And There was a War in Heaven: VE Day 75 Years Later
Belgian Fishermen in the British Fishing Village of Brixham, Devon in 1944, Stone Richard. Imperial War Museum via Wikimedia Commons (cc)
by Ed Simon
And at that time shall Michael stand up… and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was… and at that time thy people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found.
Construction on the Cathedral of St. Michael began in the 11th century, the Brussels landmark slowly taking shape over the last millennium, almost like a living creature changing and growing, as medieval cathedrals were apt to do. By the 13th century, the small church dedicated to the Belgian city’s patron—who was also the archangel that cast Lucifer out of Heaven—had two gothic towers added to it by order of Henry II, Duke of Brabant. His son would later that century commission the construction of an elaborate choir in the cathedral. The whole thing wouldn’t be finished until 1519, when the Spaniard Charles V occupied the Low Countries and a meddlesome German monk in the Holy Roman Empire had already begun striking his hammer at the edifice of Christendom.
On a continent filled with medieval cathedrals, St. Michael’s doesn’t particularly stand out. It lacks the rose window of Paris’ Notre Dame, the significance to pilgrims of Santiago de Compostela, or the striking broken symmetry of the towers at Chartres. Regardless, St. Michael’s is a perfectly handsome structure, notable for its fine examples of Netherlandish stained glass from the Renaissance that illuminate the dark flying buttressed interior. Most striking is the elaborate, Baroque pulpit carved by Hendrick Frans Verbruggen in the 16th century, depicting the cathedral’s namesake with sword pushed deep into that dragon who had challenged God’s sovereignty and once threatened to drag paradise into perdition.
A cathedral is a conduit to eternity, a thing in this world but not of it, and it stands regardless of the affairs of humans in the fallen world. St. Michael’s stained glass separated the sacred realm of the interior from the profane world of the exterior for almost an entire millennium, even while in a more mundane way the cathedral is simply the episcopal seat of this provincial European capital, a pleasant building in a pleasant city. Simply another landmark in that city of wedding-cake architecture, a few blocks from the Grand Place with its Rococo guildhalls, overly-ornate for their purpose of housing Belgian bureaucrats; and steep-cobbled alleyways and glass arcades with their multitude of shops trading in chocolates and Lambic beer, waffles and mussels.
St. Michael’s was present for the Eighty Years War, the Nine Years War, and the War of Spanish Succession; it was an observer for when the French First Republic occupied the Low Countries and when German troops marched past it during the Great War. Of course, it stood when the Nazis occupied the country. Nazi occupation was devastating–88,000 Belgians would perish in the Eighteen Days campaign that constituted the invasion of the nation, and of the 25,000 Belgian Jews at the time of the Nazi occupation, the vast majority would be transferred to Auschwitz. Only 4% of the Jewish community in Belgium would survive the Holocaust.
Belgium’s liberation, as with the liberation for all of Europe, would come at an incredible cost, millions sacrificed in blood and steel. British tanks would roll into Brussels in September of 1944, but victory in Europe was still eight months away. “Belgians know that they owe their freedom to the enormous sacrifices the British, Commonwealth and American troops made on their soil,” Jean-Michel Veranneman De Watervliet writes in Belgium in the Second World War, “Many, very many of the young English, Scottish, Irish boys and also young men from New South Wales, the Punjab, Manitoba or Wisconsin now rest forever in Belgian cemeteries… The Belgian people have not forgotten them.” Nothing quit evokes the unmistakable romance of the end of the Second World War like that word “liberation.” Those images of hardened, stubbled, handsome young men driving tanks into Brussels, into Amsterdam, into Paris. No war is good, but if there was ever a just war we know it to have been that one, and a soldier need not be St. Michael to still have the duty to cast Lucifer out of Heaven.
Shortly after the turn of the millennium, I toured St. Michael’s, the gothic environs appealing to my adolescent sense of the macabre, but I was gifted with a separate tour of the cathedral by a guide who overheard the American twang in my voice. After showing us the stained glass, the choir, the Baroque pulpit, the guide explained to us that the service was free of charge. When he was a boy, he told us, the only reality he’d ever known was occupation, by virtue of being so young. His life was one of rationing and constraint, deficit and oppression–undoubtedly not among the worst category of those who had to live under the Nazis, and undoubtedly still far worse than any human deserves to live. As a child, he’d never had chocolate he told us: chocolate. In Belgium. When the Americans came through the town he lived in, he told us that one young GI pulled him up onto his tank and gave him a Hershey bar. He always remembered it.
This impromptu tour was given before the 2000 election and Bush vs. Gore, before the Patriot Act and Afghanistan, before the NSA PRISM program and Iraq, before Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, before the subprime mortgage crisis and leaving the Paris Agreements. Before 2016. This was an era in which a middle-aged Belgian man could hear “America” and still think of a Hershey bar. Now the events of that day, of the liberation, are 75 years ago. Perhaps predictable, where we are now, what with the nature of humans and fallible memory. As witnesses to that emancipation die, and as the grandchildren of those who liberated the continent are more distant from the events of the war, a certain dangerous forgetfulness has set in. Now the current president of the United States says that right-wing protesters–some brandishing flags with swastikas–should be encouraged to “liberate” their states of the duly elected representatives who govern them. That very word should be as ashes in his mouth, his tongue should cleave to the roof of his mouth and his hand should wither for even daring to associate that sacred concept with his own aims, closer to that of the evil men we defeated seven-and-a-half decades ago than to the men who fought them.
