War, Generations, and Historical Memory

Historical memory is fleeting. Quickly we forget the past. This is especially the case when the past truly is the past. By that, those who experienced it are no longer alive and we need to rely upon second-hand memory to learn about it. This is exactly the situation occurring in the world now as the memory of World War II is fading and the Russian invasion of Ukraine is forcing comparisons to it.

Philosopher George Santayana is famous for declaring that “Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it.” Similarly philosopher Georg Hegel declared that “The only lesson of history is that we do not learn from history.” These aphorisms speak to the fading of memory as experience of events turn from first-hand to second-hand accounts. Historical memory is generational.

Each new generation comes of age in its adolescence coming to experience some major event or events that form a collective identity. These are the events that those in that generation refer to when they say: “Where were you when?” or they become shorthand markers or referents for emotions or assumptions about the world that influence how they think and perceive the world. There is a generational set of values, grounded in a set of historical memories and experiences.

This generational influence plays itself out 20 or so years later as a previous generation influenced by the experiences of its adolescence exits and is replaced by a new generation now prepared to act on its values formed in its adolescence. Political change in part is driven by generation shifts, with each new generation acting on its first-hand historical memories while forgetting the first-hand political memories of a previous generation.

This is the world we live in now, with so many consequential experiences fading away, lost forever in terms of the immediacy of the lessons learned from them.

At present there are two generations in the US, the Silents born between 1924 and 1944, and the Baby Boomers, born between 1945 and 1960 (or 1964 for some) who grew up in a world defined by many events they experienced first-hand. The list includes the Great Depression, the New Deal, World War II, the Cold War, the Korean War, the 1960s, and the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr. As these generations exit they are replaced by a new generation of Millennials (1982-1996) and GenZ (1997-2010) who lack the direct historical memory of the previous generations. It may even be that they lack a secondary memory of a parent or grandparent who experienced these events.

Why is this generation shift important? Consider for those who lived through the rise of Hitler and World War II. The saw futile efforts by UK Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to appease Hitler by giving him part of Czechoslovakia and declaring “Peace for our time,” only to see Germany roll into Poland barely a year later. They also experience the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the death and horror of World War II, and the genocide of Jews and others across Europe. These were not distant memories, but facts of their lived experiences.

Now the people who lived all this will soon be gone. Soon we will live in a world where there are no Holocaust survivors, refugees from World War II, or veterans of that war. First-hand memories and experiences of these people will be gone and new generations lacking such experiences will come of age and lead the country. What will the lessons of history be? How much will be lost as Santayana and Hegel foretold?

Generational memory is not limited to the US. Generational shifts are occurring across Europe, including in Russia and Ukraine. Vladimir Putin was born seven years after World War II. He has no direct experience of it and he was barely one-year old when Stalin died. Putin grew up in a world defined by the Cold War, when in his mind the USSR was great and there were clear geopolitical lines that defined the world. He has forgotten the pain of war inflicted on his country by the Nazis and he seems to think that the world he grew up with Ukraine and the former Soviet republics part of Russian empire is how the world out to be today.

But Putin’s generational world is coming to an end. Half if not more of the populations of Russia, Ukraine, and other states in the region grew up after the fall of the Berlin Wall and breakup of the USSR. They have collective memories far different than those of generations passing away. In my nearly 15 years of teaching in Eastern and Central Europe and Russia I have been forecasting that the real generational change would occur when the World War II and Cold War generations pass and are replaced.

The good news is that a new generation has a chance to reinvent the world and Putin might ultimately fail to win against the hands of generational change. The bad news, as we are seeing with the Russian invasion against Ukraine, is that the lessons of history are often forgotten.

David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University. He is the author of Presidential Swing States:  Why Only Ten Matter.