TCS Daily

When April Flowered

By Philip R. O'Connor - April 25, 2005 12:00 AM

The climactic month of the 20th Century was April 1945. The war in Europe was entering its final stages. German armies were collapsing and by the end of the month Hitler and Mussolini would be dead. The magnitude of the Holocaust would be revealed. The Red Army, hurtling toward Berlin to take revenge would be drawing the battle lines for the Cold War of the subsequent forty-five years. In the Pacific, the horrific battle of Okinawa was joined. Kamikaze and banzai suicide attacks took so many American lives that there was little choice a few months later but to break Japanese fanaticism by inaugurating the atomic age. That extraordinary decision would be taken by a seemingly ordinary 20th Century man, Harry Truman, who that April succeeded to office upon the death of a giant public figure, Franklin Roosevelt.

In Shakespeare's plays, the moment of confrontation between protagonist and antagonist comes in the third of the five acts. So too, in retrospect, the momentous drama of the last century reached its tipping point at the century's mid-point, with rising action giving way to falling action, as the literary critics would say.

Though unrecognizable at the time, it was in April 1945 that the die was cast on two great historical questions. First, was Europe one place or many? Was Europe a collection of distinctly different and inherently hostile populations, or was it common ground, economically interdependent, rooted in a shared culture and history? Second, was liberal democracy or autocracy the future for the governance of mankind's common affairs? While the standard understanding in the Anglo-American alliance was that we indeed were fighting for democracy against Nazism and Fascism, the communist threat would soon dispel any sense that despotism itself had been defeated.

These two questions likely first became entangled with one another in the cauldron of the French Revolution and its Napoleonic aftermath. Only with the unraveling of the Soviet Empire nearly two centuries later would the answers to both questions be articulated in unison. Six decades after April 1945 we can see that in that crucial month these questions moved toward resolution.

None of this is to say that post-1945 history could not have taken another turn. A deterministic view would be antithetical to the notion of liberal democracy. Further, it is impossible to say that these questions have been settled for all time. But since April 1945, though trends have often been obscured by temporary events and setbacks, the emergence of a European identity and the resilience of liberal democracy have been dominant themes.

A lesson to be taken from looking back on April 1945 is how difficult it is to assess the true meaning of events in their own time. While the Nazi defeat and the breaking of the war lords' backs in the Pacific were recognized at the time as important, it was not possible to see how in that moment a direction for the world was set. It would take many years of continuing struggle and sacrifice for the drama to play itself out.

The two questions of European identity and the role of liberty have proven to be inextricably linked, not merely for Europe, but for the world at large. It was across the Atlantic in North America that the European seeds of the Western liberal tradition were planted and flowered. The American Civil War came two full generations before the onset of the final stage of the European civil war - called World Wars I and II. Americans demonstrated, after much agony, that disparate peoples from seemingly diverse cultures and backgrounds living in a vast geographical expanse could agree on basic rules of the game and rely on democratic processes to resolve problems. While always far from perfect, the United States became one place rather than many and liberal democracy became the modus operandi.

It is tempting to interpret the American-led effort in Iraq and elsewhere to install consent of the governed as an extension and further culmination of the successful "re-transplantation" to Europe of the fruits of unity in democracy. Indeed the sacrifices of young Americans today around the world are framed in terms of completing the mission their forebears were engaged in two full generations ago. It is a constant irritation and source of frustration for Americans that a prosperous and peaceful Europe cannot seem to act in concert to export democracy to other nations. But Americans have kept perspective, not succumbing to resentment that the gifts Europe was given in 1945 are underappreciated and unrequited.

If we heed the lesson of April 1945, we cannot know for sure what questions we are truly grappling with in any given historical moment. Sixty years from now, those looking back to April 2005 will have the opportunity for a clearer view, perhaps. Will the events of the month we are in, such as the construction of a freely chosen government in a previously autarchic Arab state and the seeming emergence of "people power" elsewhere in the Middle East and in central Asia prove to be watersheds going far beyond the extension of liberal democracy? Will Benedict XVI as Pope John Paul II's successor provide the moral leadership suited to the times? Will we discover that events in China had more profound implications than we could have imagined?

Not every month in history will be as significant as April 1945, but the point is that any month can be.

Philip R. O'Connor is in the energy business in Chicago and is the author of "A Loyola Rome Student's Guide to World War II in Rome and Italy" at


TCS Daily Archives