Sixty-five years ago, the Allied forces accepted the unconditional surrender of the German military regime, bringing an end to the war in Europe. It took formal effect on this day in 1945. The Third Reich, and the once-underestimated monster who led it, Adolph Hitler, were dead. Tens of millions perished. Great cities of the world lay in ruins. The folly of Versailles in 1918, and the miscalculations made in dealing with a discontented Germany in subsequent years, proved more costly than anyone ever could have imagined. It was the 20th century’s ultimate breakdown in governance, leading to the most horrific ordeal the world has ever known. Hitler was a madman, of course, but he was an elected madman born of a democracy and a time when hunger and dejection drove people to desperation. Many Germans saw a man on a white horse who offered them hope; they could not see, or did not want to see, the monster who was a horseman of the apocalypse.
Today, much of Europe is in the throes of a firestorm of a different kind. Many of its countries, including Spain, Portugal and Greece now struggle under the jackboot of massive debt and unemployment. Bands of discontented Athenians riot under the shadow of the Acropolis. Uncertainty is knocking the value out of the EU’s currency and anxiety again grips financial markets on a global scale. Across the old world, fear has once more taken to the saddle and is galloping to unknown destinations. It may well arrive in North America, as this week’s sudden drop of nearly 1000 points in the Dow possibly augurs. An important measure of stock market volatility has skyrocketed in recent days. The interest rate at which banks lend to each other, known as LIBOR, has also spiked, as it did during the credit crisis of 2008.
As the leaders of the EU meet this weekend in Brussels to deal with the economic crisis in Greece, they would do well to remember the nightmare — a nightmare when psychopaths controlled every lever of government and when torture and fear became its reserve currency — that finally ended in a red schoolhouse in Rheims in the early hours of a cold May morning long ago, but which began decades earlier with the misjudgments of the old men of Europe who set it in motion. The seeds of disaster are easily sewn amid the winds of resentment and desperation.
For many, this period is a timeless reminder of why governance matters and why power must always be tempered by the utmost respect for the individual. When people champion the need for leaders who are grounded in reality and driven by honesty, when they accept no less than the highest standards of transparency and accountability in the running of major institutions and stand up for responsibility in the boardroom, when they declare that the powers of government, and increasingly, of great economic might, are powers held in trust for the ultimate benefit of all society, they are giving testimony to those painful lessons of the past and honoring their debt to those who sacrificed to preserve their freedoms.
The crisis that is unfolding in Europe is in many ways the product of men and women who also failed to anticipate the unintended consequences of their decisions and were oblivious to the mounting costs of their profligacy. Today’s leaders ought not to repeat the folly of the past by forgetting what horrible events can be unleashed when ordinary people are forced by despair into the dark corners of intolerant and facile worlds where monsters dutifully await their call.