In the Second World War on average more than 20,000 people were killed each day: in battle, in reprisal actions and in concentration camps. It was truly a people's war, in which the bodies and homes of civilians were on the front line as never before. It was also the first truly global event, with almost every country in the world involved in battle or in sending fighters.
One day in the war is therefore a perfect subject for a panoramic view of the world such as Martin Gilbert offers in his impressive The Day the War Ended. He set out to write a history of the main events of that momentous day and, in-evitably, of the days surrounding it.
It is all the better for not being the book he originally intended to write. He appealed for recollections from the public, thinking they would provide an interesting, if essentially minor, element to the book: a sideline to history. But the quality of so many of the letters he received, their clarity, directness and the variety of experience they reflected, led Gilbert to make them an integral and substantial part of the narrative.
Still, this is not a collection of snippets of personal information. Gilbert has an admirable grasp of the grand strategy which created, out of the confusion, the world of the cold war. The military story begins with President Truman eager to bring home to the Germans that "the fanatical Nazi resistance" had destroyed the nation: by continuing to fight, throwing old man and boys into battle when all was obviously lost, the Nazis made the physical destruction of German cities inevitable.
Even after Hitler had shot himself the lies continued, with his successor Admiral Donitz protesting that his only objective was the "struggle against the Bolsheviks", in which the British and Americans were impeding him. The Nazis had conveniently forgotten that they started the war in alliance with the USSR. The Allies certainly found that fact better unremembered.
Changing sides became a leitmotif of the war. Right up to VE Day there were latecomers to the forces of righteousness, like Spain, which came out against Germany on May 7. One group took opportunism to its extreme: Vlasov's First Division of Ukrainians who had gone over to the German side found themselves in Prague on May 6, and decided to turn on their former allies the Nazis, even though they were wearing the same uniforms. It was a vain gesture, the Red Army felt their change of heart had come several years too late, and sent them back to the USSR as prisoners.
Their fate would have been unhappy. Even people unwillingly held by the Germans were punished. On May 9 Stalin signed the order setting up a number of l0,000-strong prison camps for Soviet soldiers taken prisoner by the Germans and Soviet citizens liberated by the Allied forces.
Stalin wanted to delay the announcement of the surrender, which had taken place at Reims, until the same document had been signed again in Berlin in the presence of the Soviet commander. In the event, the news of the earlier surrender could not be contained and VE-Day was celebrated in Europe and America on May 8, but in Russia on 9, the disunity between the allies being a symbolic foretaste of what was to come.
Another foretaste came at a diplomatic conference on May 8 in San Francisco where the Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov casually mentioned in a corridor that the 16 members of the Polish government, who had gone to Moscow to discuss peace terms at the behest of the British and American governments, had been imprisoned. As the war had started with opposition to the invasion of Poland, the diplomats could well ask what it had all been for.
Across the battlefield of Europe there was an immense confusion of surrenders, where an often small number of Allied troops would be handed over a town, giving them responsibility for the surrendered troops, civilian population, and hordes of refugees. Among them were the concentration camp victims, thousands of whom died even after liberation for lack of adequate medical attention and appropriate foods.
As General Horrocks said when accepting surrender from the German army commander von Blumentritt, who had indignantly denied that the army was involved in the death camps: "There were German soldiers on sentry duty outside and you cannot escape responsibility. The world will never forgive Germany for those camps."
Most would not forgive, but a few would pretend, even while the former inmates of the camps were still dying, that it had never happened. Immediately following the liberation of the camps, there were people writing to the newspapers saying they did not believe in the Nazi atrocities; a Jewish girl in London was shocked when a group of three men stood and shouted "Lies" at a newsreel showing the clearance of bodies from Belsen.
A similar book by Robin Neillands opens with a problem: the title offers a history from D-Day to VE-Day but the first pages tell us it is actually going to cover five months in detail, January 1 1945 to VE-Day. A clear case for the Trade Descriptions Act. Still, it has an interesting contribution, as it offers a wider time-frame than Gilbert's book, but a narrower point of reference: Neillands is concerned only with the fighting men on the continent of Europe.
There is much more about the camaraderie of military life, and the joy of fighting men at play, particularly at a time of liberation when Allied troops were welcomed with an almost embarrassing degree of hero worship. "I wore myself out on drink and sex" as one US serviceman said. There is also comment from German servicemen about their war, something absent from Gilbert's book which takes an Allied perspective.
In all the narratives it is the personal recollection which compels: the soldier who shot a pig which was eating the body of his dead friend; the housewife who bartered a grand piano for a goose; the schoolboy amazed at the uninhibited couples openly copulating in Green Park; and the man in Palestine who knows his family is dead but scents fresh air, and remarks, "One could and did rejoice . . . why should I not frolic on VE-Day in Tel Aviv, on the sea-shore with a very nice girl?" Yes, why indeed not?