70 years on, WW2 anniversary divides Europe

Joy and relief: Crowds celebrate the end of the second world war in Europe on May 8th 1945.

Global events this weekend will mark 70 years since the second world war ended in Europe. But as Western leaders decline invitations to Russia, have they forgotten why we commemorate it?

Seventy years ago today, a secretary named Susan Hibbert sent a message to the War Office in London. ‘The mission of this Allied Force was fulfilled at 02.41, local time, May 7th, 1945’, it said. The words were plain but the meaning profound: Nazi Germany had unconditionally surrendered. The second world war in Europe was over.

The following day was declared Victory in Europe (VE) Day among western allies who had fought the Nazis. People gathered in crowds, lit fireworks and held street parties. In Britain, the euphoria of peace replaced six years of fighting, bombing, blackouts and death. But in parts of western Europe freed from Nazi control, it marked confirmation of escape from far worse. To this day countries such as France and the Netherlands maintain annual national holidays in early May to celebrate their liberation.

With veterans dwindling in number, the 70th anniversary this week is a particularly significant opportunity to remember the conflict they fought in. In Britain, three days of official events are planned, with commemorative services on Friday, celebrations on Saturday and a service of thanksgiving and a parade on Sunday.

But in the east, modern politics will intrude on events. US President Barack Obama and several European leaders have rejected Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invitation to ‘our country’s biggest holiday’ on Victory Day (9th May). It’s a reflection of the deterioration of relations, particularly over eastern Ukraine, where rebels supporting Russia are fighting the Ukrainian government and the West has responded with economic sanctions. Western leaders will also have been wary of being caught off-guard by Putin, who has used other second world war-related events to draw parallels between their modern allies and the Nazis.

War is over?

The division between countries who fought the perils of Nazism together is saddening, particularly as the second world war was the deadliest conflict in human history. Some suggest that an opportunity to remember the sacrifice of those who gave their lives to beat Nazism should be a unifying force, reminding us of our shared humanity. This event isn’t about what’s happening today.

But others say that part of the point of commemoration is to consider the relevance of an event to the modern world. Anniversaries do not take place in a void, separated from geopolitical realities. It would be an insult to those who fought in the war to mark the defeat of fascism while pretending that we had built a perfect world since. If our leaders perceive obstacles to the free, democratic world which the second world war was supposed to bring about, an anniversary is the ideal moment to say so.

You Decide

  1. Does commemoration matter, and why?
  2. Should western leaders go to the Russian Victory Day events?

Activities

  1. Design decorations which you could use to mark VE Day in your classroom, such as posters and bunting.
  2. Write an address to the people of the world to explain to them what you think we should use VE Day to remember. Listen to Churchill’s speech from 1945 in the links to help you.

Some People Say...

“Today’s quarrels matter more than the quarrels of yesterday.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What does it mean by end of the war ‘in Europe’?
Unfortunately the war as a whole was not quite over in May 1945. The USA, Britain and their allies were still fighting against Japan. That came to an end in August 1945, after the US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
What happened next?
Keeping peace proved very tricky. The world was plunged in to a Cold War between two nuclear-armed powers, the USA and the USSR, until 1989. And wars still rage across the world today.
So who is going to Russia’s big party then?
The leaders of North Korea, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are going to be among those in attendance. All of them are believed to have very poor human rights records, and so the western leaders would not want to be seen with them if they had been considering going.

Word Watch

Freed from Nazi control
In western Europe, the Nazis occupied France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and the Channel Islands. They also occupied much of eastern Europe — but when they left countries there, they were mostly replaced by communist dictatorships.
Far worse
Among other hardships, civilians in Nazi-occupied Europe had been terrorised by the Gestapo’s police state, taken to concentration and death camps and subjected to the Nazis’ genocidal racial ideology (including the mass murder of Jews).
9th May
Russian celebrations in 1945 were delayed by a day because of Soviet leaders’ insistence that Germany observe a separate surrender ceremony with them. The war has particular significance for Russians because their country suffered invasion, famine and the loss — at a conservative estimate — of over 20 million lives, many of them civilian.
Parallels
Prior to a parade in Belgrade to mark the 70th anniversary of Serbia’s liberation from Nazi rule last year, Putin spoke of ‘troubling neo-Nazism’ in Ukraine and the Baltic states among groups opposed to Russian influence there.

Subjects

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