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?

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

art
Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

music
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer is believed to be playing a zombie wife in Patient Zero

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Gatiss says Benedict Cumberbatch oozes sex appeal with his 'Byronic looks' and Sherlock coat
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Clothing items bearing the badge have become popular among music aficionados
musicAuthorities rule 'clenched fist' logo cannot be copyrighted
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson will star in Seth MacFarlane's highly-anticipated Ted 2

film
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in 'Gone Girl'

film
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.

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?