If you’re an American, the memory of World War II occupies an unambiguously central location in your national myth-making. Americans never suffered as much as the British, victim to night-after-night of German incendiary bombing, nor the Soviets who took the bloody brunt of Barbarossa as Hitler’s armies pushed into Russia. Nor did the United States experience anything like the jack-booted occupations of Europe. But our understanding of ourselves was different, it was a very Western myth of the cavalry coming in to save the day, of the good guys fighting the good fight, of the plucky, young, vibrant nation of the New World bringing security to the Old.
The reality of this is of course far more complicated. Much of what the Allies committed to during the war was unjustifiable, from fire-bombing Dresden to the immolation of Hiroshima. There were domestic crimes from the U.S. internment of Japanese-Americans to Britain’s wilful overlooking of Bangladeshi famine. Patriotism without criticism can gestate mutant children. Journalist Chris Hayes writes in a 2006 essay from In these Times that late ’90s representations of the Second World War presented a conflict,
scrubbed clean of its moral complexity. There is no mention of American big business financing the build-up of the Nazi war machine, no America First campaign determined not to shed American blood for European Jews, no firebombing of civilians in Dresden. The war was difficult, yes, and bloody, but pure and just: a battle, not to put too fine a point on it, between good and evil.
For men of my age, World War II was an easy war to understand, a divine and good war, whose very reality helped obliterate the moral and strategic stain of Vietnam which was much closer to our present than was the liberation of Europe. Films like Saving Private Ryan and Flags of our Fathers, television series like Band of Brothers, and documentaries like The Greatest Generation both valorized and obscured, celebrated and occluded, the full impact of the war.
In and of itself this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but in the decade before I went on my tour of St. Michael’s, the grandiose and congratulatory rhetoric of VE Day pop culture contributed to an environment which ironically facilitated our current moment. Historian David Hoogland Noon observes in Rhetoric and Public Affairs that “George W. Bush consistently referenced WWII, not just to justify his policy, but more importantly as a cultural project, as an ongoing gesture of self-making, positioning himself as the heir to the greatest generation of American leaders.” World War II provided a prelapsarian American innocence, a time when we gave out the Hershey bars, the aspiration to be made great again. When World War II became the ultimate benchmark by which all struggle could be understood, then every battle became Normandy and every adversary became Hitler. The irony is that if you’re looking for Hitler too much on the horizon, you don’t notice that he’s snuck in through the basement.
If the lesson from World War II can’t be that the Allies were unassailably good, it can still be that the Axis was unambiguously evil. What has to be affirmed over and over and over is that if ever there was an evil in this world it was that of fascism, and that no man need be a saint to engage in battle against those who are demons. An argument can be made that the entirety of the World War II, and the barbarism that flowed from it, was the result of a split personality within the Western consciousness, a schizoid bifurcation between all that was wicked in our culture and that which could counter such wickedness. It is easy to assume that the Nazi blasphemy was sui generis, that it erupted fully formed from the head of Thor, but as the poet W.H. Auden said,
Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
that has driven a culture mad.
Hitler was one culmination of the worst in Western culture–the obliterationist sociopathy, the malignant narcissism, the exploitative terror. To pretend that the Nazis weren’t the result of European civilization is to unduly exonerate European civilization. Ron Rosenbaum writes in Explaining Hitler: Searching for the Origins of his Evil that the chancellor “showed how much lower we could go, and that’s what was so horrifying. It gets us wondering not just at the depths he shows us but whether there is worse to come.” The horrors of the Holocaust were not incidental to the fact that they were perpetrated by the country that gave us Beethoven and Bach, Goethe and Grimm–it was central to that. World War II was a horrific enactment of where the ultimate utilitarian logic of Western supremacy can get us.
I say that the war was an internal fight, however, because it was also the divergent Western values of tolerance and democracy that were needed to cure the malignancy spreading within. If Europe was the culture that could give us the Nazis then it was also capable of giving us St. Michael’s, and all that was right with the later must be marshaled to defeat the totalizing wrongness of that which is the former.
The Nazi heresy of equating value with something as mundane as blood and soil is the original sin of Western culture, but its antidote is in universalism, cosmopolitanism, and humanism. Ghanaian philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah writes that:
Values aren’t a birthright: you need to keep caring about them. Living in the west, however you define it, being western, provides no guarantee that you will care about western civilization. The values European humanists like to espouse belong just as easily to an African or an Asian who takes them up with enthusiasm as to a European.
World War II is thus to be understood as a crusade, not of peoples, but ideas. Which is to remember that while there is a danger in valorizing the Allies to the point of idolatry, there is a worse risk in forgetting that simple, inviolate truth–they were fighting against a genuine evil. All the explication, analysis, and theory can do what it wilt, nothing alters the fact that fascism is an unmitigated cancer, and that while humility compels us to avoid fetishizing our victory we never need bemoan the celebration of the fascist’s defeat–but the biggest risk remains complacency. Philosopher Karl Popper could reflect only two years after VE Day in his Utopia and Violence that,
Nazism and Fascism are thoroughly beaten, but I must admit that their defeat does not mean that barbarism and brutality have been defeated. On the contrary, it is no use closing our eyes to the fact that these hateful ideas achieved something like a victory in defeat… we must face the possibility that our civilization may ultimately be destroyed by those new weapons which Hitler wished upon us.
The thing with the war in heaven is that you’re never done throwing the devil out of paradise, the Germans are always crossing the Maginot line, and if you think that any victory can abolish perdition then you risk allowing Satan back into your midst. But now, celebrate today and prepare for tomorrow.
About the Author:
Ed Simon is Editor at Berfrois, the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books, and a frequent contributor at several different sites, having appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, The Washington Post, Newsweek and Jacobin among others. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon, his Facebook author page, or at his website. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion was released by Zero Books in 2018.