The 60th Anniversary of VE Day, 2005
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Some of you will probably remember clearly where you were on this day 60 years ago. For those of us who never knew the Second World War at first hand, we can scarcely begin to understand what it must have felt like to know that after six years of conflict, the war in Europe was finally over. In today’s readings and recollections of that day, we have glimpsed something of the spirit of celebration, of the overwhelming euphoria, which characterised VE Day in 1945.
But it was a day that for many was also quite sombre. Around 300,000 British military personnel were killed in the Second World War. There were of course in additon many who were seriously wounded, some of whom were disabled for life. And then there were the numerous civilians who were killed – thought to be around 60,000 in this country, leaving widows and widowers, fatherless or motherless children, families which would never forget those six dark years.
So it is important, despite what some people say each time an anniversary like this comes round, that we do not forget. That we do not forget the sacrifices made for our country and for freedom; and also that we do not forget the horrors of war, which for most people in this country today, is not something that we’ve experienced at first hand.
But let’s think for a moment about the perspective from which we mark VE Day. We quite rightly give to God our gratitude for all that was done for their country by our servicemen and women. We remember the hardships which people all over this country endured so that Britain could survive the war. If, however, we look at casualty figures for other countries, we see that there were many other countries where the death toll was massively greater than for Britain – and that, by comparison with some countries, we were quite fortunate. France, for example, suffered about the same number of military deaths as we did, but almost eight times as many civilian deaths. Almost one and half million civilians in Yugoslavia died; and six million civilians in Poland, together with almost a million military personnel. Almost seventeen million civilians died in the countries which were to become the Soviet Union, along with almost nine million servicemen and women. Between three and four million German civilians died (many of course in the concentration camps); and a similar number of German military personnel. About ten million civilians are thought to have been killed in China.
The total number of those killed in the Second World War, in the world as a whole, is thought to be between 50 and 60 million – roughly equivalent to the entire population of this country today. And that is only those who died – think how many more than this must have been bereaved, injured, disabled, or left without home or work.
I hadn’t realised just how astonishing these figures are, until I looked them up. They make it all the more important that we should never forget the catastrophic nature of those six bleak years in the history of our world – and resolve to do all we can to prevent anything like that from ever happening again. Not forgetting, of course, that for many people in Eastern Europe, the first VE day was to signal not freedom but the transition from one form of tyranny to another – and that it was to be many years until Eastern Europe was to begin to enjoy the kind of freedom which we in the West have enjoyed since then.
Whenever one thinks of the Second World War, the question soon arises: how could people inflict on one another the kind and scale of suffering which darkened the world for those six years? I am no historian, and would not dare to say that I knew better than anyone else why human beings can treat one another like this. We all know, I’m sure, how difficult it can be to deal with armed fanatics who decide that they will stop at nothing to achieve their aims, and are prepared to inflict suffering and death on others in order to get their way. We have seen the awesome power of the Nazi and Communist ideologies; the ability of governments to use vast economic and technological resources in the interests of military superiority; and how in war, soldiers are trained to kill others to save themselves, if there is no other solution.
A day of remembrance such as this, however, must make us ask ourselves afresh whether the world can one day realise the vision set out so vividly by the Old Testament prophet Micah, over two and a half thousand years ago; that a time will one day come when people will beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; when nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war any more. (Micah 4.3) Is this purely utopian – a vision which will never come about, such is the perversity of human nature? Some aspects of today’s world do not give much grounds for hope – such as the seemingly inexorable growth in the United States’ military capability, and its readiness to use it and to find reasons to legitimise it; the deterioration in relations between the Muslim world and the West; and the long-running conflicts in places like the Congo and Sudan. But things can change – and history tells us that there are times when the world realises that a path which has been trodden for many years is wrong, and that a change of direction is possible. Think, for example, of the abolition of slavery; the overthrow of apartheid in South Africa; and the speed with which freedom came – virtually without bloodshed – to the countries of the former Eastern bloc.
Modern communications – television and the internet in particular - mean that the devastation and suffering which are invariably part of war can no longer be hidden from the world. Parliaments and the general public, at least in some countries, such as our own and the USA, are increasingly prepared to try to restrain the belligerence of governments – as we saw in the case of the war in Iraq. So there are some grounds for hoping that we will avoid another war on the scale of that which ended 60 years ago today. But there is always the risk of becoming too complacent – and of losing sight of the lessons bequeathed to us by those who gave their lives so that others may live. On this 60 th anniversary of VE Day, therefore, and in the months and years to come, may those men and women not be forgotten.
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