This will be the first Remembrance Sunday that we have commemorated since 1945 while two major European nations have been at war. Yes, there have been the tragic civil wars in former Yugoslavia, but this is the first time that one European nation has driven its tanks across the border of another, uninvited. It is a very salutary reminder of the reason that European nations vowed “never again” and set out along the pathway that led to the European Union. Peace is something that our generation has largely taken for granted.
Thinking back, my early school years were in the 1950s, with signs of WWII all around me – although I did not understand their significance at the time. I can remember fathers and teachers with obvious life changing injuries and, no doubt, others suffering from psychological damage which today would be recognised as post-traumatic stress. I lived near a south coast town with gaps along the sea front where buildings had been struck in hit and run raids, gravel-covered derelict building sites and car parks where buildings had been destroyed.
Since then, I have encountered other reminders including a friend of my own age who lived in a refugee camp until he was 6 years old, when his parents recognised that they could never return to their own country. Living in Germany, I met a colleague who had been a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union, only released ten years after the war ended. I also came to hear of the millions of people who had been forced from their homes, as Germans fled west, as Poles relocated within the new borders of their country and as scores were settled in many of the formerly occupied countries. This was not an aspect of the war that I had learned about in the UK. Would we be so scathing about refugees if the UK had resettled more of the vast numbers of homeless who were left at the end of the war?
To have any direct memory of WWII, you would need to be over 80 years old. The reality of ration books, city children being sent to live in the country, black edged telegrams or nights spent in air raid shelters is something for the history books. For the most part, Britons were spared the experience of living under occupation or fleeing their homes as armies fought all around. Our European neighbours were not.
As we have come to assume that peace is normal, many of these things have slipped from our collective memory and into folklore. However, they will be very vivid for the people of Ukraine and for many in neighbouring states. Were Putin to succeed, who would be next? Moldova, the Suwałki Gap between Lithuania, and Poland to create a land link to Kaliningrad, or perhaps a part of Finland?
For Ukrainians, there will be a decade or more of recovery after they have won the war. There will be those with visible wounds and physical scars, and many with invisible mental scars from the experiences that they have endured including rape and torture. There will be the recovery of prisoners of war. There will be displacement of populations, as both Russians and Ukrainians will feel a greater need to live within their own communities. Intermarriage of Russians and Ukrainians over centuries will mean that families have been and will be torn apart. There will be a day of reckoning with collaborators. And, if stories of deportations are correct, there will be years of work to recover both adults and children who have been forcibly removed from their homes and detained in a foreign country.
It will be as well, also, to spare a thought for the people of Russia. Although the war has been fought in Ukraine, the casualties among Russian troops have been horrific. What care will those with disabilities or PTSD receive or what provision will there be for widows and orphans? We need to think how Russia can be accepted back into the family of nations, because isolation and ostracism will not help. The demand for reparations from Germany after World War One merely fuelled the grievances that led to World War Two. We must hope that we have learned to do better.
So, we have a rather more vivid backdrop to this Remembrance Sunday than most of those that have gone before, as Ukraine fights the war for which NATO, founded in 1948, has spent decades preparing.