VE Day 75th Anniversary
Ms Moore, Curriculum Leader for History reflects on Victory in Europe day: what it meant then, and how it should be remembered now.
It was 8th May 1945 and amongst the smouldering debris of Berlin, British musicians fine-tuned their instruments. Amongst them was Ivy Benson, a jazz Saxophonist from Holbeck in Leeds. Her starlet glamour contrasted with the haunting atmosphere of war-torn Berlin. Burnt out buildings and rubble were the backdrop to the celebration concert.
To celebrate Victory in Europe Field Marshall Montgomery requested musicians to play to Allied troops in Berlin. Just eight days before Hitler had blown his brains out in a bunker, and Germany’s surrender had quickly followed. As Ivy and her band struck up the tunes of “Lady be Good” the crowds cheered in celebration. Jewish musician, Benny Goodman’s music was also played in the former capital of the Third Reich; music decried by the Nazis and banned. Goodman’s notes permeated the air of Berlin: the sounds of liberation!
On that same afternoon it poured with rain in Leeds. This did not stop people celebrating. People clambered up the lions of the town hall, watching throngs of people singing and waving flags up Boar Lane, Albion Street, Briggate and the Headrow. The people of Leeds had much to celebrate: the city’s industrial capacity had made a vital contribution to winning the war. Weapons, aircraft, and ammunition had been manufactured in Leeds factories and 10,000 women and 100,000 men had registered for military service.
Across Britain bunting was strewn from lampposts and Union Jacks were unfurled. At Piccadilly Circus Londoners kissed policemen as they playfully pulled them into the dancing crowds. Churchill had even checked with the Ministry of Food that there were enough beer supplies in the capital. In backstreets and side streets, villages and the remotest reaches of Britain, people celebrated: six years of fighting and the Nazi regime has been defeated.
What, more precisely, did the defeat of Nazism mean for the British? People were reunited with their loved ones, many who had not seen their menfolk in six years. There was a euphoric relief that the threat of a Nazi invasion of Britain was over. Our society had not been exposed to the abhorrent regime of National Socialism: we had been saved from the unique evilness of a dictatorship that re-engineered society based on a racial hierarchy. The relentless fear of bombing was over. Children that had been evacuated from towns and cities could return home. Contemporaries also rejoiced in the return of their cherished civil liberties: war time demands had justified a greater intervention than ever seen before on the lives of the British. Those restrictions were now over: curfews, blackouts, bombing and food rationing were no more.
Whilst many British celebrated, many privately grieved. In his droll steady radio broadcast on the afternoon 8th May King George VI stressed: “Let us remember those who will not come back … they are not with us at the moment of our rejoicing.” The war cost the lives of 384,000 British soldiers and 70,000 civilians.
As we commemorate the 75th anniversary of VE day it is important to reflect on the sacrifices made by those men and women. Their legacy is liberty and democracy. 75 years after VE day, we must be aware of the fragility of democracy. We must take responsibility to maintain and improve our democratic system and to relentlessly hold our government to account. The recent global rise macho politics makes this more important than ever.
Commemorating VE day should also be an opportunity to place it in the broader context: VE day did not mark the complete end of World War Two. In May 1945 the Pacific the war raged on with thousands of Allied servicemen still fighting in the Far East or held captive in inhumane conditions. Conflict in this arena of the world was not be over until August 1945, when the dropping of bombs on Japan saw the horrific might of nuclear weapons; an indelible stain on America’s foreign policy.
As guns were silenced in Europe and people celebrated across Britain, the majority of Britons were oblivious to the fact that a new type of war was emerging. With the common enemy defeated, the tenuous alliance of capitalist USA and Britain and communist USSR unravelled. Europe, and in particular Berlin, became the battle ground of these competing ideologies. Wars in developing countries would be fought and the conflict would not be officially over until 1991.
Grief was global. Britain’s colonies sent over two and a half million men to fight for Britain in World War Two. Mothers and wives across five different continents received telegraphs confirming the deaths of their relatives; stressing they had not died in vain. A sense of hypocrisy was not lost: Indians were told that their loved ones had died to liberate Europe from the tyranny of the Nazi empire, yet their relatives had died fighting for Britain – an empire that refused to acknowledge their growing demands for self-autonomy.
Undoubtedly Britain and her allies and fought a morally just war. However, we also need to reflect on some uncomfortable truths. Were the means of fighting always ethical? Incendiary bombs were deliberately used to create fire storms in German cities. There was considerable loss of life in major cities like Hamburg and Berlin. Notably Dresden - the Florence of the Elbe was targeted in February 1945. A place of little strategic value but a city of huge cultural and historic value. In total between 400,000 and 600,000 Germans died in bombing raids. Wars are complex and the end goals often justify excessive means.
The emotions and feelings that we collectively feel as a nation each 8th May must evolve. 75 years on we must avoid a xenophobic narrative of Germany to dominate. In the past 75 years Germany have had to reconcile itself with the uncomfortable truth that many citizens actively and passively supported National Socialism. This fact is undeniable. However, the German generation of 2020 must not have to burden the shame and guilt of the generation of 1945. Inherited accountability 75 years on is both wrong and damaging.
Good versus evil narratives are very alluring, but History is much more complex and nuanced, particularly warfare. Although many German citizens had colluded in the Nazi regime, we must be cautious about simplistic categorisations: Berlin, the very capital city that Hitler made the seat of his power, had shown scant political support for Nazism before he dismantled German democracy in 1933. Yet Berliners paid a huge cost. By 1945 their city was rubble and 2 million German women were raped by Soviet soldiers as they liberated Berlin from Nazism. This was not an officially sanctioned “liberation” policy but nor were there attempts to stop it.
May 1945 was also a watershed moment when Europeans contemplated humanity. The horrors of the concentration camps in Central and Eastern Europe were being unveiled to the world; a stark reminder of the depth of degradation that humans were capable of. Collective trauma swept over Europe: 40 million Europeans had died in the war, more than four times as high many as in the First World War. The Guardian’s sombre statement from 8th May 1945 contrasted to the heady celebrations throughout Britain: “We have solved nothing. We are no nearer the Golden Age. But at least we have stopped the onrush of evil. We have won the right to hope.” It was this hope that forged a new path for European contemporaries of 1945.
Hope spurred Europeans to respond to the trauma of war with humility. The landslide victory of the Labour Party in 1945 symbolised a new era of political consensus: Political parties across the spectrum accepted the responsibility of state intervention to improve the lives of British people. It also led to the creation of free health care at the point of access for all. By 1948 the National Health Service was active – health care had been democratised. More globally, nations strove to collectively maintain peace. The United Nations came into being in October 1945 and revealed that international cooperation could strive for higher ideals for humanity. The European Union and the International Monetary Fund were established. We have experienced peace in Europe for the past 75 years: a testament to cooperative efforts to forge a new political path.
On 8th May 2020 we should remember Ivy Benson in Berlin, a woman over 600 miles from her home town in Leeds; hitting those Benny Goodman notes on her saxophone to jubilant Allied soldiers, as well as hundreds of thousands of other contemporaries who celebrated the end of the war. For our generation the 75th anniversary should be a day of commemoration: a day of collective gratitude for the people who sacrificed their lives to preserve liberty and democracy and to overthrow Fascism. It’s also an opportunity for us, especially in the current climate, to value and embrace international cooperation and consider how humans can positively respond to the darkness that we experience.