Fantastic news that the 75th anniversary of the end of hostilities in Europe will be a more sombre, sober affair this year due to our current mortal foe, coronavirus. Three days of celebrations had been planned, including processions, street parties and church services, almost all of which have had to be postponed. A good thing, too, according to the Guardian – because celebrating the end of war has become 'toxic' and 'divisive'. Whether seeing a bunch of old soldiers meeting up for what will probably be the last time is as toxic and divisive as world war two is, of course, open to question.
It’s mind-numbingly predictable to find such self-loathing in the Guardian, for whom anything which smacks of national pride is automatically condemned. For the ultra-woke, flying the national flag, cheering on the national team or taking pride in anything British – with the exception of the NHS – marks you down as a closet racist and probably a Brexiteer or, worse, a Tory. Isn’t it a bit embarrassing for our German friends to be reminded of a time when they were a bit, well, in the wrong?
Except that’s not how the Guardian sees it. In a startling comment last week, a journalist wrote: 'For too long we’ve been fed a simplistic view of the second world war as good v evil. This year we have a chance to rethink' According to this view – one increasingly common among the so-called left – in war, all sides do bad things, therefore notions like 'good' and 'evil' lose their meaning. How can a nation which decimated German cities claim the moral high ground?
My father recalls an argument he had with his own father – a lifelong socialist who during the war was a Spitfire mechanic – about Dresden. Dad – an angry young man and Trotskyite – considered Bomber Harris a war criminal and couldn’t understand why my grandad couldn’t bring himself to agree, even though he had no time for Harris and his ilk. My grandfather shook his head. 'It was total war, son. You don’t understand because you weren’t there.'
That, for me, is the key point about discussing world war two – if you weren’t there, you can’t possibly understand what it was like. By his own admission, grandad had a pretty 'good' war, mostly serving on East Anglian airbases; his wife, my nan, was probably more at risk living on the edge of London watching parachute bombs and dog fights in the sky. Granddad’s younger brother Vincent, serving in the Royal Army Service Corps, wasn’t so lucky: he was killed in Greece in 1941. We wouldn’t discover his name was on an Athens memorial until 50 years later.
My maternal grandfather Jack served in the Navy throughout the conflict and once dived into a burning sea to save comrades when the ship was torpedoed. His bravery was recognised, but even now at the age of 96 he can recite the names and hometowns of those with whom he served and who weren’t as lucky.
My family are far from exceptional: go into any family home and chances are there will be similar stories, many of them far more heroic, and photographs of relatives in military clothing looking stoically at the camera. In recent years, the contribution of Commonwealth and Russian troops to the war effort has been rightly recognised – my grandad reserved particular admiration for the Polish fighter pilots with whom he served – but let’s not forget that 450,000 Britons died in world war two among 50 to 60 million overall. One wonders what the reaction would be in India, Ireland or Jamaica if you told them it’s time we put the past behind us. Come to that, what would captain (sorry, colonel) Tom Moore think if we suggested it was time to let bygones be bygones?
Like, I suspect, most people across the world, I’m glad the Allied Forces destroyed the Nazi machine and like millions of others on 8 May I’ll give thanks to the millions – including members of my family – who laid down their lives to prevent Hitler’s demented dream becoming reality.
In a world which seems to be more complicated than ever, where notions of good and evil, right and wrong are increasingly blurred, it’s good to be reminded of what true evil really is – and be proud that so many people, from all around the world, fought so bravely to defeat it. This might be the last major anniversary of the war, but we should never forget the sacrifices that were made so that we can be free to do as we choose – even write for the Guardian.