Last Wednesday, we entered the year of the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. On 8th May 1945, the Allied powers could finally cry victory as Nazi Germany, defeated after almost six years of conflict, accepted its unconditional surrender. At this moment, however, war was not completely over. On 2nd September 1945, after two atomic bombs were dropped by American planes on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, causing the death of more than 150 000 people, it was Japan’s turn to capitulate, ending conflicts in the Pacific zone and therefore putting the global war to an end.
On 8th August 1945, the same week the dreadful bombings in Japan took place, the Soviets, the French, the Americans and the British met in London and signed the charter that created the International Military Tribunal of Nuremberg, where 24 high representatives of the Third Reich and six Nazi organizations were indicted and tried between November 1945 and October 1946. A similar tribunal opened in Tokyo in May 1946 to judge 28 ex-Japanese political leaders. In both cases, the main charges were identical: war crimes, crimes against peace, and crimes against humanity. For the very first time in history, individuals had to answer for their crimes before an international court.
In the wake of killing
As far as Europe was concerned, the world would soon discover the terrible fate met by six millions European Jews, whose extermination was planned and organized on a large scale by the Nazis in January 1942. In December 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, a new term elaborated to describe the ‘crime of crimes’, namely the killing of people on the sole ground of their belonging to a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, and with the underlying intent to destroy this group.
A day to remember
Almost three quarters of a century later, World War II and its aftermath sometimes feel as if they already belonged to the pages of some dusty history book. As years go by, the link between new generations and the people who have lived through these events is becoming more and more tenuous. This means that states, and above all school, have now an enhanced duty to, besides the mere transmission of facts and dates, create a reflection on the duty of remembrance. ‘Duty of remembrance’ refers to a moral obligation, originally created by reference to the Shoah, under which every single person is entrusted with remembering abominable historical events and their victims, and to pass on the stories of those who have survived to the next generations. Cultivating humanity’s collective memory forces us to face the terrible extents to which hatred and racism can lead, and should help us avoid repeating the same, dreadful mistakes. As rightly put by Tzvetan Todorov, the late French historian and humanist, when talking about the extermination camps: “life has lost against death; memory, however, wins in its fight against nothingness.”
Care to deepen your reflection on those issues and to take part in the discussion?
This Monday 13 May at 8pm, attend Ian Buruma’s lecture on ‘The Wrong Lessons from History’, organised by Studium Generale.
Marie-Sophie Silan is finishing a Master’s in European Law at UM, and writes for the UM.