Reflections on WWII and Europe Day
Yesterday was our weekly Zoom call, organised by my sister to connect our family in London, Cambridge and Cómpeta. Our parents had just taken part in a street party, arranged by their next door neighbours, whereby everyone raised a glass while standing outside their houses (including my mum and her little glass of dessert wine I bought her from Santorini) while listening to the music from the 1940s, downloaded for the occasion.
Being in Cómpeta, I wasn't privy to the VE Day celebrations, but I did watch Her Majesty's speech, commemorating the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, and found it profoundly moving. (Then again, it doesn't take much to kick off the waterworks these days).
“As I now reflect on my father’s words and the joyous celebrations, which some of us experienced first-hand, I am thankful for the strength and courage that the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth and all our allies displayed.
The wartime generation knew that the best way to honour those who did not come back from the war, was to ensure that it didn’t happen again.
The greatest tribute to their sacrifice is that countries who were once sworn enemies are now friends, working side by side for the peace, health and prosperity of us all."
German president Steinmeier also struck the right note between solemnity and humility (thanking the survivors of Germany’s crimes and their descendants, and "all those in the world who gave this country the chance to start again") and hope ("Germany is a strong, solid democracy…in the heart of a peaceful and united Europe").
Compare and contrast the Queen's words with those of Boris Johnson:
"Britain and the Common Wealth and Empire were the only nations who fought Hitler from the first day of the Second World War to the last without being defeated and occupied.
For a whole year, 1940-1941, we stood alone against him, the last barrier to his tyranny."
In fact, there is little mention of the Allied effort in his speech, no mention of the fact that the UK being in island played a not inconsiderable part in holding out against Hitler's forces, and no mention of the fact that the Channel Islands were, in fact, left to their own devices and occupied by the Germans (I did a Lonely Planet gig there in early 2018, and visited the remnants of a German concentration camp in Alderney, as well as memorials to those killed by the Nazis). Plus, there's the inescapable fact that alone, Britain could not and would not have defeated Nazi Germany.
The tweet from the official White House account (clearly written by Trump) is a disgrace:
"On May 8, 1945, America and Great Britain had victory over the Nazis! America's spirit will always win. In the end, that's what happens."
A nice bit of historical revisionism there, erasing all the other Allies: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, all the other countries that were part of the Commonwealth, and, of course, the Soviet Union.
In fact, there's been a fair bit of war-related snark on social media, directed at Russia. It's true that the USSR was instrumental in kicking off WWII by signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact with Nazi Germany and divvying up Poland (something that Soviet children were not taught at school, and something that Putin conveniently glosses over today, or else blames Poland for), but that in no way detracts from the suffering of the Soviet Union under German assault, or from the courage of the Soviet men and women who fought bravely, often with inadequate equipment, and perished in huge numbers.
Most of my friends have family members who either fought in the war and/or died in the war. My own family is no exception. While neither of my grandfathers were conscripted because they were employed in essential professions, such as radio operator, my great-uncle Moses (Misha) - my maternal grandfather's younger brother - volunteered to serve, driven by the desire to protect the Motherland from the fascists. He was captured by Romanian forces; by some miracle they didn't find out that he was a Jew, and he was returned to the USSR and promptly arrested for having been captured. He then volunteered to join a "punishment battalion," to remove the stigma from his wife and children. This essentially meant getting sent back to the front with practically no equipment, as cannon fodder. He fought in the Battle of Budapest and managed to survive almost until the end of the war, but perished less than a week before the German and Hungarian forces surrendered. We haven't been able to find his exact whereabouts; his son found out that he had been buried where there's now a nice apartment building; he may or may not have been moved to one of the cemeteries later.
But I digress. The point it, Allied victory over fascism was a team effort, and I'm alarmed by the jingoistic, factually incorrect statements emanating from 10 Downing Street.
