75 Years Ago – Victory in Europe, May – August 1945: A Summer to Remember.

Above: The first contact between the British troops and the Soviet Red Army took place as Rokossovsky’s armed front entered Mecklenburg. The photograph, taken for The Daily Express on 28 April, shows a British lance corporal greeting a young Russian tankman. The Soviet armies had come a long way from the Volga, over the Dneiper, Vistula, Oder and Spree and the British who had been driven from the continent at Dunkirk, rejoiced in joining hands with their allies.

Death of the Dictator:

In his Journal of the War Years, published in 1948, Anthony Weymouth wrote this entry for Tuesday, 1st May:

Last night Hitler’s death was announced on the German wireless and, to everyone’s astonishment, his successor is to be Admiral Dönitz. On Saturday last Mussolini was executed by Italian patriots. On Sunday Munich fell to the Americans, and today we hear that the man more responsible than any other single individual for the war has died. Whether he died by his own hand or from cerebral haemorrhage, from which Himmler said he was suffering, or whether he was murdered, nobody outside Germany can say.

On 4 May, the German army in the west surrendered to General Montgomery at Lüneburg Heath. Three days later, early in the morning of Monday 7th May, General Alfred Jodl, Chief of Staff of the German High Command, signed a document of unconditional surrender. Later the same day, Weymouth wrote:

… Now we really are on tenterhooks. The three o’clock news contained the statement that Dönitz had ordered German armed forces to cease fire. Still no official communication from the British Government. It wasn’t until the nine o’ clock news that we were told that tomorrow will be V-E Day, and that the Prime Minister will speak at three o’clock and the King at 9 p.m.

So this really is the end! – the end of a frightful nightmare.

Victory in Europe Day, 8 May:

On the same day, the news of Germany’s unconditional surrender began to trickle through, together with the news that the following day was to be a public holiday and officially celebrated as VE Day (‘Victory in Europe’ Day). When the announcement was made, there was an immediate, jubilant outburst of public celebration, official and unofficial. Boats along the Thames honked their horns and people went onto the streets to celebrate. In the working-class districts of the bomb-damaged cities bonfires were simply built in the middle of roads. At midnight there was a thunderstorm but although everyone got drenched, they kept the fires burning throughout the night and for much of the next day. There was no shortage of fuel for the timber from bombed houses was never far from the joyous crowds that danced, cried, sang and rejoiced at their deliverance from war and fascism. In West Ham, the worst bombed borough in London, more than eight thousand pounds worth of damage was caused to roads by victory fires and the enthusiasm of the people was not restricted to burning bomb-damaged timber. In one street, a chimney-sweep’s barrow standing outside his house was shamelessly wheeled onto the fire and youths had to be restrained from lifting the gates to the churchyard from their hinges to add to the conflagration.

The streets were festooned with the flags of the allies, bunting and painted ‘V’ signs, that were then left to welcome home husbands, fathers, sons and daughters from the armed services. In one street in Stratford, East London, bricklayers repairing the bomb-damaged wall of a house, built into the wall two brick ‘V’ signs to remain as a memorial to the momentous victory and the uninhibited celebrations that followed. The photograph shown above was taken at Havering Street in Stepney, East London. For the Labour movement the war strengthened the commitment of ‘no return to the thirties’. After the experience of fighting from Dunkirk to Berlin, and in deserts and jungles, there was no appetite to return to a Britain of class privilege, private wealth and public squalor.

Above: Churchill is cheered by the crowds in Whitehall on his way to the House of Commons on VE Day, 8 May 1945

Less than a year before, Churchill’s oratory in the House of Commons had seemed in danger of degenerating into mere windy bombast. The coalition was already beginning to fray, with differences between Labour and Conservative ministers becoming more substantive. That it didn’t fall apart altogether was probably due to the fact that Ernest Bevin and Herbert Morrison hated each other more heartily than either of them disliked Churchill. But strikes broke out once again in the old heartlands of industrial grief in south Wales and Yorkshire.

