IR Student Reflections: The Cost of WWII
World War II completely reshaped the world and how we see it today. Populations were annihilated, countries destroyed, and irreparable damage done. As an International Relations major, I have come to learn that you cannot begin to understand the current state of the world and its interactions, without first coming to terms with its history. So much of which, was determined and influenced by WWII. For this reason, I chose to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, DC, and the Canadian National War Memorial (NWM) in Ottawa, Ontario. These two sites pay tribute to two very different, but interconnected groups of people; the innocent civilians targeted for
their religion, ethnicity and identity, and the brave Canadians soldiers who fought for their freedom and safety. In this paper, I will examine how these sites represent the impacts on civilians and military alike, as well as reflect upon the cost of war and its justification upon visiting both memorials.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, is a living memorial that, "inspires citizens and leaders worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity." Its exhibits prompt visitors to reflect upon, not only the horrific events that transpired during the Holocaust, but also their continued impact on our world today. The USHMM takes you through a complete journey of the Holocaust, with historical origins and anti-Semitism attitudes throughout the world, eventually leading to the development of WWII, and culminating with the liberation of Nazi concentration camps and the post-
War trials. I personally chose the USHMM because the atrocities of WWII still haunt the world today, as does the hatred that fueled it. Studying international conflict has made me recognize the catastrophic impacts of the loss of fundamental human rights and dignity, and visiting the USHMM provides a powerful lens in which to understand these impacts. I have come to recognize this theme of blind hatred, but I have yet to understand it, and I admit I probably never will. But in order to move forward and combat this evil, I know we must first be educated about it. We, as responsible global citizens, cannot turn a blind eye, or chose to ignore the issue, because it does not have a direct impact on our daily lives. Visiting the USHMM and other memorials, is one of many ways I will continue to confront these truths, and use them as motivation to leave a positive impact where many have chosen the negative.
The National War Memorial (NWM) in Ottawa, Ontario represents, "the sacrifice of all Canadians who have served Canada in time of war, in the cause of peace and freedom." Though originally constructed as a memorial for the sacrifice of those who served in WWI, the NWM has since been rededicated, with the dates 1914-1918, 1939-1945 and 1950-1953, proudly affixed to its facade. This monument is a point of pride for millions of Canadians, featuring bronze uniformed figures passing through a granite arch to freedom. Designed by Vernon March, the NWM's design was meant to, "represent [the people of Canada who went overseas], as we of today saw them, as a record for future generations..." The monument is a way of preserving the memory of the brave men and women who answered the call of duty for others, but with its original design conception, "there was to be no suggestion of glorifying war." In addition to honouring the memory of our dead, it also represents a deeper message than the number of lives lost, through the tomb of the unknown soldier. The tomb, is a reminder that war not only costs millions of people their lives, but also their identities, their futures, and their families' right to closure. I enjoy visiting the NWM, because it reminds me to be thankful for the sacrifice of those who came before me, and those who continue to sacrifice for my safety and success as a Canadian citizen. It makes me proud that my country serves to protect and preserve peace and freedom throughout the world, rather than waging wars for personal and political gain. In many ways, the USHMM also serves to protect and preserve the fundamental values of peace and freedom today, one of many aspects of conflict that other memorials and museums sometimes overlook.
In the words of Elie Wiesel, "for the dead and the living we must bear witness," which is exactly what the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum does. The USHMM, effectively represents the various aspects of the Holocaust, including its origins, development throughout Europe, and its continued impact on our world today. The museum illustrates a side of war that is rarely presented in a manner so unembellished, yet remarkably powerful; that is the impact of war on civilians. History often reduces civilians and victims to statistics and footnotes, while the military battles and defeats become the historiography of war. This is not the case at the USHMM. Upon entering the museum's permanent collection, each visitor is given an identification card of a holocaust victim. As you make your way through the exhibit, the story of your person unfolds, personalizing the history you are experiencing in front of you. In doing this, the museum gives a voice and identity to the millions who were robbed of theirs, and ensures visitors can reflect and establish a lasting connection with history. Further, the USHMM does not just focus on the losses suffered throughout the Holocaust, but also some of the small
victories. Exhibits featuring civilian rebellion in the ghettos and death camps demonstrate, that though these people had everything taken from them, they were strong in the face of unimaginable odds. These people were not just victims, they were survivors and heroes. They had families, loved ones, and futures worth fighting for. Their stories and memories are inspirational, and memorials like the USHMM and NWM ensure the memories of those fallen will continue to live on and educate the future generations.
