‘THE constant rolling of the vessel coupled with my intense occupation in the wheelhouse with the screen of the Gee machine soon brought me to the extremes of sea-sickness. I felt absolutely dreadful and was so pre-occupied with my physical state that I did not reallv appreciate the momentous nature of the enterprise we were involved in. Gradually, the sea began to abate and as dawn broke the contrast was complete. All around us were dozens of ships of all sizes and shapes. It seemed miraculous that we had managed to avoid each other throughout the darkness of night.

Very soon after first light we sighted the French coast and it looked just as we expected from the photographs except that by now the big guns were firing. Several cruisers were shelling positions behind the beaches and probably far inland beyond our line of sight. Destroyers and rocket ships were closer in, dealing with positions just above the beachline. Aircraft seemed to be everywhere and all were friendly. Quite soon we had led our group [of landing craft] to a position opposite to their landing positions and drew aside to allow them to pass us and proceed to the beaches. Our immediate job was complete.’

This account was written by a twenty-year-old Royal Navy sub-lieutenant. The date was 6 June 1944, eighty years ago today, D-Day, and the opening of the long-awaited second front in Europe. The location was Queen Red beach, Sword sector, the easternmost of the five Normandy landings, near Hermanville-sur-Mer. It was the beginning of what remains the largest seaborne military operation in history. The writer of the eyewitness description above was Frank Merrett, my father.

On 8 May the following year he was in Rangoon when the Germans surrendered. Two atom bombs later the Japanese capitulated. This was the start of a half century of relative world peace that enabled the advance of democracy and space for many causes: the rights of colonised peoples, women, and many oppressed minorities. Apartheid was defeated; and the Iron Curtain fell together with the Soviet Union, its slave labour and its gulag mentality. In the early 1990s there was optimism about international affairs that echoed the general atmosphere in which my generation had grown up in spite of the Cold War.

And yet here we are, a quarter of the way through the twenty-first century, and fascism is again on the rise. The D-Day participants ‒ British, American, Canadian, French, Polish and Norwegian ‒ had the satisfaction of knowing they had played a significant part in the defeat of Nazism and its allies. But today the latter are back and a significant threat to the liberal democratic world that underpinned so much progress in the second half of the twentieth century.

This new fascism is more insidious than the old, less overt and ostentatious. It seems propelled by two main forces: extremist religion and attraction to the big man syndrome. Islamic fundamentalist terrorism is orchestrated from Iran and now being matched by militant Jewish settlers. White Christian nationalism is a driving force behind the ugly MAGA (Make America Great Again) movement; while the Russian Orthodox Church blesses Vladimir Putin’s artillery and his genocidal war on Ukraine. Hindu extremism threatens the secular foundations of India and the rights of its 200 million Muslim citizens. In an increasing number of African countries both fundamentalist religion and traditional belief are being used to persecute gay people and oppress women; as of course is the case in many Muslim countries.

The world has lived for many decades with apparently crazed leaders such as the Kim dynasty in North Korea. But their number is increasing and many are genuinely popular. Putin, for instance, has a penchant for obliterating cities (Grozny ‒ twice, Aleppo and Mariupol) and waging total war in pursuit of imperial ambition, and for murdering his political opponents; but might win a free election. Donald Trump could well earn a second term as US president although he is a convicted felon, a serial liar, racist and misogynist, and tried to engineer a coup to stay in power in 2021 ‒ a truly disgusting specimen. Yet he has the support of millions of so-called Christians and conservatives.

Narendra Modi was complicit in the Gujarat massacre of 2002 but managed to avoid prosecution; while Benajmin Netanyahu of Israel evades charges of corruption by prolonging the war in Gaza. Both have legions of supporters. In Tehran, religious and political leaders with mass public support sponsor terrorist organisations such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthi; and oppress and persecute Iranian women. In Europe, politicians like Victor Orban, Marine le Pen and Geert Wilders have met with success; although the picture is mixed. In Britain, the Trump-like Boris Johnson was ejected by the Conservative Party, even though captured ‒ for multiple lying.

Here in South Africa, we have our own Donald Trump, like his American counterpart hoping for a return to power: Jacob Zuma. uBaba and his MK Party have just attracted 45% of the provincial vote in KwaZulu-Natal and 15% nationally. Yet not only is he a felon, but also a traitor having hollowed out state institutions in pursuit of his own corrupt ambitions in that disastrous period of state capture from 2009 to 2018. He has declared the election stolen by rigged results, denounced their official and legal announcement as provocation, and demanded a rerun. He is running out of years, but his radical economic transformation forces are attempting to retake the ANC and the country. This boils down to a power struggle between constitutionalists and anarchists. The odds heavily favour the latter in the long run.

The rule of law, separation of powers and civic and human rights are all symbols of the post-war liberal optimism ignited by the defeat of fascism in 1945. Yet today millions of people whose lives have benefited immeasurably from these democratic institutions support demented leaders who peddle deranged ideas that undermine a variety of essential freedoms. At the recent hush-money trial Robert de Niro described Trump as a monster; while a political commentator used the same word a couple of days later about Zuma.

Those who went ashore on and after D-Day, and fought elsewhere in the Allied cause in World War Two, would be shaking their heads in sheer amazement and disbelief. They were about to bury a monster and his henchmen for good. But now they’re back with a vengeance.