Sep 2, 2009 at 7:51 pm Leave a comment

September 1st of 2009 marked the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, more specifically, the German invasion of Poland. Besides the usual commemorative ceremonies taking place in Europe, a discussion of WWII’s lasting impact on Europe is being discussed throughout the European press.

For a 20-something such as myself, the idea of the “lasting impact” of WWII at first glance seemed almost ridiculous, at least not worthy of mention outside of history circles. Though my grandparents were directly caught up in the war, the world their generation lived in is essentially inconceivable to me. I simply can not imagine an unstable Western Europe, in which Western European nations were not friendly working together politically and economically. To me, Europe is a collective whole and always has been. I can’t even imagine European nations without the Euro.  Thinking of Germany split in two is difficult (unless of course I’m looking at the physical remnants of the split while in Berlin).

The meaning of WWII today, as discussed in the press, is different for each European country, the obvious influencing factors being geography – Eastern versus Western Europe – and political power – Axis versus Allies. An opinion article from the Austrian newspaper Die Presse complains of Austria’s half-true WWII legacy as perpetrator only, despite the fact that just as in Germany, many Austrians were wholeheartedly against Hitler and the Nazis. The British “The Times” talks about the lasting Polish-British friendship, and Estonian daily Eesti Paevaleh writes about how recent fall of the iron curtain, a direct product of WWII, really was.

But perhaps one of the most important, lasting impacts of WWII today still has not been adequately addressed. It is an issue that is seen in conflicts all over the world today.

WWII was the first modern-day war in which civilian deaths outweighed soldier-deaths; 60 percent of the 70 million victims were civilians. This fact has had far-reaching impact on the way warfare has been conducted since, and by extent how it is monitored, today.

After WWII the first-ever war tribunal was created, and over twenty military officers were convicted of war crimes. The Nuremberg Trials produced the principles of the Nuremberg Trial, laws which aim to govern international law. But the more lasting impact that came out of the trials was the establishment of an International Criminal Court and the Geneva Convention of 1949, which is arguably the most important document that limits and aims to control the abuses of war.

While the Geneva Convention is still used today and the ICC still exists, the mandate of both of these is extremely limited and essentially ineffective today. The issue of the ICC’s sovereignty over nations has stalled the Court’s ability to legally monitor war crimes and prosecute perpetrators.  For example, after the ICC indicted Sudan’s President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir, the court was met with a condescending laugh from Bashir and politicized opposition from several other nations about the jurisdiction of the ICC. Though 194 nations ratified the Geneva Convention, the laws are violated in most conflicts today. There is also the added problem of enforcing these rules, many of which require years of post-conflict research in order to determine if and exactly how these laws were breached.

But the fact remains, since World War II civilians have increasingly been targeted by governments involved in conflicts. From the genocides of Rwanda and Darfur, the internal conflicts of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sri Lanka and to the international wars of Bosnia and the Persian Gulf, a disproportionate number of victims in armed conflicts are civilians, and a startling number of these victims are women and children.

This is where the legacy of WWII lies, and this is where we can not afford to let that legacy be forgotten.


Entry filed under: Conflict, Europe. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , .


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