Worst Year Ever Series: 1945 saw atomic bombs and holocaust death marches, but hope was on the horizon
Was 2020 the worst year ever? The National Post puts a silly question to a serious test by stacking 2020 up against other years of plague, war, genocide, and human misery, all to answer the unusually urgent question of what makes a bad year the worst.
Humans have made the pandemic worse than it might otherwise have been. Not everyone, of course. Not most. But enough to matter.
Canada has made celebrities of people who violate public health precautions on grounds of personal freedom or conspiracy theory. Mask take-up has been a society-scale experiment in whether people will take instruction from the government on public health for the protection of vulnerable people.
It is not just the wild world of nature, with its viruses and volcanoes. Humans are also agents of human misery. It is not all plagues and locusts and punishments from God or nature. Some years are bad because people make them so, and the Worst Year Ever should probably be, at least in part, a human achievement.
Few years exhibited this more than 1945, a prime modern candidate for Worst Year Ever. Winter saw Holocaust death marches. Summer brought the first and so far only two acts of atomic warfare, when the United States dropped nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, and Nagasaki on Aug. 9.
It meets the Worst Year Ever criteria of events that project through history. An anti-Semitic ideology forged in the plague fears of medieval Europe centuries earlier inspired fascist empire-building, and its ideological legacy remains a major national security priority in Canada and around the world today, where neo-Nazi and white nationalist movements are ascendant.
Nuclear physics had gone from the discovery of X-rays to the atomic bomb in less than 50 years. Two years later, horrified at the events of 1945, atomic scientists created the Doomsday Clock, which in recent years has been ticking closer to midnight. It now stands at 11:58:20 pm, 100 seconds to midnight, with an update due in January.
The Allied victory in 1945 also left the legacy of the American superpower, which was great if you were born in America in the following years, less so in places such as Iraq.
So 1945 ticks all the boxes for Worst Year Ever except for one. It bucked the premise of this series that New Year’s should seem hopeless.
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On the contrary, New Year’s 1945, in Canada at least, was an optimistic affair. The evils of the bad year had begun their descent into history. The victory and homecoming parades had been hosted across the country, and Canada was starting to feel wealthier, lighter.
This may be happening again. As vaccines rolled out across the world in recent days, 2020’s badness seemed like it might be losing some of its menaces.
Here at the end, in the right light, 2020 can seem a bit like The Monster At The End Of This Book, in which Grover’s blind terror finally deflates when he realizes the monster was him all along. The essential mark of the bad year, that shared sense of inevitability and dread, fades a little on the last page. It is not exactly a comfort that humanity is the source of so many of its own problems, in addition to all the perils of nature, but it does leave room for hope.
So if there is a conclusion, it is that 2020 was the worst, no doubt, but perhaps not the Worst Year Ever.
Other years in the series:
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