VE Day/Europe Day

EMiS commemorates the 75th anniversary of VE Day when the abomination of war and Nazism in Europe was defeated. We reaffirm our commitment to working for peace, sustainability and equality for all peoples and for our future in the European Union – our continent’s great success story (from our Facebook page).

 This weekend we commemorate two truly historic events: On Friday the 75th anniversary of VE Day marking the liberation of Europe from fascism and war and on Saturday Europe Day, celebrating the foundation of a united Europe that would make another war among our nations unthinkable. 

On Saturday the European Movement in Scotland will mark the anniversary of the 1950 signing of the Schuman Declaration. At its core is the recognition that the way forward must reflect an unyielding willingness to live together peacefully and cooperate to bring to fruition the aspirations of all Europeans. Freedom of movement –allowing EU citizens to work, learn, travel and make friends without restrictions – grew out of this. 

We know there is much to be done to continue to realise the vision of founders of the Council of Europe and European Union, including Winston Churchill. However, we take hope from the European Commission’s global pledging event this week: #UnitedAgainstCoronavirus. World leaders came together – including Boris Johnson – to raise €7.4bn to support the ongoing research and development of treatments and vaccines for all, leaving nobody behind. 

The European Movement believes only countries working together can defeat this common threat. This co-operative effort will develop solutions that will be critical to fully restoring our way of life, just as it did in the dark days of the War and its aftermath. (Letter from local groups to the Press).

Frank-Waslter Steinmeier, German federal president:

“Today, 75 years later, we are forced to commemorate alone, but we are not alone! That is today’s good news. We live in a vigorous and well-established democracy, in a country that has been reunified for 30 years, at the heart of a peaceful and united Europe. We are a trusted member of the international community and reap the fruits of cooperation and partnership around the world. We Germans can definitely now say that the day of liberation is a day of thanksgiving!

It has taken three generations for us to admit it wholeheartedly:

8 May 1945 was indeed a day of liberation. But at the time the vast majority of Germans did not perceive it as such. 

The liberation of 1945 was imposed from outside. It had to come from outside – this country had descended too far into the evil, the guilt, it had brought upon itself. Likewise the economic reconstruction and democratic renewal in the western part of Germany were only made possible by the generosity, far-sightedness and readiness for reconciliation of its former foes.

But we, too, played a part in the liberation. In our internal liberation. This did not take place on 8 May 1945, on a single day. Rather it was a long and painful process which involved facing up to the past, investigating what people knew and what they had colluded in. Raising painful questions within families and between the generations. Fighting to stop silence and denial from prevailing”. (Read the entire speech here.)

From Ireland: “I hope friends in the UK and across Europe enjoy the 75th anniversary of VE Day tomorrow. It was a major victory for democratic-minded human-rights caring Europeans, after a very impressive holding out and reversal of fortunes by the UK.

My only bugbear is the “Victory *over* Europe” narrative that has suddenly emerged in the extreme pro-Brexit British press such as the Mail and the Express. VE means “Victory *in* Europe”. 

A reminder too, that VE Day – Victory in Europe day – commemorates the victory of the “United Nations”, dating from the 1942 Atlantic Charter. Those 26 countries in 1942 grew to 51 countries by 1945, and created the UN as we know it today (FB post by Dan Keohane, head of policy, European Movement Ireland.

Charles Michel: “We need energy and human resources. On this, I would like to express my firm belief that Europeans have within them the means necessary to create this better Europe and better world. They have the capacity for resilience and solidarity; we have seen it on a daily basis during this crisis. And they also have the capacity for the innovation and renewal which have allowed Europe to reach its level of prosperity and freedom, unequalled in the world.

Just as Alcide De Gasperi and his fellow founders drew their transformative strength from the trials of war, it is my wish, and my personal commitment, that our generation can now work towards creating a Europe which will maintain all its greatest achievements. But a Europe which ‘by uniting forces and dispelling rancour’ will also move closer to that which over these last weeks we have found to be so simple, so precious, so essential, and yet more fragile than we ever imagined: a caring society. This is how our Union will emerge from its current crisis stronger, more united and with greater solidarity than ever.” (President of the European Council, Charles Michel, State of the Union conference, Florence, May 8, extract from address).

