This month – May 8 to be exact – marks the 75th anniversary of the conclusion of World War 2. Numerous commemorative activities were held to honour those who fell in that conflict. Of course, the current pandemic put a dampener on the numbers of people attending outdoor commemorations. Each nation celebrates the end of WW2 in their own way. Britain allowed outdoor events to mark the occasion.
The way that historical anniversaries are remembered is as instructive as the events themselves. The nature of commemorative celebrations tell us about the political vision of those who organise them, and the way the public is encouraged to engage in collective memory. Britain’s VE Day celebrations were a carnival of racialised nationalism, engaged in rehabilitating the British empire rather than an act of WW2 remembrance.
Celebrating Victory in Europe (VE) Day is about commemorating the collective action and multinational solidarity that led to the military victory over fascism. The millions who died fighting the horrifying racial doctrines of Nazi fascism did not do so to reimpose another set of racial hierarchies in the form of English (or French or other white European) colonialism.
The patriotic myth of Britain standing alone against the might of the Nazi war machine may have served a galvanising, morale-boosting purpose in the 1940s, but it is a historical fiction now deployed to promote a narrative of British ‘uniqueness‘ and imperial nostalgia. David Olusoga, writing in the Guardian, addresses this particular issue. Rather than standing alone, Britain had the support of all the nonwhite peoples of its empire:
Britain went to war in 1939 in the name of freedom and democracy, but fielded armies within whose ranks were black and brown men who were regarded and often treated as second-class citizens. To manage this contradiction the government attempted to recast the British empire as a project of partnership, rather than one of domination.
The racial divide of the English empire had to be disguised – it was one thing to combat the white supremacy of Nazi Germany, but quite another to question white nationalism within your own dominions:
To convince Asians and Africans that victory for Britain was in their interest, concerted propaganda efforts were deployed to make them aware of the true nature of Nazism and its underlying racial theories. But in August 1941 a Nigerian newspaper put its finger on the dilemma, when it asked, “What purpose does it serve to remind us that Hitler regards us as semi-apes if the Empire for which we are ready to suffer and die … can tolerate racial discrimination against us?”
The British Eighth Army, the strong unit deployed to defend the Suez Canal from Nazi – and Italian fascist – invasion, was multiracial, composed of Indians, Sri Lankans, Australians, Kenyans, Nigerians – among others. It also fought in the battle of Tobruk. From 1940 and the Blitz, Britain received military volunteers from India and the Caribbean. The contribution of these soldiers breaks the myth of British isolation and exceptionalism carefully cultivated after the end of the war.
Churchill definitely gave rousing speeches to boost morale, and he made abundantly clear his objective of maintaining the empire after the defeat of the Axis powers. Self-determination was to be applied to the nations occupied by Nazi Germany – Britain‘s colonial adventures were not to be questioned. English nationalism, up to and including its Tory Brexiteer variety, forcefully imposed its racially stratified society in the aftermath of WW2.
To be certain, the British ruling establishment is not the only one that quickly sought to retain its colonial possessions, and rehabilitate its empire’s reputation, after the war. On May 8, the Free French forces moved speedily to reimpose French control over its erstwhile colony of Algeria, after the Axis powers were defeated in North Africa. While May 8 is a day of celebration in Europe, it is a somber day of mourning in Algeria, where French colonists, supported by the French army, launched a wave of killings that resulted in the deaths of thousands of Algerians.
As the racist killings of the Nazi war machine became public knowledge, cries of ‘Never Again’ rang out throughout the world. The mass, industrialised killing of the Nazi concentration camps forced us to ask questions about ourselves, and to evaluate how this criminal endpoint was reached by an underlying ideology of European white supremacy. After the camps were closed and Allied armies returned home, the Anglo-French empire-builders revived their particular white nationalist projects with a vengeance.
We are committing a terrible disservice to those who engaged in anti-fascist and anti-racist struggles by rehabilitating the doctrines of their killers. Owen Dowling, writing in Varsity magazine, states that:
The reconsolidation of Anglo-French colonial regimes after May 1945 represented a betrayal of the principles upon which the anti-fascist struggle had been waged, that will forever stain the flags of those victorious Empires. In some territories, notably the Indian sub-Continent, the edifice of colonialism had been so eroded by war and anti-colonial agitation that a sustained reimposition of imperial rule had been made infeasible.
Bellicose nationalism and imperial nostalgia are a violation of the international spirit that motivated the anti-Nazi war effort. Victory in Europe belongs to the millions of workers who organised and fought tenaciously against the fascist threat. When Russian President Vladimir Putin commemorates the end of WW2, he thanks everyone for their sacrifice, including the Americans and British all the while upholding the Soviet Union’s vastly greater and primary effort in defeating the Axis powers.
No, this is not an exercise in hating Britain, or France, or any other nation. It is an exercise in refocusing our commemorative gaze on the defenders of Leningrad and Stalingrad, the rescue workers of London, Coventry, Plymouth and Portsmouth; the anti-fascist resistance in Yugoslavia, France and the Netherlands – these are the real victors of World War 2. We would do well to remember them.