What Will Replace WWII in Our Minds When We Forget About It?

World War II began eighty years ago. But did it end six years after it began? The war’s hostilities ended in 1945 and the conflict later culminated with the trials in Nuremberg and Tokyo. But, strangely enough, its presence is still felt in modern politics, culture and our social lives. This phenomenon requires our attention, although Theodore Adorno doubted whether culture existed in principle after Auschwitz. 

Actually, I’m not talking about history, or about monstrous losses and crimes, or about victories and defeats, or about someone doing something right, or someone else doing something wrong. I’m talking about why the Second World War still plays such a big role in our modern lives.

The fact is that the most striking indicator that allows us to distinguish between the important and the unimportant in people’s lives is mass culture. What people read, watch, talk about, and actively use in mass communication: that is really important to them. So, the Second World War and its concomitant phenomena are the most active agents of modern discourse: accusations of fascism and comparisons with dictators like Hitler and Mussolini remain very popular among politicians, while films and literature almost compulsively force us to constantly remember those times.

Of course, people still make films about the Trojan War, the Mongol Empire, the birth of China, about Napoleon, and the relatively recent war in Indochina. But this cannot be compared to how the themes of the Second World War have become deeply embedded in modern culture.

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So, for example, the Scandinavian crime novel lives in a nutrient broth of discussion about events of the 1930s and 1940s. For many authors, it is completely natural to link the actions of the heroes of the 21st century into a single chain with what their ancestors did during the Second World War, whether they sympathised with the Nazis or not. And if anyone has a grandfather or even great-grandfather who turned out to be a follower of Quisling, then this is a sure sign that a detective should take a closer look at this person.

Haruki Murakami, a very popular and characteristic Japanese writer, wrote a novel about how much the actions of modern Japanese people are motivated by the events of the Second World War and what preceded them. In the novel “Killing Commendatore”, for example, the whole point is that one of the heroes of the novel found himself in Austria in the 1930s, where he encountered fascists who committed outright crimes. And this influenced him so much that, according to the author, in the future it affected Japanese culture. The protagonist became a very famous artist, whose style changed radically after the events in Austria.

That’s to say nothing about cinema – for that medium, the Second World War and its consequences are among the most important topics. The images of the Second World War and flashbacks to the era are quite commonplace. This isn’t limited to blockbusters like Saving Private Ryan or Inglourious Basterds. Fascism and its consequences remain the focus of dystopian fiction such as Iron Sky and other popular science fiction films, from Star Wars to Starship Troopers, directed by Paul Verhoeven.

Even more interesting is the fact that in the social media, which have become the main information space for many, the notion of fascism (which is tightly connected with the Second World War) is actively used to characterise the positions and activity of “friends” and “aliens” alike.

In general, one can see echoes and reflections of the Second World War in all spheres of human activity.

Of course, the question is: why?

Surely, there are rational answers. It seems that not so much time has passed; the memory is still alive and so on. But I’m not sure if these answers are sufficient.

In my opinion, there are different reasons. Since the end of WWII, most people, in most parts of the world, haven’t experienced anything nearly as vivid, which so clearly reflects the theme of good and evil, development and regression.

I often hear it reasoned that Russia often talks about the Second World War because it lacks other achievements to boast about. Well, they say, during the Second World War, the USSR definitely turned out to be on the right side of history, which cannot be said about it with respect to many other events. To some extent, this is so, although there are obvious exceptions, which are a topic for another time.

Can’t the same thing be said about the rest of the world, regardless of the region we are talking about? Didn’t the Second World War allow with extraordinary clarity to separate the good from the bad, and virtuous from evil? World War II bestowed humanity with a rare, crystalline clarity. Such certainty is usually attainable only in fairy tales, which, incidentally, was prophetically written by J. R. R. Tolkien.

And it seems to me that a constant emotional experience, again and again returning to the images, ideas, and concepts of the Second World War reflect a vivid manifestation of people’s desire for moral clarity, for certainty. Regrettably, there is no more vivid and large-scale image of the struggle between good and evil than the Second World War.

The problem is that the Second World War is the past, and humanity needs a future.

Unfortunately, there is simply no global discourse about the future. We cannot consider, as such, a discussion about the technological revolution or an abstract frightening talk about the threat of artificial intelligence. Alas, they are quite superficial and suitable only for popular or relatively popular science literature, which can and should be read if there is nothing else to do.

Incidentally, there was a big topic that could unite humanity and bring the elements of the future into conversations about good and evil. But, alas, this saga is still frozen.

So there remains one real topic, full of blood and suffering, the struggle between good and bad – the Second World War. And we cannot see a replacement.

By the way, Adorno was right – it’s difficult to write poetry, and indeed to exist after Auschwitz.