The greatest outburst of joy ever – for some

Cheers and tears: Four million families in Britain were left with bomb-damaged houses.

Is history best told through human stories? Tomorrow is the 75th anniversary of VE Day, and the eyewitness accounts of those who were there vividly evoke its mixture of joy and sadness.

“There was an atmosphere of excitement from early dawn,” jazz trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton recalled. By lunchtime, there were 100,000 people outside Buckingham Palace.

“It wasn’t long before I had a band. A man appeared with a trombone, someone else turned up with a big drum.” He ended up in a handcart – “pushed at terrifying speed down The Mall, with the rest of the band puffing along behind”.

All across Britain, the Victory in Europe Day celebrations went on late into the night. After six years of war, people had earned them.

Tomorrow, the 75th anniversary will be marked with a series of events, including a speech by the Queen and a national singalong of Vera Lynn’s famous song, We’ll Meet Again – though street parties have been cancelled because of the pandemic.

Winston Churchill described VE Day as “the greatest outburst of joy in the history of mankind”. Many people, however, had mixed feelings. Millions had died; cities lay devastated; food was in short supply. And there was still bitter fighting in the Far East, where Japan would not surrender until 10 August.

Pat Hazlehurst, whose husband had been killed in 1944, wrote in her diary: “I was tied to the office all day and then I went home and put my head under a pillow. There was nothing for me to celebrate.”

David Ben-Gurion, who was to become the first prime minister of Israel, wrote: “Victory day – sad, very sad.” Like every other Jew, he had the huge number of innocent people who had died uppermost in his mind.

For housewife Nella Long, there was a sense of anti-climax. “I feel as if I’d sat through a long, tedious play,” she wrote, “only living for the finale, longing for the time I could breathe sweet air, go home […] and as if, instead, as each player had left the stage, they had disappeared and the lights gradually dimmed, till the last performer had said, ‘That’s all – you can go home now.’ And all the audience had looked at each other, uncertain of the next move.”

But teacher Wynne Lewis was less equivocal: it was “that rapturous day of brilliant sunshine and peaceful blue sky towards which we had groped through six years of terrifying black-out! That great day had come at last!”

Is history best told through human stories?

Personal details

Some say that it is only by reading about individuals that we can get a real sense of a historical event. It is easy to forget that people who lived a long time ago were basically the same as us. Their letters and diaries remind us of the fact, and make us think about how we might have behaved in a similar situation. Instead of being a collection of abstract facts, history comes alive.

Others argue that though personal stories give colour to events, we need to see the bigger picture. It is not one individual’s experience of a battle that matters, but the decisions that led to it and the factors that determined its outcome. That means taking into account the politics of the day, and the actions of the most influential people – not the person in the street.

You Decide

  1. What has been the most memorable historical event in your life?
  2. Do we have a right to celebrate events in which we had no part?

Activities

  1. Design a poster to put in your window celebrating VE Day.
  2. On two sides of paper, write a story about a soldier coming home from war.

Some People Say...

“The problems of victory are more agreeable than those of defeat, but they are no less difficult.”

Winston Churchill (1874-1965), British politician

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
VE Day did not bring an end to suffering for those who had survived the war. In France, thousands of people faced reprisals for collaborating with the Nazis. In Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, ethnic Germans were driven out of their homes. Many Russian soldiers who had been prisoners of war were shot or imprisoned for failing their country. Thousands of Germans were reduced to such despair that they committed suicide.
What do we not know?
How much people already knew about the atrocities in concentration camps before Germany’s defeat exposed them. Christabel Bielenberg, an Englishwoman who spent the war in Germany, and whose husband belonged to the anti-Hitler resistance, said that they suspected the Jews were mistreated in the camps, but had no inkling of the Holocaust. But some historians argue that the Allies knew well enough what was going on, and should have focused on stopping it.

Word Watch

The Mall
A road running from Buckingham Palace to Trafalgar Square. It became the most fashionable place in London when it was first laid out in 1660.
Vera Lynn
Now 103, she was 22 when the war broke out, and became known as ‘the Forces’s Sweetheart’. She had a number-one album with a compilation of her songs at the age of 97.
Winston Churchill
Known popularly as ‘Winnie’, he suffered a shock defeat in the general election two months later, but returned as prime minister in 1951.
Japan
The Japanese offered their surrender on 10 August after atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but it was not announced until 15 August (Victory over Japan Day in Britain). The agreement was officially signed on 2 September (VJ Day in the US).
David Ben-Gurion
Honoured in Israel as ‘the Father of the Nation’, he led the effort to establish a Jewish state, finally succeeding in 1948. He was born David Grün in Poland, but took the name of a Jewish hero who had fought the Romans.
Finale
An Italian word meaning “the end”, usually applied to a play, opera or piece of music.
Equivocal
Uncertain or ambiguous. It comes from the Latin words “aequus” (equal) and “vocare” (to call).

Subjects

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