D-Day’s Dying Legacy

The last survivors of the Normandy invasion—and history's worst war—are almost gone. How long will the international system they helped create survive them?

By Michael Hirsh, a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.
U.S. and British World War II veterans gather at the U.S. 1st Infantry Division memorial on a hill that overlooks Omaha Beach in Normandy to commemorate the World War II Allied D-Day invasion in Colleville-sur-Mer, France, on June 3.
U.S. and British World War II veterans gather at the U.S. 1st Infantry Division memorial on a hill that overlooks Omaha Beach in Normandy to commemorate the World War II Allied D-Day invasion in Colleville-sur-Mer, France, on June 3. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

There aren’t many of them left, the men who struggled ashore in a haze of bombs and bullets exactly 75 years ago Thursday to save Western civilization. Even the youngest of them, those who still were teenagers on June 6, 1944, are in their 90s today. Only a handful of the brave survivors of D-Day were able to attend this year’s anniversary celebration on the Normandy coast, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 348 American World War II veterans are dying every day.

With them is dying off, individual by individual, the living memory of humankind’s worst self-made calamity. Before very long, World War II will no longer dwell in the minds of those who endured its horrors but will pass entirely into the dry pages of history. And it can hardly be a coincidence that slowly, almost imperceptibly, the lessons of the bloodiest century are fading from memory as well. The stark lines of the world order we know today—the international institutions and norms intended to prevent such a calamity from happening ever again—were set down by a deeply traumatized generation that witnessed these terrible events firsthand, and sustained by that generation’s children and grandchildren.

Now, with the witness-bearers almost gone, these lines are being rethought and reconsidered, or more often simply ignored and forgotten. At a ceremony at the D-Day embarkation point of Portsmouth on Wednesday, Britain’s 93-year-old Queen Elizabeth II noted that she was part of the wartime generation (and hadn’t really expected to make it to this anniversary), saying that “the heroism, courage, and sacrifice of those who lost their lives will never be forgotten.”

Perhaps. But what is being forgotten, ever so gradually, is what they sacrificed themselves for: the historical reasons behind the United States’ role as chief author, overseer, and stabilizer of the liberal global system (after two horrific, interconnected world wars, a reluctant Washington decided it had finally had enough of getting drawn into ancient enmities in Europe and Asia); the urgent passions behind the drive toward political union in Europe, which was largely intended to integrate a defeated Germany forever into a peaceful partnership; Britain’s central role in this; and so on.

All is being glossed over and second-guessed, often encouraged by a leader of the free world who seems to relish micturating on every lesson—every alliance, every institution, every sacred totem—dating from World War II, starting with his gleeful embrace of “America First” isolationism as a campaign and inaugural theme.

But the problem is not just President Donald Trump. It’s also about the rise of the new right in Europe, Japan, and elsewhere. It’s about a new forgetfulness—at times a willful amnesia—that is spreading through the capitals of the war’s former combatants. Russian President Vladimir Putin, as part of his broad program to create an us-versus-them narrative against the West, has suggested  that Russia could have defeated Nazi Germany largely on its own—contradicting Joseph Stalin, who according to Nikita Khrushchev’s memoirs declared unequivocally that the Soviets would have lost without U.S. help. The Poles are threatening to prosecute anyone who says Poland was complicit in the Holocaust. And last year a co-leader of the newly emergent far-right nationalist Alternative for Germany party, Alexander Gauland, dismissed the Nazi era as “a speck of bird poop in more than 1,000 years of successful German history.”

Whatever happened to the prediction of Hans Frank, the senior Nazi convicted at Nuremberg, that “a thousand years will pass and this guilt of Germany will still not be erased”? The answer: Frank didn’t anticipate an information age that has transmogrified, perhaps permanently, into a misinformation age. Frank and his ilk certainly did not foresee the advent of Trumpism, an aggressive campaign of forthright history-forgetting that is gathering apace. Set against these trends, how long can the lessons of history hold out? In the era of deepfakes, highly realistic and misleading manipulated videos, how long before Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s insistence on filming the Nazi concentration camps as well as witnessing them himself—“in order to be in a position to give firsthand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations to propaganda,” Eisenhower said presciently in 1945—is seen as just more fake news?

