little difference in how respondents answered these questions based in if they did or did not have an immediate family member who had served.
I’m not sure this data is generalizable to WWII, given the frank difference in the scale and horror.