This week it’s the 75th anniversary of the end of WW2 in Europe. In a normal country, this would be commemorated as the end of a terrible tragedy in which millions of people were murdered in death camps, countless others lost their lives in bombing raids, or because of war induced famine or disease. Yet others suffered injuries and wounds that lasted the rest of their lives. Millions more saw their lives and livelihoods, their culture and way of life, lost forever. Millions were forced to migrate and never saw their old homes again. The destruction and disruption was truly horrific. 75 years ago this week, Europe lay in ruins, exhausted, battered, bloody.
I do not wish to diminish in any way the sacrifices of those who fought and died, but those who died with a gun in their hand and wearing a uniform were but a tiny fraction of the total who lost their lives. The great majority of the casualties of modern warfare are civilians, who don’t get honoured with military parades, RAF fly-bys, 10 gun naval salutes. In WW2 they were the victims of Nazi and Stalinist persecution, they were children asphyxiated in cellars during bombing raids, they were people ripped from the streets of European towns and cities and forced to act as slave labour in Germany.
War is never a simple matter of good guys versus bad guys, not even when the enemy is as unquestionably evil as the Nazis. That’s because war forces all who it is visited upon to make moral compromises. This is not to attempt to draw a moral equivalence between the UK and the evils of the Nazi regime, but simply to point out that no one comes out of a war with their hands entirely clean. War is not, and should never be, something to be celebrated.
And that’s precisely what is so distasteful about the VE Day celebrations which are being planned across the UK this week. They are celebrations. On VE Day itself, there was a spontaneous celebration all across Europe as people expressed their relief and joy that the suffering was ending, that death would no longer rain from the sky, that the death camps were closed, that the Nazis who had persecuted so many were now to face justice. There was celebration as peace returned, a peace which has held for 75 years.
What the UK is celebrating is not 75 years of European peace. It is not solemnly commemorating the memories of the millions of Jews, the Poles, the Belorussians, the Romanis, the Czechs, and all the rest who were the victims of Nazi persecution. Far less is it commemorating the Chechens, the Ingush, the Kalmyk, the Crimean Tatars, the Estonians, Lithuanians, and Latvians who were the victims of Stalin’s deportations. It’s not remembering the children killed in bombing raids, children who died in blitzes on Germany as well as in London. It is definitely not remembering the hundreds of thousands of displaced people and slave labourers who were turned over by the Allies at the end of the war to Stalin’s secret police to disappear into the gulag.
And it is most certainly not remembering that the war was not won by Britain standing bravely alone, but by the collective efforts of Polish refugees, Free French, resistance fighters and partizans, by Russia, France, China, the USA, and all those other countries occupied or unoccupied who fought against the Nazi evil. It is not remembering that if the Second World War taught us anything, it taught us that European nations must co-operate and collaborate, must create common structures and institutions and build alliances.
No, this is a celebration of a British military victory, standing alone on the White Cliffs of Dover declaiming Churchillian speeches in defiance of a continent. The millions of dead are just so many voiceless ghosts at the pageant of Britain’s mythology of self-regard. It’s only British service people who are to be honoured, yet even their deaths are being used to feed the monster of British exceptionalism. This week is not to be a reminder that we are all human beings who suffer and die just the same irrespective of race, nationality, religion, or ethnicity. It’s being used to bolster the myth that the UK is special, that it is different, that the UK is above those lesser nations.
The memory of death and the remembrance of destruction has mutated into a cry to have tea and cake on the lawn. Let’s listen to Winston and remind ourselves that we’re British and we’re better and we stand alone. Let’s wave the flag and shout hurrah. Amidst the bunting and the flags we lose all sense and meaning. We forget that we are supposed to remember wars in order to reinforce the message that war is a great evil. We forget that war is always cruel, that it always involves compromised moral choices, that it always entails pain. We forget that it’s not glorious to die in a sodden ditch as your intestines spill into the mud. Instead what was supposed to be a reminder that we must never tread that path again has become a perverted tool to justify the rule of those who’d take us into another war if they thought it was politically advantageous. And then they’d celebrate our needless deaths with cake and tea on the lawn, bunting and flags.
VE Day is not an occasion for celebration. Its perversion by the British state into a glorification of Britishness tells us that British nationalism has a deep dark vacuity at its very soul. It tells us that the UK has strayed a long long way from the dreams of those who lost their lives all those years ago.
Right now thousands of people are dying from a cruel disease as they struggle for breath and their families look on helplessly via Skype. Those they leave behind are added to the ever growing ranks of the bereaved. Those of us who have been bereaved before know that anniversaries are not times for celebration. They are sometimes to be dreaded. Sometimes a time of quiet reflection on a love that’s lost. Sometimes an occasion for tears. What they never are are opportunities for survivors to tell ourselves how great and special we are. What they never are are times to be used to build up our own hollow semblance of self-worth on the backs of the dead. Yet that’s precisely what the so-called celebrations of VE Day are doing. And for those of us who have not swallowed the red white and blue pill, all it does is to reinforce our sense of disconnection from this British state that every single day that passes only proves it is unfit for purpose, lost in a reverie of bunting and exceptionalism while it ignores the ghosts at the cake stand.
And finally, because we could all do with some cheering up during these difficult times…
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