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The Last Survivor of the Second World War November 15, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

Strange History put up a melancholy post a couple of weeks ago marking the day that the last Battle of Britain pilot died. And this is only the beginning… On that very day the newspapers ran with another story commemorating not the last but the oldest Auschwitz survivor’s death. Now the Battle of Britain and Auschwitz involve pretty small groups: few fought in the Battle of Britain and few of those that did survived the war; millions were brought into the death camps but only a handful came out the other side. It is hardly surprising then that we are seeing the last of these disappear into the ether. But what about other larger groups: when will the last American infantry man die; the last French resistance fighter; the last German tank operator…?

It is probable that the Soviet Union and Germany will have the last fighters for the simple reasons that these countries, in moments of desperation, put guns into the hands of teenage girls and boys. Let’s imagine a young German named Niclas who was fourteen in the summer of 1945 and who shot bullets at Russians in Berlin. If Niclas survives till 110, which is at the outer reaches of male longevity, but possible with Germany’s excellent healthcare system, then he will die in 2042.

The number of teenage German boys who fought the invader (and more importantly came out to tell the story) are few: will any of them make it into the 2040s? Who knows? But it might be worth putting some money on that being the decade when the last combatants die: thirty long years in the future when many readers, including very possibly the writer of this blog, are dead and gone. The last victims of the war – children who were dragged out of bombed out houses, those like Beachcombing’s own father-in-law who, as a quarter Jew, spent his first years in hiding… – will disappear in the 2050s or 2060s.

These are the outliers, of course, but memories will prove even more durable. Beach’s daughter is almost old enough to hear from her great-grandfather about the experience of being sunk on one of the Malta Convoys. She could very well tell that same story to her great grandchildren in the early parts of the twenty-second century, a hundred and sixty years after an Italian plane sent its torpedo into the side of a British cruiser. It isn’t the hundred generations suggested for Newgrange on this blog: but it is still a pretty impressive span of time. The last grains of sand will linger in the top end of the hour glass a while yet…