The Canadian National War Memorial pays tribute to fallen military personnel. It is a reminder to the future generations of the sacrifices that were made for them, in order to preserve and protect peace and freedom throughout the world. The NWM honours our soldiers and their sacrifice, to which it should, but there are also many other aspects of war and conflict that it does not recognize. In particular, the cost of war to civilians, whether they be victims of violence or those who lost loved ones. The NWM is purely a military memorial, but military personnel are only one aspect of war and conflict. This is particularly true in the case of WWII, which saw destruction of innocent civilians on a level never before seen. In denying these civilians their recognition and memoriam, the NWM neglects the very reason our Canadian soldiers sacrificed in the first place. An oversight that I think, does a disservice to our military personnel we are trying to memorialize. The NWM captures the essence of sacrifice and pride, but in turn neglects the foundation of the conflicts that the sacrifice was made for, and the pride we feel as a result. The monument recognizes the human cost of war, though not the entire cost, but still has a profound message about war and sacrifice for all who visit it.
In no way do either the US Holocaust Memorial Museum or the Canadian National War Memorial glorify war. In fact, both take careful consideration in illustrating the harsh realities of war, particularly the human cost. I have always held the opinion, that war cannot be justified unless all other methods of negotiation have failed, and the cost of taking action is outweighed by that of being a bystander. That opinion has been reaffirmed by visiting both the USHMM and the NWM. Historians estimate WWII produced 55 million deaths. Eleven million of those were; European Jews, gypsies and homosexuals between 1941 and 1945. This is an absolutely staggering statistic, but even more so when faced with the reality that many of those lives might have been spared, had the world's great powers taken action sooner. Oscar Schachter said of lawmaking authority, "powerful states-that is, those with the ability to control the outcome of contested decisions-may determine patterns of conduct for other states, as well as for themselves." This principle also holds true in terms of waging war and garnering international support. The Holocaust was not an event that happened overnight, and by ignoring how the Jews, gypsies and other minorities were having their human rights stripped away, the powerful states became part of the problem. By the time the United States and Canada entered WWII, the Nazi's had already taken hundreds of thousands of lives, and begun planning for the Final Solution. The USHMM effectively demonstrates the reality and impact of denying American and Canadian intervention early on, but that is one truth of war the NWM and many other memorials and monuments do not recognize. Despite this oversight, the lesson of losing one's rights, identity and dignity is an everlasting impact of war that we, and the future generations, must take away in order to ensure events like the Holocaust never happen again.
The Holocaust and WWII, resulted in the loss of 4% of the world's population. Cultural and religious identities were almost completely destroyed, but we have seen in the decades since, how resilient these people truly are. Though this resilience is inspiring, there is a deeper message we must take away from the tragedies of WWII and every conflict since. That is, it is our duty to ensure the fallen and victimized are never forgotten, and to, "reflect upon the moral and spiritual questions raised by the events of the Holocaust as well as [our] own responsibilities as citizens of a democracy." In the course of WWII, 55 million people lost their lives, 55 million futures ended, and countless loved ones left to face the tragedy left behind. Today, we reflect, mourn, and learn from these events and these people. We continue our lives and our futures free from the nightmare that millions endured. For these people, we owe our futures, and are bound to live out those futures as moral and loving citizens. I chose to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Canadian National War Memorial, because I am humbled by the sacrifice and experience these brave men and women endured. Though these two sites pay tribute to two very different groups of people, their sacrifice is one that we should learn from and hold dear. "When we say, "never again" what does it mean?" It means we must take an active role in ensuring we do not contribute to the hate and malice that once consumed the world, and live with the strength and dignity we are afforded as global citizens of the 21st century.
About the Museum. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 2014. Accessed July 1, 2015.
The Human Cost of War: Holocaust Survivors in the Aftermath of World War II. United States: Next Generations. Film.
Schachter, Oscar. Self-Defense and the Rule of Law. The American Journal of International Law 83, no. 2 (1989): 259-77. Accessed July 1, 2015.
The National War Memorial. Veterans Affairs Canada. October 23, 2014. Accessed July 1,