70 Years Later: Lessons From World War II

NEWS ANALYSIS: Catholic reflections for the anniversary of V-E Day.

Above: Two small girls wave their flags amid rubble in the London district of Battersea on May 8, 1945.
Below: A truckload of revellers celebrate on The Strand in London.
Above: Two small girls wave their flags amid rubble in the London district of Battersea on May 8, 1945. Below: A truckload of revellers celebrate on The Strand in London. (photo: Wikimedia Commons/Imperial War Museum)

LONDON — Friday’s 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe — V-E Day — has come at an intriguing time in Britain — coinciding with a general election and with much debate about the future of the country.

This doesn't affect the general celebrations — people feel a need to reaffirm their sense of identity from time to time, and this is an opportunity. So there are V-E Day street parties, concerts with World War II music, a thanksgiving service with the queen in Westminster Abbey, and so on.

But what about the deeper issues? The Britain of 2015 is a completely different nation from that of 1945 — cities transformed by immigration, vast motorways swooping through the countryside and huge changes in everyday life and culture.

What might Catholics ponder on this 70th anniversary? Plenty: the horror of war and the grim fact that the two great wars of the 20th century were begun and centered in Europe, the continent where Christianity had been so deeply embedded for centuries.

Then there are the specifics. The Nazis certainly lost World War II, and we can thank God for that.

But who “won”? The plight of Poland, the country in whose defense Britain went to war in 1939, deserves pondering.

Poles have long noted that, tragically, they lost twice over — first to the Germans in 1939 and then when the Soviets took over the country in 1945. True freedom only came in 1989, via the magnificent and extraordinary pontificate of Pope — now saint — John Paul II. As we now look back on all that from the perspective of 2015, we can see all sorts of profound spiritual messages — about suffering and persecution, about faith and heroism and the willingness to endure — that will be pondered through all the years to come.

And there are other issues. The grim experience of two huge world wars made Christians in Europe ask themselves if they had been getting things right. And that in turn created the sense of a need for renewal, which for Catholics gave us the Second Vatican Council.

In mainland Europe, there were many brave Christians who opposed the Nazis. But the Catholic Church had to recognize that the Nazi creed was born on a continent that had been Christian for centuries, where it was unusual to be unbaptized and where the Church's liturgy and traditions shaped lives and culture, language and ideas. How had this failed to make people resistant to a pagan and evil creed?

In Britain and in America in the 1950s, these questions were not being asked, as the Church had a triumphant mood as part of the general post-war sense of victory.

But things were different elsewhere, and young priests were noticing it: Father Jean Danielou was saying that France was mission territory, and Father Joseph Ratzinger (as in the future Pope Benedict XVI) in Germany was writing about the “new pagans.”

On this 70th anniversary of V-E Day, we can take a look at all of this. Under the Polish St. John Paul, the Church began to harvest some of the authentic fruits of Vatican II, and this continues.

In both Britain and America, the post-war mood of “oh, we are getting everything right” gave way to deep questioning, some of it useful (attitudes toward racial discrimination) some definitely less so (the sexual revolution of the 1960s).

Any anniversary gives an opportunity to reflect and to look for inspiration for the years ahead.

Catholics in Britain can note many odd byproducts of WWII. It brought a new acceptance of Catholicism: Social and religious groups came together under tough conditions, and priests worked heroically as chaplains in the armed forces and in bombed cities. Radio was important for morale, and the BBC invited Catholic spokesmen to make use of it: Cardinal Arthur Hinsley, the archbishop of Westminster, became a popular national figure. American soldiers and airmen included many Catholics, and their presence in Norfolk — where very few Catholics had lived since the Reformation — played a role in the revival of the ancient shrine to Our Lady at Walsingham.

And when the war ended, old anti-Catholic attitudes in establishment circles seemed odd and out of place, so funds were available for Catholic schools, and there was a sense of normality about Catholic involvement in Britain’s everyday life.

In the Britain of 2015, political correctness and bureaucratic jargon dominate the public space, and ownership of lots of stuff — toys, electronic devices, cars etc. — dominates the private one.

There is a vacuity about life.

People yearn for something heroic, something to give a sense of adventure and to help foster some sense of identity and belonging.

Britain has an extraordinary history, and it is tragic to see how little is known of it among our young people — how rootless they are, how lacking in any sense of sharing in something beyond themselves.

Perhaps the anniversary of V-E Day will give them something worthwhile to ponder, but on the whole, it will probably be regarded as something for the older generation or as just another set of entertainments.

I was born into a war-battered but free London a few years after 1945, grew up in freedom and am humbly grateful to all who made that possible. I know I owe a debt of honor to them.

And I have to ponder: My father and my uncles didn’t go to war in order to achieve same-sex “marriage,” easily available abortions or people being denounced for opposing these things.

The Britain they loved and served was a Britain aware of profound moral truth when, in 1940, its people were called to bear themselves with courage to face — if necessary, alone — a truly horrible enemy.

That is a rich heritage, and it imposes a responsibility for the future.

Joanna Bogle is a London-based journalist and EWTN host.

The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy