PHILLIP O'NEILL: War ended while the fight for peace began

REMEMBERED: Poppies are placed alongside names on the First World War Roll of Honour in Canberra.
REMEMBERED: Poppies are placed alongside names on the First World War Roll of Honour in Canberra.

I arrived in London last week and noticed how many people were wearing poppies in their lapels with Remembrance Day approaching.

Yesterday, November 11, is the day that ended Word War I. 

But it has become the day that Commonwealth nations around the world remember those who died and suffered in all wars.

It is not surprising that Londoners take Remembrance Day seriously. Between September 1940 and May 1941, London suffered 71 bombing attacks with 28,556 civilians killed and 25,578 injured.

A million homes were destroyed or damaged. The first wave of German bombing targeted ships in the Thames River, then the docks and rail lines, and then incendiary and high explosive bombs were dropped on London’s industrial suburbs to the east and south.

Some bombs landed around Clapham Common, where I am staying in a grand old pub.

The common is now a vast run of playing fields and parkland. 

On the wall of the pub you can see photos of the common from the war years when it was turned into allotments for growing vegetables. The workers you can see are old, and there are children running around. But there is an absence of the young adults who were away at war.

They fought so that Britain and Europe, and the wider world, would be free from fascism.

This was the insidious ideology of the extreme right wing political parties of the times, led by Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy and Emperor Hirohito and his general, Hideki Tojo, in Japan.

The fascists believed they were physically, intellectually and culturally superior to others, and they were prepared to go to war to prove it.

The defeat of fascism in 1945 in Europe and Asia promised a future where peace would prevail.

A year later, East Maitland boy ‘‘Doc’’ Evatt took  a lead  in drafting the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The statement captured the hope that the end of world war could be the start of something better, that never again would the world’s youth be sent to battlefields, and that peace depended on respecting the dignity of all people, based on the belief that human beings are fundamentally equal and should be accorded the same rights and opportunities for a decent life.

Europe has done well since World War II. Totalitarian communism was dispatched by peaceful protest in the late 1980s, although the atrocities in the Balkans should never have been tolerated. Still, last month the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the European Union, recognising that Europe’s 500 million people live in harmony after centuries of conflict and war.

Yet peace is not just an absence of war. All across Europe today there are raised economic and political tensions. An inability to shift mountains of debt from public and bank balance sheets has meant economic stagnation or recession in most of Europe. The burden falls heavily on the young. 

The latest UK statistics show the nation has 658,000 youth aged 16 to 24 years who are out of work and not enrolled in education. 

Another 300,000 are only hanging around schools and colleges because they can’t get a job. 

Across Europe a total of 11 million young people aged 15 to 24 years are officially unemployed, according to the OECD.

Alarmingly, 23 million young Europeans are not in employment, education or training of any kind. 

In both Greece and Spain, two of the nations hit hardest by the debt crisis, the youth unemployment rate exceeds 50per cent.

The end of World War II in 1945 in Europe came with the hope that young people could live out their dreams in peaceful, prosperous nations.

Europe’s version of the global financial crisis puts this hope at risk. While politicians and bankers wrestle on and on, devising one after another short-lived resolution to the region’s debt problems, another generation of young people suffers.

The rich, of course, look away. 

Over 2000 rich Greeks, for instance, have been outed as holders of  secret Swiss bank accounts. 

No doubt the same patriots play a major role in the nation’s annual $60billion tax evasion.

In Britain, The Guardian reports that the pay and benefits of the executives of the top 100 listed companies rose by 27per cent last year. 

Their average pay packet was $6million.

No doubt, they’ve had poppies pinned to the lapels of their Savile Row suits all week.

I wonder what they have been remembering? 

 If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

 In Flanders fields.

Phillip O’Neill is professor of economic geography at the University of Western Sydney


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