Tragic heroes, villains and victims

Jan Morris on a breathtaking, panoramic portrait of Europe in 1945; The Day the War Ended Martin Gilbert HarperCollins £20

"Europe has found a great gift", wrote Ilya Ehrenberg, the winner of the Stalin Prize, in Pravda on 9 May1945, " - tranquillity."

They were words of hideous irony. It was true that after more than five years of war the guns of Europe were silent: but tranquil was hardly the word for a continent seething with shame, regret, recrimination, sorrow and starvation, criss-crossed in every direction by millions of people on the move, with nations uprooted, exhausted armies everywhere, thousands upon thousands of prisoners emerging bewildered from POW camps, concentration camps, forced labour camps and plain death camps. Hitler's terrible enchantment lay upon the continent still, Stalin's curse was waiting to be cast, and if VE Day did celebrate a great military victory, Europe did not find even the semblance of tranquillity until, half a lifetime later, the Iron Curtain, and Ehrenberg's Communism, crumbled.

Martin Gilbert's magnificent book is ill-served by its title. It is not one of those populist registers of everything that happened on a particular day in history. It is a tremendous portrait of Europe in the weeks and months around VE Day, supplemented, unwisely in my opinion, by glimpses of what was happening elsewhere - notably in the Far East, where The Day the War Ended was still months away. We have the statutory evocations of festivity in London, Paris and other capitals - fireworks, dancing, too much drink, kisses in the street, Churchill, princesses on the palace balcony and all that, but far more important, we have a breathtaking panorama of the whole European continent at one of the most fateful moments of its history.

Gilbert's genius is for the massing of vast bodies of evidence - a strategic genius, one might say. The tactical fascination of his book is provided by a multitude of eye-witness accounts, each recording a tiny fragment of the vast mosaic, and scrupulously set one against another to form a balanced composite. I noticed only two mistakes in the entire work - not all the prisoners at Colditz were escapees from other camps, and ATS did not stand for Army Transport Service. Otherwise, so far as I can judge, it is as accurate and as fair as scholarship and retrospective judgement can make it. Posterity may be assured that this is how Europe really was, at the end of its most dreadful war.

I cannot begin to reflect the richness, the sadness and the complexity of such a terrific mis-en-scne. Out of the nightmare, out of the endless tattered processions of refugees, the divisions victorious and defeated milling this way and that, the vile prisons festering with disease, a thousand pungent details and incongruous names leap out of the pages. Who is this crumpled Major Whitelaw, accepting the surrender of Ltjenburg from a "beautifully turned-out" German officer? Why, who but our Willie, later to be adjutant to the Iron Lady? Captain Vivian Herzog, the British intelligence officer who accepts the surrender of Heinrich Himmler, will one day be Chaim Herzog, President of the State of Israel; while a 15- year-old anti-aircraft gunner we find spending the night of VE Day in a railway signal box will grow up to be Helmut Kohl, Chancellor of Germany.

Heroes, villains and countless victims swarmed all across Europe then. Simultaneously trying to find a way to Argentina were Oskar Schindler, bearing the blessing of many Jews, and Adolf Eichmann, carrying the curses of many more. The Mufti of Jerusalem, a scheming client of the Nazis, was skulking towards Switzerland. The Belgian Fascist Lon Degrelle had successfully crash-landed his light aircraft in hospitable Spain. Wernher von Braun the rocket scientist was piloting his way to a new career in America. The Soviet general Vlasov, having defected from the Red Army to serve the Germans, was now helping the Czechs to throw the Wermacht out of Prague (the Russians shot him in the end).

In Austria, thousands of renegade Ukrainians and Cossacks found themselves returned by the British to the rough justice of the Soviet Union. In Holland, German prisoners under Allied orders arrested thousands of Dutch SS volunteers who had fought beside them on the Russian front. In Dublin Eamonn de Valera, hearing of Hitler's death, paid an official visit of condolence to the German Embassy. The men of the American VIth Army Corps had chased the German 19th Division from the South of France to its surrender in the Austrian Alps: the same British driver drove Montgomery's HQ caravan all the way from El Alamein to Luneburg Heath.

But the victims dominate the book. Out of a hundred lacerating stories of sorrow and cruelty, let me take just one, by no means the most harrowing. Mr and Mrs Krell, Dutch Jews, lost all their parents, together with three sisters and two brothers, in the concentration camps. They themselves spent three years in hiding, separated from each other and from their year-old baby, Robert, who was taken in by Christians and brought up as their own. And when at last they were reunited, all three having miraculously survived, the little boy did not recognise his mother and father, and refused to acknowledge them.

Gilbert is an authority on the Holocaust, and for a time I thought that in this book he was perhaps over-emphasising the tragedy of the Jews amid the universal misery. But the more I read, the more it seemed to me that two nations dominated the whole terrible story; the Germans and the Jews. They were like antagonists of destiny, in some transcendental allegory. The American journalist Louis Sobol wrote that German soldiers "had lost their place in history as valiant foes", and had proved themselves "whiners and crumble-uppers when the going gets tough". It was not so. We know now that the Germans fought their ghastly cause with obdurate courage, and with a skill that none of their enemies could surpass: it was not until the last day of the war that the German garrison of Dunkirk surrendered, six months after the Allied armies had swept by on their way to Germany.

Allied fighting men recognised and admired these soldierly qualities, especially perhaps the British, who retained a wry affection for Rommel's Arika Corps. But if they had a certain professional fellow-feeling for the German Army, any temptation to sympathise with their cause was obliterated by the horrors of the concentration camps, with their gradually revealed evidence of the Final Solution. "Any stirring of comradeship towards the beaten enemy", wrote the Army doctor Frank Richardson, "had died under the impact of Belsen."

So the suffering of the Jews was ironically sublimated, and half of Europe, liberated from the monster Hitler, fell under the domination of the ogre Stalin. "Don't head east", said a Russian Jewish officer, when the Jewish survivors of a slave labour camp asked him where they ought to go, "they don't like us there; but don't head west either, because they don't like us anywhere". Fifty years on, as Europe celebrates that famous victory, can we be sure that we shall never hear such a heart-rending cri de coeur again? Are those evil spells of VE Day really exorcised, or do they curdle still below the surface of Europe, waiting for a new sorcerer, and other victims for the sacrifice?

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