Dreaming an Unlimited Dream in a World of Division: A Veterans‘ Utopia?

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Logo der World Veterans Federation (WVF)

The decades directly following the end of the Second World War were marked by ideological confrontation and division. But in many parts of the world they were also decades of unprecedented international networking and cooperation. This is reflected in the work of the United Nations (UN), an institution which, founded in 1945, for many interest groups became a screen onto which they could project their hopes for a more promising future for all mankind.

One of the earliest groups of activists to embrace the purposes and principles of the United Nations as defined in its Charter, consisted of people who had actively participated in the Second World War. The “World Veterans Federation” (WVF), founded in 1950 on the initiative of French and American former combatants, aimed at uniting all national organisations of former fighters of the world in one international non-governmental organisation. Their undertaking was based on the firm belief expressed in the organisation’s credo: “None can speak more eloquently for peace than those who have fought in war”.

Their initial impetus was to raise awareness of the medical and social rehabilitation measures needed for those who had paid for victory with their physical and mental health. However, at the same time they were also raising their voices in an effort to champion some of the UN’s main objectives. Among them the achievement of “international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion” (UN-Charter).

As WVF Secretary General, Elliott H. Newcomb put it in 1953: „Rehabilitation is like any other branch of medicine. Unless it cures disease it is worthless; unless it prevents disease it is blind. In this sense our whole program is rehabilitation. It is designed to help those disabled in past wars and to prevent future millions from being disabled.” (New Era 12/1953:4). In this sense the WVF meant to tear down borders – not politically but in people’s minds so that they would be enabled to overcome any barriers that were keeping them from leading a better life.

At the same time that the World Veterans were highlighting shortcomings in all parts of the world, to them the postwar period also signified an era of optimism and opportunity on a global scale. The possibilities of travel, of overcoming huge distances, geographically and culturally, and of meeting with likeminded people from all over the world, gave their community a cosmopolitan air. They did not perceive themselves as “a group of dreamers” but as “practical men” (World Veteran 4/1967:3). And yet they created a utopian vision of a peaceful world in which conflicts are solved through negotiation and not through force; a world in which ultimately every human being would be able to live a happy life.

Historian Jay Winter has characterized activists of this category as “minor utopians”, people who attempt “in their separate ways to imagine a radically better world”, who become active in “moments of possibility” often after great upheaval. They are in stark contrast to “major utopias – projects of state-centered social engineering which almost always turn into nightmares”, exemplified for the twentieth century by the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin. Instead they “aim not at the total eradication of social conflict (…) but at partial transformations, steps on the way to a less violent and unjust society.” (Winter 2006:1-10; 208).

The veterans’ dream was meant to be conveyed to as many people as possible. As the “World Veteran”, the organisation’s official magazine, tells us, information pertaining to the 4th WVF General Assembly in The Hague in November 1953 was broadcast via radio to 27 countries on five continents. Also we are informed that “for the first time (…) a radio program concerning WVF was broadcast to eastern Europe.” (World Veteran 23/1954:22).

This remark reveals that the veterans of the WVF although they were speaking of one world, were dreaming their unlimited dream in a world of division. They were standing on one side of what has become an image of the time: the Iron Curtain. Contrary to its aspirations as a global organisation, the WVF was a rallying point solely for veterans from the Western side of this curtain. The only exception and founding member of the WVF was socialist Yugoslavia, a country firmly established between the two blocks of the East and the West.

The partisans from Yugoslavia became valued members not only for their commitment to the goals of the WVF but also because they functioned as a bridge to the other side. For, as it turned out, despite all division, the dreams of “minor utopians” in the West were mirrored by very similar dreams on the other side. Also in Warsaw, Prague and Moscow there were “minor utopians”, former veterans, resistance fighters, partisans, working on an international scale towards peace and a better understanding between former allies.

