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Alban Maginness

Why on this 75th anniversary of VE Day we must ask ourselves what it is exactly we are commemorating

Alban Maginness


The Allied victory cost millions of lives and left the legacy of a divided Europe, writes Alban Maginness

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Celebrations spill out onto the street in London after the war ended in May, 1945

Celebrations spill out onto the street in London after the war ended in May, 1945

PA

Celebrations spill out onto the street in London after the war ended in May, 1945

On May 8, 1945, Belfast was in a buoyant mood, celebrating the end of the war in Europe. Harold Fine, a young sailor, recalls joining the happy celebrations with his shipmates that night and, for a dare, he climbed up Queen Victoria's statue outside Belfast City Hall.

His high jinks were interrupted by two RUC men, who threw him and his mates into the Crumlin Road gaol to sober up for the night. But, while Belfast was joyful, that joy was not shared elsewhere.

And while Victory in Europe Day was certainly celebrated with fun and jollity in London and Belfast, in mainland Europe there was little real sense of joy; just relief that the nightmare was over.

What was left behind throughout the continent was massive destruction, economic collapse, death and injury on a horrendous scale. Just an exhausted, traumatised and deeply divided Europe remained; a Europe with its peoples broken in spirit after so much appalling suffering.

For all of the self-congratulation and chauvinistic chest-puffing that will take place on Friday among the Western Allies, it should be acknowledged that the most decisive factor in the defeat of Hitler was not the British Army, nor indeed the American army's undoubted successes, but the military success of the Soviet Red Army.

The often-strained and tense relations between Britain and Russia nowadays should not be allowed to detract from the historical truth of the pivotal role that Russia played in defeating Nazi Germany.

It was only after massive fighting in the first four months of 1945 that the war in Europe actually came to a complete end, with the surrender, on May 8, of the German Army to the Allies, which included the USA, Britain and the USSR.

Although, in retrospect, we regard the end of the war as being inevitable in 1945, there really was no inevitability about it ending in 1945 at all.

The war was fought simultaneously on two fronts, the Western and the Eastern. In the first three months of 1945, hostilities did not gradually diminish, but were significantly heightened.

The powerful German counter-offensive in the West, leading to the Battle of the Bulge, was strongly contested by the then-fledgling superpower the USA and was only defeated after the greatest of military efforts and many casualties. Thereafter, the Americans launched a massive offensive into Germany itself.

In February and March 1945, the RAF and US Air Force systematically devastated many German cities by intensive carpet bombing, including the egregious and inhumane destruction of the city of Dresden.

By the end of April, the defeat of the Third Reich was imminent, with Hitler taking his own life in his famous bunker in Berlin. Berlin itself fell to the Allies on May 2.

On May 7, in Reims, the German high command signed an unconditional surrender of all German forces. The next day, May 8, the final formal surrender was made in Berlin itself.

In the East, during that same period, the Soviet armies crossed over into Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and East Prussia.

By April 25, the Red Army had successfully reached Berlin and had encircled the city. It then took two more weeks for the Russians to completely capture Berlin.

During this crucial final period of intensive fighting, from January to April, the Russians incurred half-a-million casualties, but their victory was total and Germany was crushed.

But the most decisive victory of the whole war for the Allies was the tenacious stand of the Red Army at Stalingrad in 1942/43. Without Stalingrad, there would have been no Allied victory over Hitler.

After the Russian success at Stalingrad, the tide had definitively turned against the Wehrmacht.

They were then steadily driven from the Soviet Union and were gradually squeezed out of Eastern and Central Europe by the Red Army.

At this time of commemoration, it should be remembered that this victory over Nazi Germany was only accomplished by enormous human cost to the Russian people.

They lost, in total, a staggering eight to 11 million servicemen. By contrast, the British lost 383,000 servicemen and the USA 407,000.

On the 75th anniversary of VE Day, the question arises as to whether we should continue to commemorate VE Day at all. Continued commemoration glorifies militarism and stirs up misplaced nostalgia. Indeed, was there much to commemorate in the past 75 years, given the enormity in human cost and the negative consequences of a divided Europe and the subsequent clash of ideologies that gave rise to the conflicts of the Cold War?

Maybe we should simply - and sadly - recognise the terrible tragedy of the Second World War for the catastrophe that it really was and now give it a respectful and dignified burial.

Belfast Telegraph