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?

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham
Downton

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past