VE-Day, 75 years later

War and Remembrance

The Red Arrows fly over the Churchill statue for the Victory Day celebrations. Churchill would have done well to heed the advice of the Greek dictator General Metaxas: 'Few realise how easy and dangerous it is to mix sentiment with strategy.' (Photo: EPA-EFE / Connor Tierney / British Ministry of Defence / Handout)

The 75th anniversary of the end of World War II fighting in Europe gives us a chance to think about how popular culture has and is shaping our view of that war and its consequences, especially now that most of the direct witnesses to that conflict are no longer with us.

The other day, as my wife and I watched Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II participate in the wreath-laying ceremony commemorating the end of World War II in Europe 75 years ago, we realised how few actual veterans of that globe-straddling fighting must still be alive today. Perhaps that is why the British have so eagerly embraced 100-year-old, retired army captain Tom Moore for his efforts in raising over £30-million for the National Health Service by marching steadily through his garden day after day. Meanwhile, those commemorative wreath-laying ceremonies carried out by national leaders took place at surprisingly spartan events, made more poignant by the fact that Covid-19 lockdowns prevented parades, marches, or even fly-pasts.

A cyclist passes by the Brandenburg Gate illuminated with the word ‘Thank You’ in various languages to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of World War Two in Berlin. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Filip Singer)

German Chancellor Angela Merkle participated in one of these commemorations as well, even though the event noted the final destruction of Nazi Germany’s “Thousand Year Reich”, following six years of near-total, unrelenting warfare that had led to the deaths of millions. “Remember!” is the kind of injunction Merkel clearly hoped to deliver to the German population, now that so few Germans, increasingly, are alive who remember firsthand the events of the war years.

The 8th of May (9th in a few countries because of time zones) is, after all, the 75th anniversary of the end of the horrific fighting on the European continent. And any remaining veterans of that struggle must all be well into their nineties by now. But, surprisingly, the queen of England is one of them. She had served as a bona fide military driver in Britain during the war, rather than just lolling around the palace, rolling bandages or pouring tea for wounded soldiers as they recuperated in military hospitals.

A man waves a Union Jack flag from his window as Royal Navy veteran, Charles Medhurst (not pictured), aged 95 walks along his street for a victory parade and his neighbours cheer and clap for the 75th Anniversary of VE Day in Greenwich, London. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Vickie Flores)

Seeing Queen Elizabeth on television led both my wife and I remember all of our relatives who had served during World War II. Sadly, none of those people are still with us, but, over the years, we did learn that their service had literally spanned the globe, just as the war did.

My father participated in anti-German submarine scouting air patrols off the coast of the US. Meanwhile, one uncle served in the navy during the fighting across the Pacific Ocean and then during the invasion of the Japanese-occupied Philippines. Another served in the army, fighting in Europe, while yet another was in a medical corps unit stationed in Panama. Yet another sailed in the merchant marine, serving as a young officer on convoys carrying war supplies to the Soviet Union on the Murmansk run, as well as across the Indian Ocean, delivering material to Allied forces in the China-Burma-India theatre of war. Along the way, he lost two toes to frostbite from the freezing weather in the Arctic Ocean, en route to the Soviet Union.

Families celebrate in their front gardens the VE day 75th anniversary in south London. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Facundo Arrizabalaga)

Meanwhile, my wife’s father and some of her uncles served in the Cape Corps (the segregated coloured unit in the South African forces) in East Africa, North Africa, and then, we believe, on into Italy as well. One other relative of hers was in the British army in the Pacific theatre and found himself a Japanese prisoner of war, held in a labour camp in the environs of Hiroshima when the first atomic blast pulverised that city.

The 8th of May being commemorated was the date of the formal, unconditional surrender of all remaining German forces in position from the Arctic Circle in Norway to Northern Italy. But nearly two weeks before, on 25 April, Soviet and American soldiers had met at the ancient castle town of Torgau on the Elbe River in Saxony, cutting what was left of Nazi Germany in half; although what remained was the dangerous mission of neutralising all remaining German forces and enforcing their surrender to the Allied armies across Europe.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a wreath-laying ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II at the Neue Wache Memorial in Berlin, Germany. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Filip Singer / Pool)

In terms of our own two families, as best as we can determine, not a single one of our relatives in either of our families was killed in the fighting that raged around the world, although some did suffer wounds from enemy attacks or circumstances — such as those two lost toes. But, like so many other veterans around the world, none of ours ever really talked much about their experiences to us. Perhaps they felt we wouldn’t understand, or perhaps these memories were just too painful or private. But now we will never know. Instead, our “memories” and images of this war, pretty much like everyone else’s these days, are now largely shaped from books, television and cinema.

In the midst of the war itself, films from those years seem to have been about perseverance, fortitude, bravery, and heroism. What comes to mind immediately are patriotic works like Mrs Miniver and The Human Comedy which were about life and sacrifice on the homefront, while Casablanca was about the forging of a reignited patriotism. Then there is the wartime version of Henry V, directed by Lawrence Olivier, but full of Shakespeare’s language amidst great, full-colour pageantry. And of course, there was the admirably crafted, patriotic fervour-laced, Why We Fight series.

Medals of Royal Navy veteran Charles Medhurst as he stands outside his house on VE Day in Greenwich, London. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Vickie Flores)

From the early post-war years onward, in a cinematic immortalisation of the fighting, we could watch films like The Sands of Iwo Jima or The Battle of the Bulge and The Battle of Britain, The Longest Day, or more perhaps The Guns of Navarone and The Heroes of Telemark. In such epics, German and Japanese enemy soldiers died by the thousands, while the heroism of Allied personnel was intimate and personal, in life or death. The early television series Victory at Sea (later recut into a cinema work) was a triumph of the documentary art, drawing on the vast resources of the Allied navies’ contemporary newsreels.

