It was VE Day on Sunday, the day the Allies defeated Nazi German over 50 years ago. It's hard to wrap our heads around what it was like in May of 1945 in Europe. Winston Churchill described the collective mood the best: "a vast quivering mass of tormented, hungry, care-worn and bewildered human beings agape at the ruins of their cities and homes."
Until I moved to Paris, however, this day was an abstract event for me. Living so far away from these distant happenings -- both in time and space -- the task of trying to make tangible the cause and consequences of a war that killed 50 million people was barely possible, and quite frankly, not a top priority. The future, not yet blemished by any mistakes and mayhem, seemed a more interesting place to focus on versus the unchangeable, pockmarked past.
But the past has finally caught up to me now that I live in Europe. Indeed, it's hard to avoid, since history is so integrated and infused within daily life. You miss so much if you can't decode the artifacts of the past, densely visible in the physical and emotional architecture of places like Paris. Even basic routines, like my walks to the Seine, can get co-opted by the Past exerting herself, which is exactly what happened on Sunday as a wide perimeter around the the Etoile was closed off for the VE parade from the Arc de Triomphe. So with no intention nor strong desire to see a parade, let alone a military one, I found myself drawn to the hum of the Champs-Elysées to find a viewing spot.
As I waited for something to happen, I noticed the concentrated symbolism around me, wedged as I was just off of George V Avenue in front of the Mercedes sign and a movie theatre showing, "The Kingdom of Heaven", Ridley Scott's bloody epic about the Crusades. And while the day was for the military to show off their might, the conquests of the commercial world dominated the scene. At least a dozen brands drowned my sight, the megabank HKSB and the luxury goods maker Louis Vuitton being the first in range. Propping me up, though, was something much older, a 19th century lamp post with faces of a king etched into the beautiful iron-work motif. Some change yes, but lots of continuity as well, which I found vaguely comforting. That's Paris for you.
To be honest, it wasn't the most impressive parade I've seen. For starters, it lacked critical mass. There were relatively few people attending, partly because it's a holiday week here in France, and partly because many of the veterans -- our last living human ties to these events -- are dying off. Disinterest will surely follow, although I was encouraged to see in a multi-generational party of British tourists that the younger men were proudly wearing the medals of their deceased relatives. Apart from that, I saw very few veterans. There were, however, officials galore. I briefly saw President Chirac's craggy face whip past me in his smallish motorcade, followed by throngs of military representatives (air force, navy, army) from various countries, marching down that famous avenue in strangely varied styles, everything from the awkward German goose-step to a hypnotic figure-of-eight side-to-side swing to the usual gun-slinging and sword pointing displays. Some military practices, I suppose, predate nations in their traditions. I felt a little sorry for the first bunch of marchers who had to stoically plod through a great deal of horse crap that somehow ended up in the middle of the road, a fitting if accidental metaphor for the life of a solider. I'm also embarrassed to admit that I didn't know all of the national flags represented, but rationalized this away as being the happy sign of my "post nationalistic" identity, only to contradict myself moments later as I spontaneously routed on the Canadian representatives as they past my spot. This, admittedly, was very un-Canadian of me.
Meanwhile the weather was going through temperamental hot and cold flashes as the fast-moving cumulous clouds played hide and seek with the spring sun, mimicking the highs and lows of my feelings; for while it was a lackluster performance in a world accustomed to higher entertainment values, I was unexpectedly moved by the whole experience. It wasn't just the rousing sounds of the snare drum beat, the fine ceremonial uniforms on fresh-faced youths, or the rare display of discipline and solidarity that stirred me up. I knew the cold truth that the purpose of military parades is to reinforce the seductive mystique of the state's power and its ability to wage war, something I wasn't ready to celebrate. Our organizations and our mindsets are still too imprinted with the metaphors of war to feel safe from these feelings. Rather, the warmth that moved me was very different, for in that moment, I could vividly see in a hologram in my head the dots connect between the past, present and future. No longer abstract, I could feel the physicality of this link coming out of the ground from the historic place, and in the face of the Normandy woman sitting next to me, still remembering her mother's stories of liberation. This wasn't an intellectual reckoning, the tears suddenly welling, as I felt in a new way how the destructive events fifty years ago led directly to the profoundly idealistic and optimistic founding of the EU, which, while much criticized is still one of the most important experiments in governance on this planet -- an improbable yet steadfast dog's breakfast of institutional innovations born of human folly, designed to bind historically warring peoples in peace. As the ghost's of Bosnia remind us and the rise of xenophobia demonstrates in the Netherlands and all across Europe, this peace can't be taken for granted. Yet many sources of hope are already here in places scholars aren't looking. Indeed, regardless of its flawed constitutional process and expanding political configurations, the most important changes are social in nature. The rise of the "e-generation", for instance, is unmistakably real. This is the cohort of 20 and 30 somethings who now easily move between domiciles in London, Berlin and Milan even though they are French, Spanish and Polish by origin. Whether it be through intermarriage or through economic integration, these people are increasingly pan-European in outlook, something that was barely conceivable fifty years ago.
Americans often fault Europeans for being too encumbered by their past, and there is something to this. But what I've learned is that engaging with the past can be a productive process, not permanent state of being, for shaping a better future. As Theodore Zeldin said in his amazing book, An Intimate History of Humanity,"to have a new vision of the future, it has always first been necessary to have a new vision of the past." On a good day, this is what's going on in Europe. But even on a bad day, the EU and the relative peace and prosperity Europe has seen since 1945, is powerful evidence that the world has in fact got better in some parts, an optimistic meme that seems to go against the grain of our highly mediated environment. In just a few short generations, it's amazing just how much has been accomplished and overcome, which is why Europe's story gives measured hope to other conflicted parts of the world as they also cope with the timeless problem of living with "the other."