We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.
– John Stuart Mill
Mill was a pioneering defender of individual freedoms and his words will always ring true in a democratic society based on the rule of law and freedom of speech.
Throughout history, forces have arisen to oppose freedom of speech. Those forces – tyrants, dictators, fascists, despots, authoritarians – attempt to suppress knowledge and information, or manipulate it to suit their needs. They crush dissent and manipulate history for the sake of gaining or maintaining power; Hitler whipped up hatred of minorities, homosexuals and the infirm; Stalin erased his former partners from photographs and documents.
That is why it is particularly galling to see the recent controversy created by Second World War veterans who are protesting an exhibit at the Canadian War Museum. They are offended by a section on the bombing of Germany and want it removed, but in doing so they are infringing on the very freedom they fought to protect.
When, in the 1930s and 1940s, the forces of fascism and communism attempted to conquer the world, democratic nations rose up to defend the freedoms they hold dear. Many Canadians died fighting for the basic right to question their government or print the truth in the media.
During the Second World War, almost 91,000 Canadians were killed or wounded, according to the Canadian War Museum. This number, in an exhibit marking the war effort, would not likely cause much consternation.
In fact, it is a testament to the bravery and courage of Canadians who risked their lives for a just cause. But the exhibit illustrating the Allies’ bombing campaigns over the cities of Germany is now the cause of a war museum boycott by the Royal Canadian Legion.
The exhibit reads, “Although Bomber Command and American attacks left 600,000 Germans dead, and more than five million homeless, the raids resulted in only small reductions in German war production until late in the war.”
During the last few weeks there have been daily letters from veterans and their organizations to major Canadian newspapers, expressing outrage at this information being put up for public consumption.
They claim it makes them look bad, puts them in a bad light and makes their actions seem wrong. They want the information edited or removed.
Those veterans, and anyone else who calls for the plaque’s removal, should hang their heads in shame.
The veterans do not dispute the accuracy of the information in the exhibit – although the estimated number of casualties may be at the high end of the spectrum – they simply claim it makes them look bad. This is a blatant violation of everything they fought for on the battlefields of Europe.
Almost three million tonnes of bombs were dropped on German cities from 1942-1945.
Guidance systems were crude and the bombs often landed two or three kilometres away from the intended target – if there was one.
The intent of the Allies’ campaign was to cripple German industrial capacity and crush the morale of the people, just as the Luftwaffe tried to do to the British during 1940-41.
War is a brutal, vicious, cruel and mistake-prone endeavor and we should not forget the sacrifices made by Canadians who fought for the freedoms we hold dear.
But with freedom of speech comes the ability to confront the atrocities of war. If mistakes were made, they were made by both sides. It is the duty of a democratic society to acknowledge them and ensure they never happen again.
Veterans should not be condemned for the role they played in the Second World War, nor should they attempt to cover it up.