Tuesday, 2 January 2018

1929-1939... 2008-2018?

In the run up to Remembrance Sunday last November, I'm with my father at Waitrose in West Ealing. He's approaching an old chap in a wheelchair, wearing an anorak, jumper, white shirt, regimental tie, cloth cap, a couple of medals. My father goes up to buy his poppy, and asks the veteran his age. The man replies "I'll be eighty-nine in January." A moment of realisation - my father realises, and the man realises that my father realises - and I realise that they both realise - that at 89 he was too young to have seen action in World War Two.

"I'm 94," says my father. A certain look of guilt flits across the bemedalled veteran's face. "This medal is for National Service..." he begins to explain. At 89, he would have received his call-up papers on his 18th birthday in January 1947.

It dawns on me that to have seen action as a member of His Majesty's Armed Forces in WW2, you would have to have turned 18 sometime in 1944, done some basic training and been shipped off to the Far East (or maybe arrived in north-west Germany just before the end of hostilities). This hadn't occurred to me before - anyone under the age of 91 would not have been there.

Of course there was Korea, the Malayan Emergency, the Mau-Mau, Suez, but these were far smaller-scale conflicts which didn't affect mainland Britain.

Why am I writing this now?

Political risk consultancy Eurasia Group published its risk assessment for 2018, likening the geopolitical risk that this year has in store for Planet Earth and its inhabitants as being on par with the year 2008 and the Great Recession. I immediately see the parallels. Ten years after the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression that it triggered, World War Two begins.

Those ten years, fraught with danger as the world staggered from one global conflict into another, must have had left a great impression on all those who followed the news in the papers, on the radio, in the cinema newsreels. There must have been a sense of impending doom, of knowledge that unspeakable horrors were about to revisit the world. And yet - there's so few people around today who remember that climate of mounting unease. My father was just 16 when the Germans invaded Poland and bombed Warsaw. His memories of the 1930s will be less clear than my memories of the 1970s. Of his parents' generation there is no one left alive, no one who would have followed those news stories in detail, understanding the foreign policy aspects, the budgetary implications of rearmament, appreciating from first-hand experience what the previous global war actually looked like.

The lack of that personal link to those days worries me. In London, I watched several episodes of the masterful documentary series, The World at War (1973-74) with my father. It was amazing to see key figures from the war, some 30 years older, now middle-aged or elderly men, recounting their experiences. Among them were Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz - Adolf Hitler's successor. Listening to their testimonies, I could see how important it is for society to have that direct connection to witnesses of war. Those who forget - or misinterpret - or ignore - history are indeed doomed to repeat it.

Human history sweeps in cycles; the Russian economist Nikolai Kondratiev observed back in the 1920s a tendency for economies to rise and fall in a long wave (as well as shorter-phase fluctuations). These long waves, he noted - going back to ancient times - tended to be 50-60 years long. A reason? Those in charge when things got bad were no longer around to counsel those who were in charge next time round. Memory, history, fades.

I fear that those who advocate rash policies today, policies that wittingly or not destabilise the economy and society, are insufficiently cautious, less wary than they should be, and may be leading us all down exceedingly dangerous paths. Without that handbrake of people who've lived through previous waves of global conflict, we may be going that way ourselves. I am worried.

This time two years ago:
Track works between W-wa Okęcie and W-wa Dawidy

This time four years ago:
The benefits of extending the human lifespan 

This time seven years ago:
New Year's stocktaking

This time last eight years ago:
A walk in the wild winter woods

This time nine years ago:
Now that's what I call winter vol. 12

This time ten years ago:
When the day starts getting longer


Anonymous said...

Thought provoking post Michael. I fear we are destined to repeat the mistakes of our fathers or grandfathers. Keep up the good work

White Horse Pilgrim said...

Memory fades and hubris rises. A most relevant post.

Paddy said...

Good post. It’s on us to keep the remembrance alive