Friday 8thMay 2020 will be the 75thAnniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe. It was the day when millions of people took to the streets and pubs to celebrate. For those who can remember that time in 1945, the emotions will be particularly poignant. Victory over the German enemy finally brought the promise of peace. That is indeed worthy of celebration. But what should we be doing three quarters of a century on?
On Saturday 2nd May, I was due to be in Belluno on the edge of the Dolomites standing together with a group of total strangers from America and Italy. We had connected on Facebook and had hatched a plan to meet in the area where seventy-five years previously our fathers’, or grandfathers’, paths had crossed, first in war and then in peace. My sister, mother and my two octogenarian German aunts were coming too.
For me, it had all started fifteen years ago with the discovery of a photograph. I had googled my German grandfather’s name for the first time and the small black and white image that appeared on the screen instantly commanded my full attention. Until then, I had only known my grandfather as a framed photo on my mother’s writing desk. Just a face slightly obscured by the peak of a General’s hat with an iron cross hanging like a choker from a collared neck. He hadn’t moved in forty years. Now he was suddenly standing in front of me, wrapped in a belted, three-quarter length coat trimmed with a double row of perfectly aligned shiny buttons.
His face is instantly recognisable, his eyes still partially hidden as he talks to two men in baggier uniforms. He looks relaxed, upright. There’s even an air of authority in the way one of the seventy-a-day cigarettes I had often heard about rests between the fingers of his right hand. Reading the caption below the photo, I learn that it is 2nd May, 1945. The soldier on the left is an American Colonel, CO of the 337thInfantry, the other a translator. They are negotiating the handover of German troops and armaments. This is the day of Germany’s unconditional capitulation to the Allies. The moment my grandfather’s war ended and his time as a prisoner began. His experiences in the years that followed as a POW to the British would shape his family’s inner, and outer, worlds.
After years spent disentangling the family roots from the blood-soaked mud of conflict and Germany’s post-war silence, my relatives and I would be travelling to meet the sons of the American 337th Division and the granddaughter of the Colonel in the photograph. They had warmly welcomed me into their group. This 75thanniversary, supported by the Councillor of Culture in Belluno, had little to do with victory or defeat, winners or losers, goodies or baddies. It was about reconciliation. About growing friendships and understanding in the soil of broken grief and lingering pride or devastation. It promised to be a very special occasion… we will try again next year.
I can feel I am slightly bracing myself for what will happen on 8thMay. How will Britain mark this historic occasion? Energetic flag-waving aside, will it be much the same as our annual Remembrance Days in November and D-Days in June? Tony Hall, Director General of the BBC says their coverage “will bring households together to remember the past, pay tribute to the Second World War generation, and honour the heroes both then and now.” So yes, judging by that and the day’s schedule, it probably will.
Starting with a two-minute silence at 11am, a series of sing-alongs, prayers and encounters with veterans will follow, all interwoven with the familiar black and white footage. Then comes an evening of singers and actors performing well-loved songs, poetry and stories until 9pm when the Queen’s pre-recorded message will be broadcasted to close the day. Those who have got this far will probably feel slightly mushy (and possibly quite drunk). Filled with genuine gratitude to those who served, they will feel proud to be British, to be on the side of the victors and the heroic defenders of our freedoms… And that is all fine. Of course it is. But it’s not enough anymore.
History used to be a matter of consolation or pride, now it is more a matter of warning and learning. As it shifts over time, black and white narratives of good and bad, victory and defeat, perpetrators, victims and heroes no longer hold. The story becomes more nuanced, the divisions more blurred, the lessons more universal. Simply remembering has become empty. Yet as Susan Neiman explains in her excellent book, Learning from the Germans, “We are not hardwired for nuance. Learning to live with ambivalence and to recognise nuance may be the hardest part of growing up.” No country can fully celebrate the triumphs of its history while ignoring the darker moments. So we cannot, nor should we be allowed to rest in our national self-image as the incontestable good guys. Seventy-five years ago, yes, but not today.
Neil Macgregor, former director of the British Museum and now of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin notes: “What is very remarkable about German history as a whole is that the Germans use their history to think about the future, where the British tend to use their history to comfort themselves.”