In the years that followed, classics such as From Here to Eternity began to offer more intimate looks at a soldier’s life, loves, and loss, until we could go see more ambiguously told stories such as The Naked and the Dead, The Thin Red Line, Big Red One, Stalag 17, and A Bridge Too Far, among so many others. A film like The Caine Mutiny, based on the earlier theatrical play, posed difficult questions about military courage, bravery and human failings. In more recent years, works like Slaughterhouse-Five and Catch-22 could tantalise us with the notion that maybe it was war itself that was the villain.

A woman wearing protective gloves attends a ceremony to honour the 75th anniversary of VE Day at the Olsany cemetery in Prague, Czech Republic. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Martin Divisek)

Many of these works drew from novels that had already challenged readers, even as the book market continues to be flooded with new analyses of military strategy, military blunders, little-known heroic exploits, and exposés of heretofore classified efforts.

More recently still, we have been presented with works that try to bridge the gap between the intimate and big picture, such as Saving Private Ryan, and television miniseries productions in that same style such as Band of Brothers and The Pacific. The former was inspired by the deaths aboard a naval vessel of several brothers attacked in the Pacific Ocean and drew upon the astonishing photographs of the D-Day landing captured by Robert Capa, while the latter two films, produced by the director of Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg, followed actual units and actual soldiers in their progression from D-Day to war’s end on the one hand, and across the Pacific in the island-hopping campaign that concluded with the surrender of Japan aboard the battleship, USS Missouri.

Add into this mix the beautifully filmed but rather fictionalised works, Pearl Harbor and Dunkirk, and a memorable series of portrayals of Winston Churchill, beginning with his years of defeats, and then with the ultimately triumphal D-Day landing: Into the Storm, The Gathering Storm, and Darkest Hour. Then, of course, there is also the Clint Eastwood duet, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, looking at the fighting on that island through the experiences of common soldiers on both sides of that desperate battle.

A newer strand of war movies focuses on the lives of those rounded up and held in concentration camps or those who were saved by the acts of a few brave individuals, such as Schindler’s List or The Zookeeper’s Wife. Two movingly made Italian films, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and Life is Beautiful, also speak to the end of life as the characters are sent off to the concentration camps. Of course, there is also Empire of the Sun, in which a British child of privilege grows up in a Japanese prisoner of war camp near Shanghai, China.

German and Japanese filmmakers have tried to grapple with their history as well. Among the most compelling recent German films have been Das Boot (The Boat) – a work about German U-boat crews that began as a television series – and Downfall, chronicling the final horrific days of the world of Adolf Hitler as the Russian assault on Berlin was taking place. A work like The Tin Drum, from Gunter Grass’s novel, profiles the beginnings of the war years from the perspective of a child in Danzig as the German army marches in, while The Book Thief portrays life in Germany during the war, again through the innocent yet knowing eyes of a child.

Japan’s most fascinating World War II movies, at least those accessible to foreigners, in this writer’s opinion, are The Burmese Harp, Rhapsody in August, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, and The Railway Man. The first of these follows the increasingly desperate struggles of the Japanese army fighting the British in Burma and makes the Japanese soldier a kind of everyman martyr to perseverance, while the latter two, actually co-produced between Japanese and British filmmakers, tries to reconcile the truth of prisoner-of-war camps run by the Japanese and the harsh treatment meted out to Allied prisoners. Without hiding the atrocities, the cinematic values are stunning as well. Meanwhile, Rhapsody in August is Akira Kurosawa’s next-to-last film, and inevitably, perhaps, it focuses on coming to terms with the atomic attack on Nagasaki.

As with cinema-makers in the West, Soviet/Russian cinema has focused closely on the war, even as they call it “The Great Patriotic War”. A confession is due here. I had mistakenly assumed Eisenstein’s vast stunning film, Alexander Nevsky, had come about in the midst of the war, in the manner of Henry V, directed by Lawrence Olivier.

However, a former colleague, awesomely well-versed in Russian cultural history, clarified for me that Eisenstein’s film came along in 1938, just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, although it was much watched during the war, of course. Instead, my friend offered a short course in Russian cinema, pointing, instead, to Sergei Bondarchuk’s They Fought for Their Country, Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying, Stanislav Rostotsky’s The Dawns Here Are Quiet, Only Old Men Go into Battle by Leonid Bykov, Officers by Vladimir Rogovy, Ballad of a Soldier by Grigory Chukhray, Seventeen Moments of Spring by Tatyana Lioznova, Belorussky Station by Andrei Smirnov, Come and See from Elem Klimov, and a recent 3D epic, Stalingrad, by Fyodor Boncharuk. In my friend’s opinion, these deserve attention in the West in order to understand better the mental contours and landscape of the Second World War in the minds of contemporary Russians.

The war clearly remains a fertile landscape for filmmakers, television directors and writers alike. But, at the same time, it seems clear enough there has, as yet, been little cinematic attention to how the world took shape in the immediate postwar era, before spy thrillers became the predominant genre. Now, the post-Cold War world is fragmenting as the unipolar world under US guidance falls away. But, there is little in popular culture to help us make sense of what is going on around us and where it might be headed.

Undoubtedly, there are already producers and script consultants champing at the bit for works on Covid-19, perhaps in the manner of Contagion of The Andromeda Strain. But save for a film or two based on John le Carré’s increasingly world-weary,  compass-less universe, there seem to be few if any works designed to help interpret the multi-polar world that is coming at us a mile a minute. But we will need such tools very soon. DM


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