Pride in D-Day, when it finally came on 6 June 1944, and the heroic Normandy campaigns that followed, along with the sudden return of terror as unmanned V1 flying bombs, then V2 rockets hit the southeast from the summer of 1944 until March 1945 (killing nearly nine thousand people and injuring many more) closed the rifts for a while and made Churchill’s standing as a war leader suddenly important again. When on 8 May, VE Day, he stood on the balcony of the Ministry of Health, he could take satisfaction in the realisation that he had indeed accomplished a task given to very few. He had saved not only his own country, but also, as Simon Schama has argued, the existence of European democracy, which had it not been for British resistance in 1940 would indeed have been overwhelmed by tyranny. Similarly, Andrew Roberts has argued that a defeat for the Allies in the west, which could have happened on 6 June 1944, with prompter Panzer action by a unified German command, might have set back the liberation of Europe, at least from the west, by years. More than that, had the Allies not liberated western Europe in the mid-1940s, Roberts has written, the same form of Soviet totalitarian tyranny would have been installed there as oppressed the people of eastern Europe until 1989.

Above: Crowds gather outside the Ministry of Health in Whitehall to see Churchill and his War Cabinet ministers on the morning of VE Day.

On 7th May, it was announced on the BBC that the following day, Tuesday 8th, would be declared a public holiday, ‘Victory in Europe Day’ and that there would be a speech by the Prime Minister at 3 o’clock. Later, the Board of Trade announced that people were also allowed to buy cotton bunting without using their rationing coupons, but only as long a sit was red, white or blue and did not cost more than one and three a square yard. Away from the capital, in Sissinghurst in Kent, Vita Sackville-West, Harold Nicolson and their son Ben climbed the turret stairs of their ancient home and hoisted the flag to its rightful place above the tower after five years of ‘confinement’. Returning to London, Harold found Trafalgar Square packed with cheering crowds. Along Whitehall, loudspeakers had been affixed to to all government buildings. Harold was escorted into Palace Yard where, as Big Ben struck three, ‘an extraordinary hush’ came over the assembled multitude, waiting to hear Churchill’s victory speech.

Winston Churchill appearing with Ernest Bevin on the balcony of the Ministry of Health in Whitehall on VE Day.

“The evil-doers,” Churchill announced, “now lie prostrate before us.” The crowd gasped at this phrase, and he concluded with “The German war is therefore at an end. Advance Britannia! Long live the cause of freedom! God save the King!” There was ‘a mighty roar’ and after listening to ‘The Last Post’ and singing, in a very loud voice ‘God Save the King’, Harold made his way to the Chamber of the House of Commons to await Churchill. He came in, ‘looking coy and cheerful’, responding to the cheers, ‘not with a bow exactly, but with an odd jerk of the head with a wide grin’. The House then retired to St Margaret’s Church ‘to give humble and reverend thanks to Almighty God for our deliverance from German domination’. The Speaker read out the names of Members who had laid down their lives, among them Robert Bernays, Harold’s closest parliamentary colleague. Meanwhile, large crowds had gathered around Buckingham Palace and shouted, “We want the king!” In the late afternoon,the royal family came out onto the balcony. George VI wore his Royal Navy uniform and Princess Elizabeth wore her ATS (Auxilliary Territorial Service) uniform. They were joined by Winston Churchill. A WVS member described the scenes later that night following the King’s broadcast:

We all walked to Buckingham Palace. As we got in front of it the floodlighting flicked on. It was wonderful, magnificent and inspiring and it seemed we had never seen. I was never so proud of England and our people. We then walked to Parliament Square and turned to face Big Ben. It was a few minutes to midnight. At one minute past, all fighting was to cease. Just before the last stroke it had reached one minute past. A great cry went up and people clapped their hands. Something went off with a bang. The tugs in the river gave the ‘V’ sign. It was unforgettable.

Norman Longmate, How We Lived Then.

To celebrate the end of the black-out, the government said that bonfires could be lit as long as nothing was burned that could be used again. Some fires got out of hand, so that the fire brigades were kept very busy.

That evening Harold Nicolson went to a party at Chips’ Channon’s. He loathed it, feeling isolated among those who had supported the policy of appeasement just five years earlier, and left hurriedly. Making his way back to the Inner Temple along Fleet Street he saw the intersecting beams making the ‘V’ shape above St. Paul’s Cathedral:

the best sight of all – the dome of St Paul’s rather dim-lit, and then above it a concentration of searchlights upon the huge golden cross. So I went to bed. That was my victory day.

There were street parties throughout the country. A Cardiff housewife, quoted by Norman Longmate, described the day in her village:

What a day! We gathered together on our bombed site and planned the finest party the children ever remembered. Neighbours pooled their sweet rations, and collected money, a few shillings from each family … and our grocer gave his entire stock of sweets, fruit, jellies, and so on. All the men in the neighbourhood spent the day clearing the site. The Church lent the tables, the milkman lent a cart for a platform, and we lent our radiogram and records for the music. We all took our garden chairs for the elderly to sit on. Someone collected all our spare jam jars. Black-out curtains came down to make fancy dresses for the children.

In the Warwickshire village of Walsgrave-on-Sowe, just outside Coventry, the children of the local Church of England Primary School were given two days holiday for VE Day. Even then, they needed further time to recover from the festivities! The School Log Book entry for 10th May records:

Attendance 125; a.m., 149; p.m. Children had overslept or been sick after late nights of victory celebrations.

Interviewed for an oral history project in 1987, one of the villagers, Charlie Parker, recalled the celebrations:

... Had a street party. Aye they celebrated! Somebody said they rang the Walsgrave bells on VE Day. Perhaps they did … but they only rang four of them, they didn’t ring five, because I broke the wheel on one in 1936 or ’37, and when we went up there a couple of years ago, it still lay there, the same as I’d done it that day.

In Cardiff, the children were also out until late at night, parading around the streets in fancy dress:

Everyone rummaged in ragbags and offered bits to anyone who wanted them. That evening, ninety-four children paraded around the streets, carrying lighted candles in jam jars, wearing all manner of weird and fancy dress, singing lustily, “We’ll be coming round the mountains when we come”, and led by my small son wearing white cricket flannels, a scarlet cummerband and a Scout’s hat, beating a drum. In the dusk it was a brave sight never to be forgotten.

Cardiff housewife, quoted in N. Longmate, op.cit.

The Immediate Aftermath of the War:

As the summer went on, there were many happy re-unions as the servicemen and women returned home. A week after VE Day, Ernest Bevin, Minister of Labour in the wartime coalition government, announced that demobilisation of the armed forces would begin on 18 June, priority being given to building workers and those who could be engaged on reconstruction. Threequarters of a million were to be home by the end of the year and the rest would follow in orderly fashion until over four million had returned to civilian life. Just where some of them were to return to was another matter. By the end of the war Britain had a housing shortage and millions of slum homes before the war began. Six years of neglect and enemy bombardment combined with a world shortage of building materials to create the worst housing crisis in British history. For the even less fortune, there was no family to return to all and homecoming meant the rest centre or crowded and embarrassing shared occupancy with relatives or friends.

‘Welcome hame lads’ was scrawled on the walls of Glasgow tenements (pictured above) and though the greeting from loved ones was undoubtedly warm, the prospect was surely bleak. To aggravate the situation and add to the sense of frustration felt by the homeless and inadequately housed, large numbers of government requisitioned buildings stood empty. Meanwhile, in the rich suburbs of the cities there was no shortage of houses for those with three or four thousand pounds to spend, though the gratuity for a time-served ex-servicemen was likely to be nearer fifty pounds. This housing issue was to come to its head in the following year, but it was already clearly visible on the horizon as the millions of rank-and-file ‘tommies’ and ‘jacks’ returned towards the end of 1945.

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Even when servicemen had homes to which to return, not every homecoming was an easy or a happy one. One woman, quoted by Longmate, was woken up by her husband arriving home at 11.30 one night, so that she had to get out of bed to let him in, “trying desperately to get the curlers out of my hair.” The older children did not wake up, but she could never forget the look on her husband’s face as he stood looking down at his smallest, a daughter, whom he was seeing for the first time, and later at his son “who had grown quite different from the baby he had left behind.” Another wife, as yet childless in 1945, recalled the awkwardness which persisted for some time after her husband’s return:

When my husband finally came home we discovered we were (both) two different people, so much had happened in those years apart. My husband, older than myself, came back with the attitude of a sergeant-major; it was as if he expected me to jump up and salute when he entered a room.

We had to take it that the men were faithful while away, but my in-laws were very quick to tell tales of my friendships with the opposite sex. My husband later threw this at me when I complained of the years I had spent alone. I realised that settling down was going to be hard, but by this time I had had two babies, quickly.

After a while we settled to some sort of married life. I did not want a divorce; I could never have left the children.

From Stranger in the House (Pocket Books: 2008).

For the children who remembered the years before the war, the gradual climb back to prosperity was a long, dispiriting haul, echoing with the pre-war memories of better days. For those born since 1940, it was very different. The return to peace-time were more of a revelation, full of surprises, a ‘brave new world’, whereas for their elder brothers and sisters it was simply a ‘dreary mess’. Perhaps with a sense of these changing familial and social attitudes, only days after VE Day Attlee and Labour decided against renewing the Coalition. So, on 23 May Winston Churchill reluctantly tendered his resignation to the King, reconciling himself to the prospect of a general election. Polling day was set for 5 July, but the final result would be delayed while the votes came in from overseas. As a working ‘National Labour’ MP, elected in 1935, Harold Nicolson realised that he had little chance of success in his West Leicester constituency. He summed up his constituents’ mood:

People feel, in a vague and muddled way, that all the sacrifices to which they have been exposed … are all the fault of ‘them’ – namely the ‘authority’ or ‘the Government’. By a totally illogical process of reasoning, they believe that ‘they’ mean the upper classes, or the Conservatives, and that in some manner all that went well during these years was due to Bevin and Morrison, and all that went ill was due to Churchill. Class feeling and class resentment are very strong. I should be surprised, therefore, if there were not a marked swing to the left. I am not sure … this would be a bad thing … In any case, even a slight swing to the left would sweep away my 87 majority.

Although many ‘ordinary’ people, natural Labour supporters, like my Walsgrave grandmother, supported Churchill because of his war leadership, they also had a well-embedded ‘class resentment’ looking back to the inter-war period of high unemployment, hunger marches and ‘depressed areas’, all of which had been presided over by Conservative-dominated administrations. These were topics that Nicolson himself largely ignored in his diaries and letters, but with which he was more closely associated than Churchill, who was on the record as having opposed many of the economic policies of the 1936 National Government, as well as its appeasement policy. Nicolson had only ever spoken in the House on foreign policy in the years before the oubreak of war. Nevertheless, his overall analysis was correct, and when his campaign opened up on 18 June, it went as badly as he had expected.

The other global events of these months between VE Day and Attlee’s appointment as Prime Minister on 26 July, following the Labour ‘landslide’ victory in the General Election were as follows:

23 May: Admiral Dönitz and othe German war leaders were arrested. SS chief Heinrich Himmler committed suicide in British custody.

28 May: William Joyce, the notorious “Lord Haw-Haw” who broadcast to Britain from Berlin was arrested in Hamburg and charged with treason.

26 June: The United Nations charter was signed in San Francisco.

23 July: Marshal Pétain, 89, went on trial for treason in Paris.

Few politicians, with the possible exception of Harold Nicolson, or people (in general) had suspected, let alone forecast, the results of the General Election, delayed as they were by the voting of those still on active service overseas. No-one really expected the return of a Labour government, and especially one with a ‘landslide’ majority. Britain, claimed the Manchester Guardian on 27 July, had undergone a silent revolution. Throughout both the towns and the countryside, the voters swung to the left, as Nicolson had (apparently) predicted and They knew what they were voting for. It was the kind of progressive opportunity that comes only once in every few generations. It was not just a British revolution, but also part of a European one, with the British vote paralleling the revulsion of feeling that has occurred throughout Europe against old régimes and old habits of thought. There was encouragement in this, the editor went on, as it gave Britain a chance of exerting its leadership in a ‘desperately troubled world’. Whilst he recognised that many readers would be apprehensive at the thought of a Labour victory at a time of economic upheaval and demobilisation, and no government had ever had a greater challenge, none had ever had a greater opportunity.

On 2 August, the Potsdam conference of the “big three”, including President Truman and Clement Attlee, alongside Stalin, formalised the post-war division of Germany and Berlin into US, British, Soviet and French sectors. On 21 August, Truman cancelled the “lend-lease” agreement that had kept Britain going during the war, leaving the British people to face prolonged ‘austerity’. By the time of the first anniversary of VE Day, marked by a parade along Whitehall, the Daily Mirror editorial for 4 June commented optimistically:

The process of turning over from war to peace is proceeding smoothly and quickly. It will mean a certain slackening of austerity at home but for the present it would be unwise to expect a large flow of goods for individual consumption in this country.