Maybe 75 years on is the right time for us to stop merely re-playing the gore, glory and gratitude of the Second World War and to start reaching beyond our own borders to include the histories and destinies of foreign populations, such as Russia, Poland, China – even Germany, who lost infinitely more and triumphed daily in tinier, but no less important ways. With a general consensus among historians about what happened and why, we can then shift our emphasis onto becoming fully aware that no country is immune from falling into the same abyss as Germany. Its descent happened gradually in full view. Like a frog being slowly brought to boil in a saucepan, most people didn’t notice.
Covid-19 has ushered in a rash of startlingly rapid changes to our laws and freedoms. We are forcibly and necessarily being shaken out of complacency and into the realisation that civilisation as we know it is both fragile and reversible. So more urgently than ever, our World War anniversaries need to be reminders of this and opportunities for learning and growth to inspire collective vigilance against darker forces and a genuine sense of unity across borders.
Let’s see what happens on Friday. If I wave anything, it won’t be a flag for Victory but a white flower for on-going Peace.
Some other views I found interesting:
We Remember World War II Wrong
13 thoughts on “How should we celebrate VE Day 75 years on? Could it not be Peace in Europe Day rather than Victory?”
Trouble is that we (British) still fear the Germans and don’t trust them. Not just the last two world wars but right back to the Teutonic Knights who were not only 12th century Crusaders but also conquerors of much of central Europe including Poland Greece and Italy. They still seek to dominate Europe but economically this time. They are a very ambitious and hard working race with many virtues but still to be feared. Unlike the English who tend to be difficult to motivate but once they are persuaded to get on with the job are said to be too lazy to stop. –
Interesting Julian. And yes, the Germans are indeed strong, but also vigilant. Lots to discuss in what you say… slightly puzzled as didn’t we at one point conquer and want to dominate much of the world?!
Very good piece Angela and I entirely agree with your sentiments. I think part of the problem with the UK (and I used that term reservedly) is that the propaganda didn’t stop after the end of WW2. Many of us have been brought up on a diet of ‘Dunkirk’, ‘Battle of Britain’, and the ‘Dam Busters’ etc. etc. The distortion of these events and others, together with Britain’s overall role in the war and its history of Empire, has led I’m sure to a false sense of British exceptionalism and greatness for many in this country. I’ve no doubt this has played a significant role in the recent rise of English nationalism and Brexit.
My late father was a British veteran of the Normandy campaign and on to the Rhineland. Mum and Dad were part of the allied force of occupation in Germany until 1947. They witnessed first hand the devastation, yet resilience and fortitude of the German people in those difficult years. Dad had huge respect for the German military during the war and the German people in their recovery afterwards. He didn’t have much time for propaganda and parades. I think you’re absolutely right that we should be marking Peace, not Victory. Unfortunately, in the current political and social climate I can’t see it happening anytime soon.
PS: in case you’re not aware, the Iron Cross you refer to worn at the neck by your grandfather, would have been the Knights Cross. The highest decoration bestowed on German military personnel at that time. If awarded for valour, equivalent to the VIctoria Cross.
Thank you Mick, that’s really interesting to read. I have heard similar things said by people who like your parents were there after the war. It must have been an extraordinary time for all. Yes, I am aware it was the Knights Cross – apparently for “extreme battleship bravery and successful military leadership” Glad you’ll be joining me in marking peace not victory
A poignant message, strongly but sensitively put, as always. I will also be celebrating Peace and praying for deep change. M was very moved and totally in awe of your writing skills! Very proud!
That’s a very thought provoking piece, Angela, and of course we want to celebrate Peace not War but in 1939-45 we were fighting a loathsome regime and in war it has to be a broad brush – the Nazis ran Germany so Germany was the enemy and, by extension, the Germans. So it’s entirely understandable that in 1945 we should celebrate “Victory” over Germany. With the perspective of 75 years, and also the opportunity to study the history, it’s easier to see that it was still a “Victory”, but a victory over Nazism rather than Germany and the Germans and I now think of it as a victory that the German people also shared although for obvious reasons they couldn’t participate at the time. I cannot believe there are many Germans today who seriously think that the destruction of Nazism was a bad thing but, if there are, in celebrating “Victory” over the loathsome Nazi regime we strike a blow against anyone who might want to revive something like it. I feel that vigorous celebration of the defeat of Nazism against this background carries a much stronger message than simply celebrating “Peace” which is a bit “motherhood and apple pie”.
