75th Anniversary of VE Day (May 8, 1945): An address by the Rt Revd Graham James, Bishop of St Germans 1993-1999; Bishop of Norwich 1999-2019.

Photo credit: www.veday75.org/

“Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has…broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (Ephesians 2.14)

I enjoy reading the diaries of politicians. They seem to record what they do for posterity more than most of us. Or at least they did. I am not sure future generations will want to read the postings on Twitter of present day politicians with quite the same interest.

On VE Day Harold Macmillan was in Italy. The Germans had surrendered there on April 29 and Macmillan was effectively running the country – good training for a future Prime Minister. He was at Assisi on VE Day itself. It was there that Macmillan pondered the significance of war. He noted in his diary “with all his power of evil, his strength and his boasting, Hitler had lasted just 12 years”. In contrast he mused, “St Francis did not seem to have much power, but here in this lovely place, one realises the immense strength and permanence of goodness – a rather comforting thought”.

St Francis of Assisi was born into a wealthy family. He became a successful soldier. Yet it was when he gave up his wealth and his weapons that he began to exercise a magnetic influence upon his own age. And he still influences the world today 800 years later. His followers in the Franciscan order are found throughout the world. In the Anglican Communion the Society of St Francis is the largest religious community of men. Pope Francis took his name to remind himself that, like St Francis, he should cherish the poor and the natural world as well. Assisi was a good place for Macmillan to be. Compared with St Francis, Hitler would be a footnote in history. But a footnote who caused the death of millions. Even 75 years on from VE Day there will be families all over Europe mourning the loved ones they lost or, in some cases, never met.

Perhaps that’s why Macmillan also recorded that when the long-awaited actual day of peace came on May 8* he felt a curious sense of emptiness, a flatness. In another diary, the British diplomat Harold Nicholson describes how hushed the crowds were in Trafalgar Square and Whitehall as Big Ben struck 3pm and Winston Churchill’s voice was heard over loudspeakers. No-one seems to recall that speech. Churchill’s oratory and capacity to turn a phrase seemed to desert him in this brief address. It was in the darkest hours that his greatest speeches were made. Harold Nicholson described the crowds in London as “happy but quite sober”.

Exhaustion may have been part of the explanation – and bereavement in many families too. But the last days of the war revealed fresh horrors. Belsen was only liberated in mid-April. The newsreel film still has power to shock. And remember Belsen did not even have gas chambers. In another diary the future politician Patrick Gordon Walker, one of the first to enter Belsen, noted corpses in every state of decay were piled up in heaps. He saw a woman come up to a soldier who was guarding the milk store and giving out milk in an orderly way to children. The woman begged him for some milk for her baby. The soldier took the baby and saw it had been dead for days, black in the face and shrivelled up. The woman still begged for milk, so the soldier poured some on the dead child’s lips. The woman crooned with joy, went off in triumph and fell down dead in a few yards.

I knew someone who was part of the liberation of Belsen. He scarcely ever spoke of it. I think I understand why.

No wonder the victory was sober. Perhaps war can only ever be fought with a pain in the mind and an ache in the heart, no matter how righteous the cause. It is always tragic and the scale of the tragedy of the Second World War became even more evident to the British people with the coming of victory. This should be no surprise for Christians. In the victory of the Cross there was tragedy. The Prince of Peace was whipped and nailed to a cross until he died of exhaustion. Yet that moment of deepest despair was also the moment of victory over death. For God spared himself nothing in human experience. Christ knew what it was to suffer rejection and die a lingering death. That is why Christians do not think it is sentiment but sacred truth to say that God was with that woman at Belsen who stumbled and fell to her death holding her dead child.

As St Paul wrote: “Yours was a world without hope and without God. Once you were far off, but now in union with Christ Jesus you have been brought near through the shedding of Christ’s blood.” (Ephesians 2.12,13)

We commemorate VE Day during Eastertide. It is strangely appropriate that the end of war came in the Easter season. For the risen Christ still had the marks of suffering on his body. Easter Day does not cancel out Good Friday.

In war we see the flawed character of humanity and our potential to lack pity and charity. It is to remind ourselves of war’s tragedy that we commemorate. This 75th anniversary comes when the whole world is said to be at war with an invisible enemy – Covid-19. The lockdown is a reminder of our human frailty too so perhaps it is a particularly good time to recall VE Day. There will be a day when victory is declared over Coronavirus. But that will be a sombre victory too.

I began with Harold Macmillan. For political balance I will conclude with another famous political diarist – Tony Benn. On VE Day Anthony Wedgwood Benn, as he then was, was on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. He was with other young RAF officers in a kibbutz. The leader of the settlement made a short speech, then glasses were filled for a toast. Always teetotal, Tony Benn asked for an orange squash. He was given one but one of the older residents of the kibbutz thought it no sort of drink with which to toast victory and poured half a cup of wine into it. In his diary Tony Benn says, “I drank it up – it was practically communion wine and I thought it rather an appropriate beverage with which to celebrate peace”.

“Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has…broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (Ephesians 2.14)

• We remember that for many who were caught up in the war in Japan, August 1945 is the true end of World War 2.