We met on the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, which perhaps began the final phase of the Second World War- though it must always be remembered that the main burden of the struggle against Hitler’s Fascism was borne by the Soviet Union, which lost some thirteen million of their armed forces killed (in addition to 7 million civilians- though precise figures are uncertain and can be disputed). Germany suffered over 3 million military and nearly 4 million civilian deaths, compared with less than half a million total deaths each for Britain and the USA.
We asked ourselves to what extent we are capable of learning from history, and of avoiding future disasters in the relationships between people and nations. It could be argued that the lessons of World War One were badly learned- the economic “revenge” taken on Germany in the 1920s produced resentment which helped Hitler gain power, but the fear of being involved in yet another war perhaps meant a reluctance to resist Hitler’s expansionism until it was too late to avoid the repeat of full-scale war.
By contrast the way a devastated Germany was helped to rebuild after 1945 created peace and prosperity, at least in Western Europe, and the way the economies of Germany and France were tied inextricably together was deliberately intended to make it impossible for them to go to war again. Britain has always had an ambivalent attitude to the developing unity of Continental Europe (after all, for several centuries Britain’s power and prosperity owed something to the advantage it was able to take from the divisions and conflicts of Europe).
Today a variety of lessons are being taken from the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Some say that it is the height of folly to weaken and reverse this growing unity of Europe by abandoning it. Others that just as Britain fought to prevent Europe being united by a tyrannical Fascist regime, today it needs to assert its independence against a “controlling” Brussels (forgetting that regulations derided as “EU domination” have often been pushed by Britain and won by agreement in the EU).
Britain joined the then Common Market in the 1970s largely ignoring the fact that an economic union always needs strong political control, because unfettered free economics produces both great prosperity, and also great inequalities. If politics does not steer the economics then the inequalities eventually break any consensus and destroy prosperity. It can be argued that the present-day problems of the EU are at least partly due to the way it was deliberately set up to free its economy from “too much” political control- and it is discovering that economics alone cannot solve the resulting social and political problems.
Britain has also been left with a question of what we mean by “democracy”. Over many years it developed as a parliamentary Democracy, not a “referendum” democracy. If we are now to change this, we need to be aware of the implications. Perhaps it would have been more honest to work for a change in Parliamentary opinion, rather than to take advantage of a “quick fix” intended to solve a division in one political party (and which gave the opposite result to the one hoped for by those who proposed the referendum).
Our New Testament reading on June 6th urged us not to “believe every spirit, but to test the spirits to see whether they are from God.” That is not an easy task at any time- and perhaps especially not today.