Published online by Cambridge University Press: 12 October 2022
In Oosterbeek cemetery in the Dutch town of Arnhem lie the bodies of Dutch civilians and servicemen from the UK, Poland, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand. A few miles to the south near Nijmegen, the bodies of American servicemen were laid to rest at the Molenhoek cemetery before being removed in 1947 to the American cemetery near Maastricht. Operation Market Garden, as the Allied attack on the Dutch bridges in September 1944 was codenamed, failed to achieve its objectives and resulted in a casualty rate of nearly 75 per cent for the British Paratroop regiment dropped into Arnhem.
Military historians generally regard the operation as flawed from the start. It was poorly planned by people who had little understanding of conditions on the ground and who chose to ignore local information that was provided. Moreover, no attempt was made to adapt the plan to changing conditions on the ground (Beevor, 2018). Despite the level of incompetence of senior generals who remained far from danger, the accounts of the battle are extraordinary with five Victoria Crosses awarded, four of them posthumously (Frost, 1984).
Historians today rightly caution against assumptions as to what drove individual civilians and soldiers on to acts of heroism, beyond an element of professionalism and to protect or sometimes seek revenge for the death of close friends. However, the idea that individuals were also fighting against what they thought was a terrible tyranny is not easy to dispel entirely. Every year liberal democracies remember those who died in battle defending freedom through remembrance services. One question that ought to be raised at such services is whether the legacy of the commemorated acts of heroism has actually resulted in the pursuit of freedom?
Ideas matter. As Fukuyama argued in the End of History and the Last Man, there can be no democracy without democrats. It is the same for liberalism. If there is no one to make the case for the foundational ideas of freedom and equality, there is no reason to expect that a society would decide to follow such a route. There are, after all, alternatives.
Neither classical nor social liberalism has succeeded in sustaining a liberal society. One common factor behind this failure is the utilitarian ethical foundation of both versions of liberalism.