They in turn were united in the “International Federation of Resistance Fighters” (FIR), an organization which in contrast to the WVF was openly political and through its commitment to antifascism sided with the general communist agenda. However, this also meant that within the organization combatants from the East could establish connections with procommunist and communist ex-combatants from countries such as Austria, France and Germany.

Even though veterans on both sides gradually became aware that they were essentially dreaming the same dream, it was to take many years for any kind of open cooperation between the veterans of the WVF and the FIR. Only in 1971, more than 25 years after the end of the Second World War, the international organisations of world veterans and former resistance fighters would sit together at the same conference table.

This can be explained by what Jay Winter has identified as an inherent pattern in the behaviour of “minor utopians”: “Envisioning the future is frequently a way of trying to break with the past while unwittingly revealing the hold of the present on the way we think and live.” (Winter 2006:7). In creating their utopia the veterans could not think outside the box in which they were sitting: the context of the Cold War.

The Veterans of East and West were facing the dilemma that while trying to overcome the ideological division by dreaming of a world of boundless international cooperation, they were at the same time part of this very division. The FIR as an organisation was clearly closer to communist than to Western political ideals. The WVF, albeit always trying to remain as nonpolitical as possible, could not help being rooted in the West and therefore also in its ideology. Both organisations had the aspiration of becoming universal but their dependence on circumstances out of their reach explains why there were so many drawbacks on the way to east-west cooperation among former allies.

This does not mean that the achievements of both WVF and FIR in the immediate postwar decades should be underestimated. “Minor utopias”, as Winter puts it, might generally be prone to failure but at the same time the visions signify “spaces in which the contradictions of a period are embodied and performed, and new possibilities are imagined” (Winter 2006:205). Every veteran in any part of the world who could walk thanks to improved prosthetic equipment and every communication between former enemies or allies was a step towards this shared vision of a better world.

Moreover, ideological and political differences never prevented the mutual effort of individuals on both sides to understand each other and to find topics where cooperation seemed possible. In that sense veterans and resistance fighters displayed characteristics which Winter also attributes to “minor utopians”: „Utopians are those who commit, and then hit a brick wall. What distinguishes them from others is that they then get up and (perhaps against reason or logic) do not turn cynical or passive, but manage to take a leap in the dark.” (Winter 2006:101-102).

It was exactly those characteristics that enabled veterans of the East and West in spite of all difficulties to establish points of contact between actors who on a political level were hardly ever able to come together. This happened through personal contacts between officials of the WVF and veteran organisations from the Soviet Union or Poland. It happened through the World Veterans’ international magazine in 1955 taking “A look at Soviet medicine”. And it was not only confined to the East-West conflict as is illustrated by a General Assembly snap-shot from 1953: “The night of the Assembly’s closing party (…) we met a dejected pressman standing alone in a corner. ‘I feel terrible,’ he told us. ‘I am in profound despair. There are the Yugoslavs and the Italians drinking together, and not a photographer in sight’” (World Veteran 23/1954:21).

The “minor utopia” that the veterans of WWII dreamed is an unfinished project. It is not a dream confined to the period of the Cold War – some of them are still dreaming on: That a peaceful future is possible and that at least in some current places of conflict the hope of a promising future will not have to stay a utopia forever. Their open-ended vision is also reflected in an artistic contribution on a section of the Berlin Wall which forms part of the commemorative “East Side Gallery”: „Many small people who do many small things in many small places, can alter the face of the world“!

Reference List:
The World Veteran – New Era. Official Publication of the World Veterans Federation, 12/1953; 23/1954; 10/1955; 4/1967.
United Nations. Charter of the United Nations: http://www.un.org/en/documents/charter/.
Website of the World Veterans Federation: http://www.wvf-fmac.org/new/.
Website of the International Federation of Resistance Fighters: http://www.fir.at/.
Winter, Jay. 2006. Dreams of Peace and Freedom. Utopian Moments in the Twentieth Century (New Haven).
Wourgaft, Serge. 2000. World Veterans Federation. 50 Years of Action for Peace and Freedom. Synopsis.


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