And how long before the urgent lessons that drove international changes after the war are forgotten as well?

All these new, information-age trends seem to have accelerated a much older trend: that the lessons of history don’t long survive the living memory of it. The Greek historian Herodotus was perhaps the first to try to frame the unwavering laws that rule the progress and decline of empires: Conquerors rise and fall and rise again, each of them forgetting in turn their predecessors’ slide into decadence and hubris—the folly of Ozymandias. And as soon as we forget what happened in the past, we “are condemned to repeat it,” as the philosopher George Santayana memorably said. Other historians going back to Polybius have argued in various ways that, since human nature never changes, neither do the endless cycles of history.

Many people thought that this time would be different. The 20th century was a long, hard lesson that ended in the mutual threat of Armageddon. There was no longer any choice: War and the terrible return of history had to be made a thing of the past. U.S. Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and their successors, both Democratic and Republican, created and shored up a protective moat of international institutions including the United Nations Security Council, the Bretton Woods institutions, NATO, the G-7, and the World Trade Organization—all intended to ward off the anarchy that had hitherto mostly prevailed in global relations.

And yet now this system is under serious threat—and it’s only going to get harder to preserve it as the World War II generation dies off. “I’m of the mind that the system is very much in danger,” said the Georgetown University scholar Charles Kupchan, who sees a double threat in the fading of memory and the shift to a multipolar world in which the North Atlantic democracies now represent less than 50 percent of global GDP, where they used to make up 80 percent.

“Polls show that younger Americans and Europeans are less concerned about traditional geopolitical issues than older Americans and Europeans. That says to me, yes, historical memory is important,” Kupchan told me. Beyond that, the two nations chiefly responsible for establishing the postwar system, the United States and Great Britain, are both in the throes of a nationalist backlash that led, respectively, to Trump and Brexit. “The United Kingdom is basically closed for business, in a state of prolonged paralysis. The United States is backing away from the order it spent so much blood and treasure building,” Kupchan said.

James Steinberg, a former senior White House and State Department official under Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, sees an alarming pattern in Trump’s persistent erasure of the past, starting with the president’s lack of concern over the parallels between his “America First” theme and pre-World War II isolationism, and extending to Trump’s recent visit to Japan, when he blithely dismissed North Korea’s new missile tests, apparently because they threatened only Pyongyang’s Asian neighbors and not Washington.  

“That should ring alarm bells about what happened when we tried to stay out of Europe’s conflicts during [Woodrow] Wilson’s first term and during the 1930s,” as well as what happened after then-Secretary of State Dean Acheson, in an infamous speech in 1950, set a perimeter for U.S. action and appeared to invite Soviet-backed aggression and the Korean War, he said. “Lacking historical memories of the consequences of these quasi-isolationist/offshore balancing policies, we are heading down the track of repeating those tragic mistakes,” said Steinberg, who is now a professor at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. 

As memory fades, the real struggle will be to maintain the strange, anti-historical contrivance of this largely successful international system against the more natural temptation to revert to nationalism. For many countries, nationalism speaks to their authentic identities. In 2016, Trump divined, as his Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton clumsily did not, that many Americans had grown sick of their global caretaker role, especially after the Iraq invasion and the decade-and-a-half quagmire that followed. Under the neoconservatives of the George W. Bush administration, the United States ultimately succumbed to its own imperial hubris when it thought it could simply impose its values everywhere, even in an unready Arab world. All of which only reminded a lot of Americans that Washington’s self-assigned postwar task, including NATO, was an aberration, not the norm, for the United States, which since the Founding Fathers has sought to avoid excessive entanglements overseas. (President George Washington, in his farewell address, famously warned his successors to avoid “interweaving our destiny” with that of Europe.)

Living memory, of course, is no guarantee against the falsification of history. The Nazis rose to power by spreading an absurd myth about events that many of their generation had only just lived through—that Germany was “stabbed in the back” by the Jews in World War I. The Japanese, even as they bent to U.S. domination after defeat (and still do, for the most part), have encouraged the myth since the war that they were mainly victims. But remaking or forgetting history becomes much easier after all the participants have died out.

All that can preserve us is the memory of what things were really like before.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh