Seventy-five years ago, the receipt of the German Instrument of Surrender was met by a spontaneous outpouring of joy across the UK. Millions spilled into the streets of London, drinking pubs dry and dancing in the fountains of Trafalgar Square.
Elsewhere street parties and bonfires marked the end of war in Europe, the end of the Blitz and the blackout, and the defeat of the Nazi regime.
Yet the joy of victory was neither uncomplicated nor absolute.
For one, Britain remained at war in the Far East. The conflict with Japan would continue for another four months, still claiming British lives and resources. Winston Churchill’s victory broadcast on the afternoon of VE Day cautioned the British people to enjoy only “a brief period of rejoicing”.
Beyond that, the achievement of victory did not eradicate the effects of war. Britain had lost nearly one per cent of its population in the conflict, including over sixty thousand civilians. Most of the victory parties in the country would have been tinged by the sadness of loss, on a scale almost unimaginable to us.
The nation’s cities lay smashed by bombs – some parts of London would not be rebuilt for decades; some buildings still bear the scars today. The British economy was in tatters, exhausted by the war effort and dependent on American largesse to recover. Rationing would tighten and remain in place for another nine years. The years immediately after the war would become synonymous with austerity.
The country would have to cope with its retreat from being a first-tier world power. The next decades of British history would be marked by the loss of empire and the economic and political clout that came with it. Britainwould be humiliated in Suez and would shame itself with repressive treatment of colonial independence movements.
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Across the channel, the promise of a free and peaceful Europe would not be delivered. Already, half of the continent lay under the control of the Red Army. These nations would not taste freedom for another fifty years, instead exchanging Nazi control for Soviet domination.
The cooperation of the Allied Powers would turn to suspicion and acrimony, divided by the Iron Curtain. In Western Europe, fascists would remain in control of Spain and Portugal for another generation, whilst occupied nations had to reckon with the legacy of capitulation and collaboration.
In the spring of 1945, the exposure of the worst horrors of the Nazi regime would haunt Europe. It is debatable when the Allies knew what, but as advancing armies uncovered the death camps, the truth was inescapable. The crematoria, the gas chambers, and the emaciated survivors told a story of the utmost in human cruelty. It was something that even the staunchest opponents of Nazism had to come to terms with, an exposition of where hate can lead, of how low a civilised, modern society can fall.
After the struggle against the Nazis, the Allies struggled to stop their like ever emerging again. The Nuremberg Trials sought justice for the crimes of the regime, while the Allies assembled global institutions like the UN to protect peace. Such hopes proved optimistic. Though not on the same scale, Europe would see war and genocide again before the twentieth century had ended.
VE Day is not the story of ultimate triumph, ultimate peace, or ultimate prosperity. Yet those revellers in May 1945 knew that adversity could be overcome. That struggle could produce some victory, even if it were not everlasting or absolute.
The children at those street parties would likely never again fear the wail of air raid sirens. Unlike their fathers and their grandfathers, they would never be conscripted to fight a World War. Most would grow up in a world of greater wealth, security and opportunity than any previous generation had known.
The application of ingenuity, skill and sacrifice had averted the catastrophe of a Nazi-controlled Europe. The same values – the same determination – would yield economic, technological and diplomatic victories in the decades that followed.
The world which emerged from the Second World War was not a perfect one, but it was a worthwhile result. The joy of VE Day was not blind to the threats that still lay ahead but buoyed by the results that could come to facing up to adversity.
Three quarters of a century later, the War is now slipping from living memory. This is the last major anniversary which will be marked with combatants still living.
As that legacy moves on, it is worth remembering the importance of a triumph even when it is hard-won and imperfect.