I have a confession to make. It was not until 2014, just before my second year at BUILD (Bilbao Urban Innovation and Leadership Dialogues), that I fully understood the role of its initiator, the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMFUS). I had been describing the annual event to my 17-year-old daughter and mentioned GMFUS. As a student of American politics, she asked if they were something to do with the Marshall Plan; this incidental conversation exposed my ignorance of the American post-WWII efforts to rebuild the economies and spirits of western Europe.
A second incidental conversation with my Dad – again sparked by a reference to GMFUS in relation to my attendance at BUILD in Detroit in November 2017 – compounded my lack of knowledge. He casually dropped into the conversation his experience as a young beneficiary of the Marshall Plan. He was born in 1938 and spent his early childhood in London playing on bomb sites and soaking up the unusual experience of living amongst American soldiers stationed in England. This is what he said:
“I remember schools distributing a bag of rice for each child. Very welcome. Surplus khaki material was sent over and many of us had shorts and shirts made up. Harry and I and many friends wore them. I don’t know if this was part of the Plan? But it was certainly good PR. America tried to feed and strengthen an impoverished Western Europe, to allay the fear of communist advance and to win hearts and minds.”
He also added:
“During the war, US troops seemed so much more affluent and much smarter. They were generous – gum, candy, nylons and the rest!”
The latter is a coded reference to soldier’s relationships with local women, which has stayed engrained in his memory as much as the bag of rice and khakis.
Looking back to look forwards
Whilst I didn’t learn (or perhaps remember) a lot about modern history at school, I did study 16th – 18th century European history and its power grabs, destruction and division. We like to think we would never revert to similar disunity or domination, but it is not too far a stretch as we watch early 21st century politics become more insular and nationalistic. Russia surveys its next land grab, America walks a tightrope in its international relations, Scotland votes on independence from the UK and Catalonia votes on independence from Spain and the UK votes to leave the European Union, undoing 40 years of collaboration that aimed to future-proof it from repeating the past.
In 1972 Germany reciprocated – it thanked the USA for its generosity and GMFUS was formed. A gesture that showed how relationships between nations can be re-forged, regardless of an adverse past.
Seventy years on
It is easy though, to become blind to how our present actions define our future and how our children and their children will review how we have shaped their history. As the structures and systems that have encouraged collaboration become increasingly fragile, the importance of transatlantic links and earning from other nations becomes increasingly important.
George Marshall’s Plan was bold, spurred by a recent and raw history; its 70th Anniversary highlights the importance of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. It has been particularly poignant to make a direct link with the Plan’s original purpose and how it had impacted on a young boy – my father – living in a poor and war-torn part of London. And to be able to extend that link to my daughter learning about it at school and to my own experience of BUILD, that continues to foster the spirit of the Plan, seven decades later.