“My dear friends, this is your hour. This is not victory of a party or of any class. It’s a victory of the great British nation as a whole.... Did anyone want to give in? Were we down-hearted?”
In a way that perhaps no-one else could, 75 years ago today from his office in 10 Downing Street, Winston Churchill delivered these words. After 2076 days of fighting, Churchill’s speech marked to the British public a final Victory in Europe after the loss of almost 450,000 military and civilian lives. The events of the war truly were an epoch shaping moment in our national history but also its consciousness. For those who lived through it, life would never truly be the same - the single defining event in their lives - and arguably, in the life of this country.
Normal life for many would not return overnight. The street parties that dominated the 8th May 1945 and lasted into following day were a brief respite. Rationing that had dominated the British public’s daily agenda itself did not end until 1954. National Service (formally established in 1948 but simply an extension of conscription in the war) continued until 1963, affecting the lives of thousands of young men. A spirit of sacrifice for ones country became part of societal fibres long after the war had finished. It was not questioned, but simply adhered to in the knowledge that it was doing a greater good. Yet the war also changed the Britain in which we lived. The British Empire, which at its height had commanded a quarter of the world’s population, began a gradual decline. Many questioned how we, as a country who had gone to war as the defenders of freedom. against those forcibly imposing tyranny on others, could then impose our will on others. It also started to change Britain’s relationship with the world. The UN was but one of a series of organisations established to foster greater co-operation and communication in a post-war world.
It seems that now these lessons of the war are as poignant as ever. Churchill’s speech is one that clearly resonates in the world and climate we find ourselves today. But for me, they present an opportunity for our children and us all to learn. Are we now not in a time where sacrifice for the greater good is something that we can all relate to and that we can positively embrace? Is it important to remember that VE Day did in itself not harbour an overnight return to normality, but there is comfort that normality (albeit different) did eventually happen? Will it soon be time for us all to reflect and embrace the changes we have made for the good over these last few weeks and give them some form of permanence? Similarly, what habits will we soon discover that have no relevance in our future routines?
L. P. Hartley once famously claimed that “the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there”. It may well be, perhaps on this occasion at least, we might find grounds to disagree.
Wishing you, your family, friends and neighbours a happy (if perhaps a little bit reflective) VE Day.
Head of History and Religious Studies