The Day the War Ended by Martin Gilbert, Harper Collins, £20
VE DAY BROUGHT TO an end a phase of human history whose understanding seemed to lie beyond the categories of liberal humanism which had dominated the thinking of historians since the Enlightenment.
For some, the events of the Nazi period had shattered their religious faith; and indeed the Christian churches could not escape their responsibility for the centuries of anti-semitism which had culminated in the Holocaust; but for others, Nazism had destroyed their belief not in God but in man, in the idea of human progress.
Could the image of man ever recover from the degradations that Hitler had wrought upon it?
Martin Gilbert is the supreme purist of modern historians. The Day the War Ended does not interpret, but allows eye witnesses of the period to speak for themselves. The predominant mood is one not of joy but of grief at the scale of human sacrifice, and, above all incomprehension at why it occurred. There is no attempt at explanation, and indeed the explanation of what happened between 1939 and 1945 still lies beyond the understanding of historians and theologians alike.
But The Day the War Ended provides much material for reflection on the defining of the common man, so called, Churchill believed, because in this war the common man had suffered more than at any other time in human history. Celebration was everywhere shortlived and muted by the revelation of what Nazism had done to the human spirit. In four years of war on the Russian front, ten million Soviet civilians had been killed, while a further three million Soviet prisoners had died of torture and starvation after capture.
Even in the last days of the war, in an orgy of senseless revenge, the SS amongst other crimes, gunned down 51,000 Russian, Polish and Serb prisoners of war and 8,000 Czech civilians selected at random.
The outcome in 1945 did not secure the basic aims for which Britain and France had gone to war the independence and freedom of small nations. In his victory speech, Winston Churchill was to warn that "On the continent of Europe we have yet to make sure that the simple and honourable purposes for which we entered the war are not brushed aside or overlooked in the months following our success...There would be little use in punishing the Hitlerites for their crimes if law and justice did not rule, and if totalitarian or police governments were to take the place of the German invaders."
Yet the Western democracies proved as incapable of preserving the freedom of Poland and Czechoslovakia in the 1940s as they had been in the 1930s. It is hardly surprising that Churchill chose to call the final volume of his war memoirs, Triumph and Tragedy.
For the Jewish people, there was little sense of triumph in 1945. "Victory Day", David Ben Gurion, the Zionist leader wrote in his diary on May 8 1945, "sad, very sad".
The war had cost the lives of around six million Jews, including around a million and a half children two thirds of the total Jewish populCion living in Europe before 1939, murdered, not in the heat of battle but as part of a cold and calculated policy of extermination in the heart of Christian Europe. How were the Jews to make sense of what had happened?
On VE day, Julian Schragcnheim was serving in the Allied armies in Italy, having emigrated to South Africa when Hitler came to power.
He remembered the last message that he had received in 1942 from his aunt who had stayed behind in Berlin, and who, facing deportation, had committed suicide.
She sent him his sports club song book, with the inscription "For Julian, Deuteronomy, ch xxv 17-19" "Remember what Amalek did unto thee by the way ... How he met thee by the way, and smote the hindmost of thee, even all that were feeble behind thee, when thou wast faint and weary; and he feared not God.
"Therefore it shall be, when the Lord thy God hath given thee rest from all thine enemies round about, in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it, that thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget it".