All this sound and fury must seem terribly mysterious to Ronald Reagan--a national uproar over visits to a German cemetery. Are we not the future-facing republic? Is it not right to celebrate V-E day with a show of American magnanimity? The nation's response has been a loud and firm no, but it is a no that derives from history, not from meanness of spirit. The nightmare of World War II is simply not to be smiled away, first because the war touched everywhere, not just the Western Front, but Piccadilly and the Champs Elysées and Stalingrad. Second, because it was both a war and a crime--6 million Jews and perhaps 4.5 million others exterminated. What Reagan may not understand is that cemeteries house visible ghosts. At Bitburg, the SS troops still rant and hunt. At Bergen-Belsen the children still weep.
On May 8 of this year, all such ghosts reappear, along with the happier memories of relief and victory. Forty years ago, Europe emerged from six years in a dark and terrifying room into sudden light. There were the cheering citizens tossing hats in the air, and there were the dead in piles and ditches. There was also the promise of a peaceful future that would soon show Europe to be neither dead nor wholly revived. No more grandly expanding empires. No more nationalistic war whoops--the egotism and sentimentality of 19th century European romanticism having found its deadly end in the Nazis and the Fascists. Victory in Europe may be said to have lasted one day. Andy Rooney, then a staff writer for Stars and Stripes, wrote of U.S. and Soviet troops meeting and embracing at the Elbe: "You get the feeling of exuberance, a great new world opening up."
So how should one celebrate V-E day 40 years later, with the Europe that was set free now cut in half, and much of the great new world closed tight? One sees little hugging at the Elbe these days. Only a few weeks ago, a Soviet soldier in East Germany shot and killed a U.S. military officer for trespassing. Perhaps V-E day requires a more sober and moderate reaction than celebration. There are things simply to consider: the selfless heroism of the millions who fought to prevent Hitler's onslaught; the cooperation of proud powers in a right and necessary cause. As a practical lesson, one must also consider how quickly and easily the world allowed a madman to seize it by the throat.
Then too, there is Europe to consider. Finally, after centuries, a purely European war is unthinkable, but the peace has difficulties. Rough times for Europe in 1985: high unemployment, signs of racism, terrorism, ennui. So far all the dreams of a unified Continent have resulted in a relatively successful economic alliance but not a political entity.
There are subtler problems: How does the Continent retain the glory of its history and avoid functioning merely as America's antique shop? How should Europe and the U.S. deal with each other? "Can we never extract this tapeworm of Europe from the brain of our countrymen?" asked Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1860. World War II performed the extraction. The U.S., a child of Europe, became an uncomfortable parent, uncomfortable in part because it is often right.