As I get older, I find myself profoundly moved by the sacrifices made by my parents’ generation during the Second World War, in a way that I didn’t fully appreciate as a young man. They experienced the descent from democracy to dictatorship across Europe and many of them – combatants and civilians – found the moral and physical courage to take a stand against fascism.
Yesterday, I spent a couple of hours at the War Museum in Bastogne, Belgium. The town, defended by units of the United States 101st US Airborne, 10th Armoured, and 82nd Airborne Divisions under the command of General Anthony McAuliffe, was besieged for two weeks by the advancing German Army during the Battle of the Bulge.
On 22 December 1944, pounded by artillery fire, cut off from supplies and reinforcements by German troops and bad weather, McAuliffe was invited to surrender by General Heinrich von Lüttwitz in the following words.
There is only one possibility to save the encircled USA troops from total annihilation: that is the honorable surrender of the encircled town. In order to think it over a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note. If this proposal should be rejected the German Artillery Corps and six heavy AA Battalions are ready to annihilate the US Troops in and near Bastogne. The order for firing will be given after this two hour’s term.
McAuliffe’s reply was clear and admirably concise:
I confess that I wept as the story of the siege unfolded on the screen in front of me, as I had years ago on reading William Golding’s essay on the Battle of Thermopylae, 480 BCE when Leonidas and his 300 Spartans defied a huge Persian army. McAuliffe’s rejoinder to General von Lüttwitz reminded me of Leonidas’s famous reply to Xerxes when invited to lay down his arms:
Come and get them.
I have no wish to glorify the brutal, bloody carnage of war nor the jingoistic nationalism that goes with it. But I do want to celebrate those who draw a line in the sand and say: “Enough!”
Now our generation is also facing the rise of populism and the decline of liberal democracy. We must avoid facile historical comparisons but there seems little doubt that we are on a slippery slope.
Where will we draw the line, I wonder?
What will our children say of us?