Channel-hopping late one night last week, I found myself caught by the inevitable Yesterday documentary on the last year of “Hitler’s War”. It focused on the Soviet advance through Russia and then Belarus and Poland, and eventually into Germany itself.
As the final denouement approached the film footage switched from black and white to early colour. Suddenly, it all seemed far more real, less history than ‘news’: the destruction of 85 per cent of Warsaw’s buildings, the piles of rubble that were once Minsk, the German civilians scavenging for food amongst the shells of their homes.
Over the last six months there have been times when it is has felt that the world would never been the same, that there was no way back from the economic destruction of Covid-19 – not to mention climate change, Brexit, the banking crisis, Trump and the other serial disasters which seem to have befallen us over the past decade.
I have been struck, however, by how sanguine my father and his generation of friends have been at all that has been going on around them, despite the hugely elevated threat to them from the virus.
One interpretation is the inevitable knowledge which comes with very old age that, if covid doesn’t get them, something else will and relatively soon. Another, however, might be that when you have lived, not through total war, but the recovery which followed, nothing ever feels ‘terminal’ again. Yes, our habits have changed and whole business sectors may never be the same – travel, hospitality, retail – but in all probability all that has happened is the hastening of trends that were already set in train.
Meanwhile, many other businesses which were viable before covid will be viable again. Some, maybe even many, companies will go under, but the entrepreneurial spirit which built them hasn’t gone away. They will come back, better and stronger.
What’s more, many have undergone an incredibly rapid modernisation of their practices and systems: they have learned how to trade online, to function with less business travel, and to source goods globally even in the most difficult of times.
By 1945, whole cities had been destroyed, the seeds for the end of empire were firmly rooted, and economies built on war production had to be re-directed – but it happened. And far more quickly than could even have been conceivable at the time.
Warsaw rose again. Even its old quarter was rebuilt. German businesses, which had been at the heart of the Nazi machine, became central to a peacetime, economic revival without parallel. The UN arose out of the ashes of the League of Nations. And the NHS became a focus of national pride and energies.
As we seem set to re-enter another period of lockdown, it is possible for the world to feel very dark, but there is more than hope. There is clear evidence that the human condition is such that, however great the challenges, we find a way through.
Unparallelled though the challenges are that we face today, humanity has been in greater holes than this one. This is not a continent laid to waste, a generation dead, an iron curtain descended – and in the long view, the recovery – stronger than ever – is just around the corner.