Polish WW2 memorial Edinburgh

During the second world war, millions of people arrived in Britain from all over the world, including occupied Europe. They kept essential industries going as war workers, served in the armed forces, worked at the BBC and nursed the sick. Britain’s war effort was multinational and multiracial – just like the effort to save people’s lives and keep essential work going during the coronavirus pandemic., writes Wendy Webster, Professor of Modern Cultural History, Huddersfield University.

As I discovered during my research, the migrants and minorities involved in this effort were celebrated in the British wartime media. But when the war was over, the focus shifted to a national story – to the war fought by the British: their courage and resolve, their finest hour, their victory. The presence of Americans in Britain is widely known, but not the bigger picture of large-scale wartime movements to Britain from all parts of the British empire and Europe.

Dunkirk is a name that resonates in British memories, but not the multinational evacuations from ports in western France in 1940 which brought Belgian, Czech, French and Polish troops to Britain, nor the multinational ships involved. Six European armies in exile were stationed in Britain from 1940: Belgian, French, Czechoslovakian, Dutch, Norwegian and Polish. 

The escape of prisoners from the Stalag Luft III camp in latterday western Poland is well known from the classic movie The Great Escape. But who would guess from the movie that the 50 airmen murdered by the Gestapo after their recapture included people from eight European countries and four nations of the British empire. Before capture, most had been serving with the RAF. One of them, Porokuru Pohe, was the first Maori in the force.

In 1939, when he applied to join the Royal New Zealand Air Force, he was asked whether he was “of pure European descent” and wrote no but enlisted later after the rule was suspended. Who now remembers that, when the war began, British subjects who did not fit this racial category were barred from service in the armed forces in Britain? Or that this rule applied across the British commonwealth – in Australia and Canada as well as in New Zealand.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the multiethnic, multinational, multiracial NHS has been very evident. So too all the other people applauded during the weekly clapping ceremony – including those who empty dustbins, work on public transport, deliver post, food and other goods or work in social and domiciliary care. This is for many a rare, joyful moment – coming together to clap, bang saucepans, whistle and whoop, creating a clamorous cacophony. 

Many of those applauded, who risk their lives, are on minimum wages or zero-hour contracts. Are people who oppose immigration aware that they are clapping immigrants and their descendants? It is surely the first time in Britain that their work has been celebrated with whoops and cheers.

Thank you and goodbye

If the second world war is anything to go by, these celebrations will not last long. Already, in wartime, the government had made plans for black troops and war workers from the empire to be demobbed back home so that they did not settle in Britain when the war was over. 

Post-war government planning included the deportation of Chinese seamen who had served in the wartime merchant navy. In 1946, 1362 Chinese seamen were duly repatriated. Most British-born wives, partners and children of Chinese seamen who were repatriated and deported never saw them again.

Many who stayed on, or returned to Britain, remember a change of climate in the aftermath of war – one that was more hostile and in which their wartime contributions were forgotten. Poles fought in the Battle of Britain but when the war was over, walls near Polish Air Force stations were daubed with “Poles Go Home” and “England for the English”. 

Renee Webb, who served as an airman – first in Jamaica and then in Britain – remembers: 

I was terribly concerned at that time that people should have forgotten so easily … I mean of the many questions that were asked of me, one of the main ones was: ‘When are you going back?‘ 

In the 21st century, under the “hostile environment” policy, many men and women from the Caribbean were told by the UK government to go back. Some were sacked from jobs in the NHS. Others who were detained, threatened with deportation, or charged for NHS treatment had arrived in Britain as children to join mothers who were working as NHS nurses.

The British Medical Association recently reported that 64% of Black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) doctors have felt pressured to work with inadequate personal protective equipment compared to 33% of white doctors. One of the reasons why so many BAME people working in the NHS have died during the coronavirus crisis may be a fear of losing jobs, and being reluctant to speak out about their lack of protective equipment as a result.

How historians will write about coronavirus times is a question that is sometimes raised. Will this history be written and remembered as a multinational, multi-ethnic, multiracial effort to save lives in Britain?

First published by The Conversation