Today, 8 May, is the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. Victory Europe (VE) Day is an important anniversary, but also a moment to reflect on the decades that followed.
That day in 1945 saw the end of hostilities on the Continent. It marked the end of the Holocaust and the massive suffering and destruction of war. Hatred and nationalism fused with the power of a State had torn Europe apart. Social and economic disaster beckoned. Yet, in these dark times, people were dancing in the streets to applaud victory, but they were also seeking a new and different future.
An editorial in the British newspaper, “The Guardian”, in the midst of celebrations, cautioned, “We have solved nothing. We are no nearer the Golden Age. But at least we have stopped the onrush of evil. We have won the right to hope.”
Hope was justified. The huge expenditures devoted to fighting the war were followed, not by austerity, but by massive public investment to secure peace and prosperity.
In much of Europe, extraordinary social and economic progress was made, human rights were protected, social protections were widely available, public services grew and improved, trade unions took off and were social, economic, and political players. Collective bargaining became comprehensive and covered most workers.
Progressive taxation and fairer distribution of wealth also helped to make nations and Europe more just and the economy more flexible, dynamic, and stable. Recovery was rapid and built on a solid foundation. This nurtured young democracies and brought an unprecedented period of peace to Europe. Society became more equal and public education was a driving force of this progress.
Globally, in rapid succession, the United Nations was formed, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was agreed, and the International Labour Organization’s Conventions 87 and 98 on freedom of association and the right to organise and bargain were adopted. The Refugee Convention was agreed to ensure that refugees would no longer be stranded and denied their rights.
Later, new nations emerged from colonial empires. Nation-building and development moved forward. Countries began to heal the wounds of colonialism.
Then, in the 1980s, things started to change. The growth of community and consensus that characterised the post-War period became subordinate to the market. A market economy became a market society and private gain was privileged over the public good.
Genocide that was to be “never again” came back in places like Rwanda and Cambodia. Ethnic cleansing returned to Europe in the Balkans. Today, many peoples are being systematically persecuted and slaughtered.
When the next great opportunity for transforming societies and building stable and social democracies arose out of the collapse of totalitarianism in much of the world, that chance was also mis-managed. Rather than applying the lessons of post-war Western Europe of massive public investment to make economic reform possible and workable, Central and Eastern Europe experienced massive deregulation, liberalisation, and privatisation.
As insecure forms of employment and precarious work gained ground in older democracies, economic inequality and social exclusion increased. That also weakened community and democracy.
Development was also stymied and, in some cases, reversed in many countries not only by domestic weaknesses, but also by unfounded market theories imposed on indebted countries by International Financial Institutions and development assistance agencies. Such policy “guidance” has weakened communities and social cohesion, attacked public services, including education, eroded formal employment and undermined human rights and democracy.
Destructive trends in recent decades and the erosion of democracy was a dominant discussion at the EI 8th Congress in Bangkok, Thailand, in July 2019. The Congress Resolution on Peace Education - No Arms Expenditure - Books Not Bombs identified a wide range of risks and contained a historic perspective going back to the post-War period.
The resolution describes a modern surge of refugees and forced migrants that is the highest since WWII; the explosion of violence, including armed conflicts; the continued expansion in spending on arms, both conventional and nuclear; and little or no progress on disarmament. It calls for a massive shift in resources from destruction to construction, from hatred and division to healing and peace.
In an eerie reminder of the period between the two World Wars, the resolution states that “political power based on hate, racism, and nationalism has re-emerged and democracy was, once again, in grave danger.”
The violence described includes attacks affecting education and stresses the need for safe schools. The resolution also speaks of the crucial role of education for peace, tolerance, and democracy.
Moreover, armed conflict did not just meant conflicts between States. The Bangkok resolution says: “The number and complexity of armed conflicts is increasing. This is reflected in an internationalisation of originally internal conflicts as well as threats posed by irregular armed groups.”
Ill-prepared for pandemic
The repeated failures of the last half of the post-WWII period, magnified by the financial and economic crisis of 2008 and 2009, explain a lot as to why much of the world was so ill-prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the architects of Europe in the immediate post-War period, Jean Monnet, a French diplomat and international and European official, said, “People only accept change when they are faced with necessity, and only recognise necessity when a crisis is upon them”.
EI: New world cannot be built without educators
In commenting on the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, Education International’s General Secretary, David Edwards, said: “There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the last 75 years – good and bad lessons. Whilst the lessons from recent decades have not been constructive, in the years following VE Day, we learned the importance of cooperation trust, public service, and peace.
“The pandemic has exposed the bad lessons. It has taken a fragile situation in a dysfunctional world and made it worse. Inequalities have become more marked. It has exposed the weakness of individuals and individual nations in isolation and brought recognition of the need to find collective solutions. It has shown the moral bankruptcy of privileging private gain over the public good.
“Although circumstances change, values do not. The world has a choice to make. Can we and will we mobilise global solidarity on a massive scale? Will we build strong, credible and coherent global institutions to enable our own survival? Educators and their trade unions cannot meet these challenges on our own, but this new world cannot be built without us.”