Today marks seventy-five years since VE day; the day which felt like the end of the Second World War for most people in Europe (though of course the war in Asia would continue for several months).
I’ve always struggled with days such as this, where remembrance drifts towards nostalgia and perhaps jingoism. Both my grandfathers fought in WWII, one in the Army, one in the Navy (where his actions earnt him a DSC), and I believe they were both decent men, yet I don’t believe I could do now as they did then. Perhaps I am wrong? Would I have been swept up by a sense of duty and patriotism?
Regardless for the first time in a while, I feel more than regret at an act of remembrance. Because VE day is about a collective overcoming of a deeply destructive, hateful ideology, and crucially, about what came afterwards. It represents a turning point.
After VE day, Europe began to rebuild, and it did so, in many ways, collectively.
The U.S. Marshall Plan funded the recovery of Europe. Resources from across the British Empire (itself rightly coming to an end), were crucial. It was a commitment to preventing further destruction which gave us the United Nations, the UN Declaration of Human Rights & the UN Genocide Convention. Europe began to reunite, through the efforts of organisations such as the Community of the Cross of Nails. Eventually, the seeds of the European Union were sown.
Of course, reconstruction is a process not an event. It took until 1991 for Europe to be truely reunited, and we see today just how far we have yet to go. I have little time for the current U.S. administration. The UK is still grappling with the nature of our relationship to the rest of Europe, all too often in alarmingly agressive language, which deliberatly evokes a mis-remembered history. And one need only look at the failure of both national and pan-national responses to COVID-19 to see how far we have yet to go.
But I despite all that I remain hopeful.
Last night, I spent the evening talking to some German friends, based in Berlin. In so many ways this would have been impossible 75 years ago. Despite our distance, and our failings, things could be so much worse. As Hans Rosling, the late Sweedish academic, points out in his book Factfulness, while many things remain bad, the world is getting better. It is so much easier to see, and to understand, someone else’s world now than it was 15 years ago, let alone 75.
VE day came at the end of a period of senseless hatred and destruction, but it was followed by a huge amount of progress so that, in many ways, the world in 1950 was better than the world in 1930.
Today, Coronavirus presents a challenge which is neither a severe, or as malicious as Fascism, but which still requires collective national and international efforts to overcome. And through it, we can glimpse how the world might be brighter. We can see a world where care workers are paid what they deserve, where homeless people are not left to sleep rough, where cycling is given priority over the car, and where our cities have clean air.
VE day is a turning point. I do believe we can build a better world around the corner. But we can’t do it alone.