Thank you for your comment, Kit. I appreciate your points and am aware there will be a generational element to our differences of opinion. Lots we could discuss!
Part of my point is that words are incredibly emotive, laden and therefore important. How about we call it ‘Liberation in Europe Day’ then? It would shift the emphasis from a British ‘victory’ to a more collective defeat of the Nazis, thereby acknowleging the enormous contributions of the Soviets and Americans and the far greater scarifices of other countries. ‘Liberation’ would also be more inclusive of our European friends and neighbours, reflecting the experiences both of the German people (as you point out), the French and all the other occupied countries. And going forward, ‘Liberation’ inspires (in a way that past-orientated ‘Victory’ can’t) the sense of a shared mission across Europe to prevent anything like that happening again .
Thanks Angela. Yes, words are emotive which is really why I still prefer “Victory” (over Nazism) as positively conveying the concept of defeat (of something horrible).. We are nowhere saying it’s just a British victory, and as I said we ought to recognise that it was also a victory for the German people to get rid of Nazism. I’m afraid I can’t go along with “Liberation in Europe Day” nor, I suspect, would millions of Poles, Czechs, former East Germans etc. who had no liberation at all. Yes, I do agree we need forward looking inspiration which is something the EU should (but I fear seldom does) provide. Brexit is a mistake and we should be in there leading this, but let’s not get into that!
We could probably discuss this for hours… and still not agree! Yes, Liberation may well be the wrong word… it popped into my head as a response to your reply. In my blog, I am actually less interested in changing the name – though that is important – than the approach, sentiments and format of our WW remembrance culture. I of course know that letting go of ‘Victory’ and its embodiment of our nostalgia for greatness is way too big a call. But at our peril. A Polish man who read my blog told me his family’s WW2 story. The British do not come out so heroic in that. 75 years on, we as a nation might be better served by exposing and reflecting on the darker corners of our own history as perpetrators of suffering and/or inadequate responders to wrongdoing rather than allowing them to disappear into the darker shadows cast by the very specific, long-dead face of evil that the Nazis were. By insisting on a lop-sided view of ourselves, we alienate ourselves from Europe… enter Brexit (you brought it up first… not to be continued!!)
Over to this blog, which expresses it better than I possibly could: http://ruthwishart.scot/blog/why-ill-be-a-ve-day-dodger
Thank you so much Angela – as you say we could discuss for ever! Let me just say that (at least for me) it’s not “nostalgia for greatness” but thankfulness for an evil defeated though I agree some may think differently (what about it, Boris?). And yes, we have “darker corners” of our history which we must not forget and must avoid repeating. But if you are looking at history rather than the future, I’m also not going to forget the good this country has done – I think of my uncle who spent his whole life establishing medical services in Tanganyika.
Thank you too very much Kit – you are very right, there are a lot of elements to remembering the past and gratitude is a major one. Just like the bad, the good must by no means be overlooked. What wonderful work your uncle did, something to really cherish. I found yesterday hard but am heartened today to see online that I am not alone in that after all
An excellent piece. With your shared heritage you have a particularly rounded perception of what the enduring memory of the world’s worst event must mean for us, today and tomorrow. It’s clearly more muted this time round than the 50th anniversary was. People in GB are I think still reeling from the 14-18 centenary and the appetite to remember isn’t there so strongly. My German friends get tired of our Spitfire and D-Day preoccupations; and I suspect there is a gender issue in all of this. People of my age group and upbringing still like seeing historic aircraft cross the sky.
The meaning of peace in places which suffered so grievously in the war can be intense: it’s a shame you didn’t meet up and ‘celebrate’/remember. What a good plan that would have been.You are (I imagine) fundamentally different to your Wehrmacht grandfather: an embodiment of how fast people and countries change. The speed of this change can be dizzying – historical reminders form anchor points for some.
Thank you ‘gravedigger’ (I’d love to know who you are but don’t seem to be able to find out – do feel free to drop me an email if you would like!) I agree, I feel the appetite for remembrance is flagging, but maybe because so often is it the ‘same old, same old’, as one friend said. I can also appreciate the thrill of historic machinery though. I felt that seeing the tanks in the IWM. Such power!
Actually, I have found some curious similarities with my grandfather, hopefully good ones. I am much better able to understand him for all the research I have done. There are always many sides to a story, aren’t there?