In our restless determination to reach the next horizon we may not always absorb all of the lessons even the recent past offers. In a decade garlanded with centenary celebrations, national and international, it may seem premature to remember the lessons offered by an event that occurred as recently as 75 years ago. But, as we all know, it is never too early, or too late, to learn.
Seventy-five years ago may seem a different age and almost antediluvian if you’re not yet 20 years old, but it’s not. It’s within living memory and is still a central part of the lives of those who endured it. President Michael D Higgins had just been born, Gay Byrne was in school and Edna O’Brien was almost a teenager. Muhammad Ali was born six months later, Bruce Springsteen a few years later. It may be edging towards the fringe of our consciousness but it is utterly relevant and a central influence in our world today.
Operation Barbarossa, when Hitler’s armies invaded and initially laid waste to Western Russia began almost 75 years ago, on June 22, 1941. It was the most audacious military adventure since Napoleon invaded Russia almost a century and a half earlier and was only surpassed when the Allies invaded France three years later. It was one of the most important theatres in the last great war for civilisation. Our world is defined by the defeat of the German invaders by an underestimated, quick-learning and resilient Soviet army. Stalin’s army had many faults and it might not have been possible to organise it, as it was organised in a democracy, but our world is built on foundations laid by its sacrifice and achievements.
The German objective was to conduct, as Geoff Roberts puts it on these pages, “an ideological and racist war, a war of destruction and extermination that aimed to kill Jews, enslave the Slavic peoples and destroy communism”. It was a version of Isis but enlarged to the nth degree. The targets may not have been the same but the barbarism was as active, as brutal and as threatening to civilisation. The scale remains almost incomprehensible. The invasion cost 25m Soviet lives. “Germans destroyed 70,000 Soviet cities, towns and villages ...” German military casualties numbered 10m, three million of whom were killed.
Yet, this weekend the sons and daughters of many of those touched by Barbarossa watch their children and grandchildren engage enthusiastically with Euro 2016, a carnival of sport that shows the better side of human nature.
Those people, who have lived history’s lessons, must look askance at a return to something pretty close to a Cold War between Putin’s Russia and the West, especially as Putin has reinvigorated Russia’s military as cut after cut emasculates the West’s ability to even defend itself. They must look askance too at those who would lead Britain out of the EU and those who might vote for Donald Trump. They must be appalled because they are living proof, many may be remnants of destroyed cultures or communities, that when the moment comes, when our civilisation is challenged, our greatest strength is always solidarity.