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Throughout the last year of the war, German secret police reports began to reveal sharply declining enthusiasm for the war. The régime’s response was to turn the screw of repression tighter still. In the last stages of the war many more native Germans, including distinguished members of the professional classes, bankers and civil servants, were encarcerated. The concentration camp system had had approximately twenty-five thousand prisoners in 1939, but by 1945 the number had swelled to more than seven hundred thousand, including workers sent to ‘education’ centres for alleged saboteurs and slackers. As the ring tightened around Germany, so the SS closed down the outlying camps and drove their internees on long ‘death marches’ to the interior.

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After both Hungary and Italy were occupied, hundreds of thousands of Jews were slaughtered in 1944 and 1945 in an effort to complete what Hitler saw as his chief legacy for Europe, a Judenfrei continent. Records remain inadequate, but most recent estimates vary between 5.3 and 5.7 million Jews were killed together with at least another quarter of a million Sinti and Roma. I have documented the Holocaust in Hungary on my previous web-site (www.chandlerozconsultants.com). It is also difficult to estimate how many ‘political prisoners’ were killed in the concentration camps, or died on the ‘death marches’. Hitler’s anti-Semitism, culminating in the Holocaust, was central to Nazism but it did nothing to aid Germany’s chances of winning the war, but rather did a great deal to retard them. Quite apart from the sheer moral question involved, Hitler’s genocide was self-evidently self-defeating.

Above: Three Jewish emigrants leave Buchenwald on a train bound for Palestine, June 1945.

For all the military defeats on the European Continent both in the east and the west by the Spring of 1945, there was one thing that could still have won Hitler the war, or at least resulted in a stalemate: uranium. In June 1942, the German physicist Werner Heisenberg reported to Hitler that the country could easily mine enough of this to destroy a city. Yet by then, his fellow physicists, many of them Jewish, possessing the knowledge to split the atom, were already in exile and working in New Mexico. Hitler’s fanatical Nazism had also lost him that last, slim chance of victory. Roberts concludes that it was this fanaticism which ultimately lost Germany the Second World War. It was the ‘inhuman’ results of this which ‘coloured’ the attitudes of George MacDonald Fraser on the morality of what had happened at Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. His views, recorded in his autobiographical Quartered Safe Out Here (1992), probably reflected those of the vast majority of Allied troops at the time when he pointed out that:

We were of a generation to whom Coventry and the London Blitz and Clydebank and Liverpool and Plymouth were more than just names; our country had been hammered mercilessly from the sky, and so had Germany; we had seen the pictures of Belsen and of the frozen horror of the Russian front; part of our higher education had been dedicated to techniques of killing and destruction; we were not going to lose sleep because the Japanese homeland had taken its turn.But it was of small importance when weighed against the glorious fact that the war was over at last.

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Of course, the long-term outcome of the war in Europe was that Germany was partitioned following the Potsdam Conference held later in the summer of 1945 (see my previous article on this and the map below) and was not finally reunited until the end of the Cold War in 1990, the thirtieth anniversary of which, appropriately, falls later this year. In addition, the frontiers of Poland were moved westwards to the Oder River, absorbing half of East Prussia and Silesia. The other half of East Prussia was ceded to the Soviet Union. The union of Austria and Germany had already been abrogated by a Soviet-backed government in Vienna on 29 April. In May 1945, the complete defeat of Hitler’s Reich left not only both his native and adopted countries torn apart, but also nearly all of Europe quite literally in ruins. In the Soviet Union, seventy thousand villages and seventeen hundred cities were destroyed. France lost an estimated forty per cent of her national wealth, Italy one-third. In Germany, the combination of bomb damage and the Allies’ artillery turned much of Germany’s urban area into a bleak landscape of craters and fractured buildings. In the Reich’s major cities an average of between fifty-five and sixty per cent of all dwellings were destroyed.For years afterwards Germans lived in cellars and surviving shelters in the ruined streets, prey to high levels of disease and crime.

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Travelling around the Rhineland that summer, the poet Stephen Spender wrote of the beer gardens, hotels and great houses were all smashed to pieces. In Cologne, …

the great bridge was down, collapsed into the river. Bonn stank as much as Cologne or as the towns of the Ruhr. In addition to the persistent smell that never left one alone, the town was afflicted by a plague of small green midges that bred I suppose in all the rubbish and also in rubbish heaps, for no rubbish had been collected for several months and in many streets there were great heaps of waste … The shops in Bonn sold practically nothing except bread. In many shops one saw various powders, which were supposed, according to their labels, to impart a pleasant ‘ersatz’ flavour to food … Yet certain improvements took place in conditions during the few weeks in which I was there. For example, the trams started running. The postmen started delivering postcards (letters were as yet not allowed).

Germans often grumbled about the occupation, but they did not complain so much of material conditions as of mental ones. Middle-class people made incredible journeys, in crowded goods trucks, sitting on heaps of coal for days and nights, and at the end of the journey they said nothing of it. Some of the more distinguished Germans refused to take part in the German civil administration because they said that those who took part were benefiting from the occupation and living better than other Germans. I have even heard of secretaries of officers refusing gifts of food because they wished to show that Germans can “take it”.

One ‘saving grace’ was that the Allies did not behave as they had done in 1918, and there could be no doubt as to who the victors and the defeated were. This time the whole German and Austrian area was occupied by Allied military and civilian personnel who took initial control of all areas of German life. Many Germans had been subjected in the later stages of the war to propaganda that told them to expect the very worst from the occupying powers. The experience of Red Army revenge in the east suffered by the civilian population lent weight to this fear, and the western Allies were once again divided over how severely to treat Germany. Henry Morgenthau, Roosevelt’s Secretary of State, favoured a policy of de-industrialisation, permanently removing the country’s industrial base which had allowed her to wage war twice in one generation. At first, both Roosevelt and Churchill were willing to endorse these harsh conditions, but were then persuaded that a weak, economically backward Germany would not be in the long-term interests of either of its two parts, or of the other European states.

Sir Arthur Salter MP, writing in The Observer on 26 August, referred to world shortages of coal, fats and sugar. These shortages and their effects were exacerbated by the fact that Europe was tired, torn by dissension, disorganised and a large proportion of those who would have been best qualified to organise recovery have been killed. In some countries the public had lost the habit of thinking in terms of self-government or free organisation and become accustomed to rely on authoritarian rule. In addition, the the basis of ‘honest democracy’ had been undermined by what, under occupation, was patriotic sabotage and black marketeering. Salter wrote that …

Fatigue and embitterment are widespread, revolution often threatenedAnd it is not in liberated Europe alone that we find adverse factors. All the belligerant people are both tired and impatient of war restrictions. The end of hostilities is likely to be marked by strikes, some slackening of work, a strong demand for relaxation of food rationing. The complex war mechanism is not easily adaptable to peace needs. We cannot be sure that it will ensure the priority that civilian necessity now merits over military demands and resources. There is no allied council to co-ordinate the assistance given to Europe in its task of reconstruction. There is a danger that the continent will fall apart into two spheres: eastern and western. The future of Germany and its place in the new economy in Europe remain an enigma.

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The Allies instituted an ambitious programme of de-Nazification in Germany, later quietly abandoned as it became clear that German society would be unworkable if all former Nazis were forbidden to work. The victors also set up a special tribunal at Nuremberg to try those responsible for war crimes and “crimes against humanity”. On 20 November, twenty top Nazis were arraigned before the international four-power tribunal. Those who had not committed suicide or escaped stood in the dock before Allied judges. Not a few people both then and since have wondered if the trials were merely ‘victor’s justice’, their moral authority compromised by the appearance of judges and prosecutors from Stalin’s murderous régime. The trials, inconclusive though they were, formed part of a part of a larger attempt to root out the militaristic and chauvinistic attitudes that had helped to produced the war, and to build a new world order that would prevent such a catastrophe from happening again. Ten of the Nazi leaders were sentenced to death together with Hermann Göring, who cheated the hangman on the night before the executions in October 1946 by taking a phial of cyanide.

Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan has contrasted the situation at the end of the first world war with that which existed in 1945. It was so different that in Germany it was called Year Zero. The capacity for destruction had been so much greater than in the earlier war, and civilians had been the target as much as the military. The figures are hard to grasp: as many as sixty million dead, twenty-five million of them Soviet. But the ongoing suffering and hardship was all too evident: great cities reduced to rubble, families torn apart, refugees on the roads everywhere.

During the war, millions more had fled their homes or been forcibly moved to work in Germany and, in the case of the Soviet Union, because Stalin feared that they might be ‘traitors’. They became known as “DPs” (“displaced persons”), but whereas some were ‘voluntary’ refugees moving westwards in the face of the advancing Red Army, others were deported as ‘undesirable’ minorities. The newly independent Czech state expelled nearly three million ethnic Germans after the end of the war, and Poland, under Soviet ‘influence’, a further 1.3 million. Everywhere there were lost or orphaned children in hundreds of thousands in some countries, including thousands of unwanted babies. As detailed in previous articles, it is impossible to know how many women in Europe were raped by the Red Army soldiers, who saw them as part of the spoils of war, but in Germany alone some two million women had abortions every year between 1945 and 1948.

Children playing in Berlin, 1946.
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The Allies did what they could to feed and house the refugees and to reunite families forcibly torn apart, but the scale of the task and the obstacles were enormous. The majority of ports across Europe had been destroyed or badly damaged; bridges had been blown up; railway locomotives and rolling stock had vanished. Factories and workshops were also in ruins, and fields, forests and vineyards had been ripped to pieces. Many Europeans were surviving on less than a thousand calories per day, in the Netherlands they were eating tulip bulbs. Britain had largely bankrupted itself fighting the war and France had been stripped bare by the Germans. They were struggling to look after their own peoples and to deal with reincorporating their military into civilian society.

As Margaret MacMillan puts it, …

The four horsemen of the apocalypse of the apocalypse – pestilence, war, famine and death – so familiar during the middle ages, appeared again in the modern world.

The Legacy of the War:

In political terms, the impact of the war was also great. Germany looked as though it would never rise again. In retrospect, it is easy to see that the German people, highly educated and skilled, possessed the capacity to rebuild their shattered communities. Also with the benefit of hindsight, it may have been easier to build a strong economy from scratch than to repair the damaged ones of Britain, France and certainly that of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, the USSR not only possessed the brute force and the abstract attraction of such Marxist-Leninist ideological constructs as a ‘command economy’ to keep its own people in order, but was also able to develop its own newly acquired empire in central-eastern Europe. The United States and the old imperial allies of Canada and Australia were largely unscathed by the war’s destruction, and the USA rapidly established itself as a great military and economic power, so that the new term, “superpower” was soon coined to describe the two dominant players in an increasingly bi-polar world.

The great European empires, which had controlled so much of the world from Africa to Asia, were now on their last legs and soon to disappear in the face of their own weakness and the upward pressure of rising nationalist movements. In this, the war acted as an accelerator to the sea change which had been taking place long before 1939. It also acted as a catalyst in science and technology in the form of atomic weapons and power, new medicines, radar and computer technologies. In many countries, the war speeded up the processes of social change which had become endemic in the 1930s. The British historian Henry Pelling emphasised how …

Undoubtedly the war brought into existence for a time a stronger sense of community throughout the country. … Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and the Blitz produced a ‘backs-to-the-wall’ solidarity that transcended class barriers and brought together all sorts of people in the Home Guard, Civil Defence, the air raid shelters and … to some extent the factories … The increased mobility of the population … tended to break down parochialism.

The shared suffering and sacrifice of the war years strengthened the belief in most democracies that governments had an obligation to provide basic care for all citizens. When it was elected later in the summer of 1945, for example, the Labour government in Britain moved rapidly to establish the essentially Liberal idea of the welfare state. In other western European countries too, voters turned to social democratic parties. In the east, the new communist parties and their Soviet-style régimes, with the possible exception of Poland, were at first welcomed by many of the agents of change. The end of the war also enabled old scores to be settled by people taking measures into their own hands. Collaborators were beaten, lynched or shot. Women who had fraternised with German soldiers had their heads shaved or worse.

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A Homeless German woman stops for a cigarette in Cologne.

The ‘grand alliance’ held together uneasily for the first months of the peace, but the strains were evident in their shared occupation of Germany, where increasingly the Soviet zone of occupation was moving in a communist directection and the western zones, under Britain, France and the United States, in a more capitalist and democratic one. The former imperial powers no longer had the financial and military capacity to hang onto their vast territotries. Nor did their peoples want to pay the price of empire, whether in money or blood. Where the empires had once dealt with divided or acquiescent peoples, they now increasingly faced assertive and, in some cases, well-armed nationalist movements. The defeat of European forces all over Asia had also contributed to the busting the myth of European hegemony.

Remembering the war:

We have long since absorbed and dealt with the physical consequences of the second world war, but it still remains a very powerful set of memories, even for those who have no personal, first-hand recollection of it. Margaret MacMillan has expressed the importance of collective (and selective) memory as follows:

How societies remember and commemorate the past often says something about how they see themselves – and can be highly contentious. Particularly in divided societies, it is tempting to cling to comforting myths to help bring unity and to paper over deep and painful divisions. In the years immediately after 1945, many societies chose to forget the war or remember it only in certain ways.Today, particularly in the countries that were on the winning side, there is a reluctance to disturb our generally positive memories of the war … The second world war, especially in the light of what came after, seems to be the last morally unambiguous war. The Nazis and their allies werebad and they did evil things. The allies were good and right to fight them.

That is true, but the picture is not quite as black and white as we might like to think. After all, one ally was the Soviet Union, in its own way as guilty of crimes against humanity as Nazi Germany, fascist Italy or Japan. Britain and France may have been fighting for liberty, but they were not prepared to extend it to their empires. And Dresden, the firebombing of Hamburg, Tokyo and Berlin, the forcible repatriation of Soviet prisoners of war, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, should remind us that bad things can be done in the name of good causes. Let us remember the war, but let us not remember it simplistically but in all its complexity.

Keith Douglas’ north-African campaign poems take a seemingly insouciant attitude, but, according to the former poet-laureate Andrew Motion (writing in 2003), they leave us in no doubt about war’s misery and waste, in addition to its complexity, as in the following poem witten by him in 1941:

Being killed at the beginning of the last eleven months of the war, on D-Day in Normandy, Douglas did not see VE Day, but his poem has much to say about commemoration. The author Primo Levi has also, more recently, reminded us of the importance of inter-generational acts of remembrance. The experiences of Holocaust survivors like him are ‘extraneous’ to what he calls ‘the new western generation’. For those who, like me, grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, these events were connected with our parents and grandparents: they were spoken about in the family, memories of them still preserved in the freshness of witnessed events. For those born in the 1980s and 1990s, they are distant, blurred, historical. These young people are besieged by today’s problems, whether those created by climate change, globalisation or pandemics. The world’s congiguration has profoundly changed, and is being changed again in dramatic ways we cannot yet see in full. Europe is no longer the centre of the planet, and for ‘Globule’ Britain it seems far less important than it was seventy-five years ago, or even forty-five years ago. Perhaps it will become more important again in this ‘second’ post-war generation.

The colonial empires yielded to the pressures of the people of Africa and Asia, thirsting for independence, and were dissolved without tragedies and struggles between the new nations, at least until the 1980s. Post-war Germany, split in two for an indefinite has become a ‘respectable’ leader of the European nations and seems to hold the destiny of the EU institutions in its hands. The bi-polar ‘Cold War’, born of the unresolved conflicts of the second world war has come to an end, however inconclusively in certain respects, Just as in the 1980s, in Levi’s terms, a ‘sceptical’ yet hopeful generation stands at the threshold of adulthood, or at least ‘maturity’, …

bereft not of ideals but of certainties, indeed distrustful of the grand revealed truth: disposed instead to accept the small truths, changeable from month to month on the convulsed wave of cultural fashions, whether guided or wild.


Theo Barker (ed.), (1978), The Long March of Everyman, 1750-1960. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Philip Oltermann (ed.), (2009), The Second World War, Day seven: Aftermath. London: ‘The Guardian/ Observer’ (guardian.co.uk).

Andrew Roberts (2010), The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War. London: Penguin Books.

John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem: A photographic remembrance of British working class life. London: Scorpion Publications.

Richard Overy (1996), The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Third Reich. London: Penguin Books.

Simon Schama (2002), A History of Britain: The Fate of Empire, 1776-2000. London: BBC Books.

Norman Rose (2006), Harold Nicolson. London: Pimlico.

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