It's possible that I view the past through rose-tinted glasses, but towards the end of the 80s, when we were on the verge of leaving the Soviet Union, I remember a feeling of hope, and positive change, and my friends' parents talking in my parents' kitchen about perestroika, and things opening up, and the Berlin Wall coming down. And people's fathers were going abroad and coming back with Pepsi-Cola, and Juicy Fruit gum, and jeans and Casio watches. It just seems that my formative years, and then my 20s, were lived in a world that was full of optimism, and now that is no longer the case. It hasn't been the case for some time.
One of the reasons why I'm so against Brexit is because to me it's a no-brainer that the EU remaining intact and strong is essential not just for the survival of democracy but also as a bulwark against large, predatory countries like China and Russia. With America's global influence greatly diminished under Trump (no one is looking to the USA for leadership in the pandemic crisis - unthinkable until 2016), China is ascendant and I recoil at the idea of living in a world where China - with its stranglehold on Hong Kong's democracy, its immense ideological control over its own people, and its 'reeducation' camps for its Uighur population - is the dominant global power. Small countries are stronger together in every conceivable way. In economic terms, in terms of national security, in terms of cooperation in the fields of scientific and medical research.
I celebrate Europe Day. I celebrate peace and unity in Europe. And as someone who feels passionately European and British, as an immigrant whose family has been welcomed by a liberal democracy, who's grown up in a liberal democracy, seeing my home country change for the worse, displaying hostility towards its closest friends and allies, demonising EU citizens resident in the UK, affects me on a very visceral level. Most immigrants want to belong, to feel safe, and until 2016, I did. Brexit has shaken my sense of belonging, my sense of security, and though I've never previously empathised with people who live with their bags mentally packed, I do now. Watching the transformation of my home of almost 30 years from being a liberal, international-minded, welcoming country to a bitter and isolationist one, fills me with a sense of profound loss and grief.
"It is bitter to lose a friend to evil, before one loses him to death."
It seems to me that the lessons learned the hard way, at a cost of millions of lives all those decades ago, are on the verge of being forgotten. And not by Germany, but by the UK. When we learned about WWII at school, I wondered even then: what country could possibly be foolish enough to try and wreck the peace of the post-war years? And now I know: it's us, Brits.
I think that there's a kernel of truth to the idea that our elderly monarch is the continuity thread that runs from the pre-war years to the present day, and that when she dies, that thread will be irrevocably lost. Queen Elizabeth II lived through the war, remembers its horrors and privations, and is representative of her generation, the majority of whom are opposed to this splintering of a united Europe, believing that it undoes the sacrifice of the fallen. There is no doubt that Her Majesty is a Europhile, with good reason, but this is lost on our squabbling, third-rate ministers who forget that Winston Churchill called for the creation of the "United States of Europe" and spoke of "...hope to see a Europe where men of every country will think of being a European as of belonging to their native land, and...wherever they go in this wide domain...will truly feel, ‘Here I am at home.” Instead, Johnson, Gove, Raab and other assorted sociopaths seem intent not just on driving our country off a no-deal Brexit cliff in the middle of a pandemic, thereby putting the final nail in the coffin of Great Britain, but also on taking a wrecking ball to the European peace project, in which Churchill played a not insignificant role, thus actively harming our friends and allies for the 'great' opportunity to become dependent on Trump's tender mercies. So much for 'sovereignty'.
The 7-year-old child of someone I know made bunting for yesterday's VE Day celebrations, which included flags of Europe that he coloured in himself. His dad went outside in the evening to find that some 'patriot' defaced the German flag, and had to explain to his son, whose mother is German, that there are British people who are small-minded and xenophobic enough to do things like that.
What stuck with me the most from yesterday, besides the Queen's speech, was the call for vigilance from the German president, who warned against "the temptation of a new nationalism. The fascination of the authoritarian. Of distrust, isolation and hostility between nations. Of hatred and agitation, of xenophobia and contempt for democracy - because they are nothing but the old evil spirits in a new guise."
Do we really need another horror on the scale of WWII to reinforce old lessons?