Andrew Roberts: Salute the Great Generation and the Total War to end all Total Wars

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At 3pm on Tuesday 8 May 1945 - VE-Day - the prime minister Winston Churchill broadcast an historic radio message to the British people and the wider world. Huge loudspeakers had been rigged up in central London to carry his words to the crowds of more than a million people who thronged the streets. Churchill told them that the previous day the German general Alfred Jodl had signed an unconditional surrender, and thus hostilities would end officially at one minute after midnight, and that "the German war is therefore at an end". The cheering in Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square could be heard in the Cabinet Room at Downing Street, from where Churchill was speaking.

At 3pm on Tuesday 8 May 1945 - VE-Day - the prime minister Winston Churchill broadcast an historic radio message to the British people and the wider world. Huge loudspeakers had been rigged up in central London to carry his words to the crowds of more than a million people who thronged the streets. Churchill told them that the previous day the German general Alfred Jodl had signed an unconditional surrender, and thus hostilities would end officially at one minute after midnight, and that "the German war is therefore at an end". The cheering in Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square could be heard in the Cabinet Room at Downing Street, from where Churchill was speaking.

In his brief summing-up of the war, Churchill spoke of the time afterRussia and America entered the conflict in 1941. "Finally almost the whole world was combined against the evil-doers, who are now prostrate before us." The diarist Harold Nicholson, who was in Parliament Square, noted how "the crowd gasped" at that phrase. The full enormity of the moment seemed to be only slowly entering the consciousness of a people who had experienced such extremes of suffering and sacrifice. It had been only three months since the last flight of V-bombs fell on the United Kingdom, weapons which had killed nearly 3,000 Britons.

The collective national memory of VE Day - the huge exuberant crowds, the dancing conga lines, strangers kissing, the wild all-night celebrations and expressions of collective relief, especially in the East End - form an integral part of our tribal self-identity, a kind of very British obverse to the Götterdämmerung that had taken place the previous week in the Berlin bunker, as so well depicted in the recent film Downfall.

The themes that Churchill pursued that day - of Britain standing alone, of no one wishing to give in, of the equation of Britannia with "the cause of freedom" and the assumption that Britain could and would "advance" - are epicentral to our national self-perception even today, and they are all healthy, uplifting, decent and true. We watch footage of the crowds outside Buckingham Palace - of men wearing hats and ties, women with strange hair-dos, relief and jubilation in all their faces - and we acknowledge and salute a "Great Generation". Of course those of us under the age of 70 also wonder if we could have seen it through ourselves. Has today's society the cohesion, patriotism and sheer stamina to win a Total War as theirs did?

The power of the VE Day footage is undeniable; watching a preview of tonight's ITV programme Victory in Europe in Colour, I found tears welling in my eyes when I listened to the testimony of a Scots lady whose trainee doctor son died serving with the Black Watch and whose other son had lost a leg. To appreciate what the Great Generation suffered, one only has to consider that although the 88 British servicemen who have died in Iraq since 2003 make a sad statistic, Great Britain lost 224,723 killed and 277,090 wounded in the Second World War. To put the Iraq losses into their historical perspective, they represent less than 0.04 per cent of those who fell in the earlier conflict.

"This is your victory," Churchill told the crowds, who roared back: "No, it's yours!" but of course Churchill was right. Modern governments had to fight a people's war, and the price would be demands for a very different world once peace was secured. Hence the ground-breaking cross-party Beveridge Report on social security and the promises of a welfare state, hence Churchill's being ignominiously cashiered as prime minister two months after Victory in Europe, hence Clement Attlee's nationalisation programme, hence the creation of the National Health Service when a near-bankrupt nation could least afford it. Britain fought for Polish independence in September 1939, not for free medical treatment on demand, yet she emerged with the latter, but not the former.

Britannia has indeed advanced in the past 60 years, and has advanced what Churchill called "the cause of freedom". Whatever the rights or wrongs of the way that Tony Blair brought about the Iraq war, few will deny that there is now a better chance of that country enjoying democratic liberties than when Saddam Hussein was in power. Since VE Day there has been an underlying assumption on behalf of the English-speaking peoples that a fascist dictator who tortures his people, invades his neighbours, and uses gas against his racial and political enemies is - assuming the dictates of realpolitik make it practicable - a prime candidate for regime change.

For all that Britannia has advanced since 1945 in terms of every quantifiable quotient of material comfort, she is not necessarily happier for it. The sense of national unity on VE Day was bound to dissipate after the immediate external threat had gone, but when one watches the footage of those happy, good-natured, well-dressed, self-disciplined, polite and friendly VE Day crowds, one wonders whether the last 60 years have really made Britain a better place. Go to any town centre in Britain at closing time on a Saturday night for your answer. For all that we have entered what Churchill called "the sunlit uplands" of peace and prosperity, Britain has squandered much of that spirit of optimism and goodwill that shone in the faces of the VE Day celebrants.

Yet the central message of VE Day remains: Britain has fought wars since - Korea, the Falklands, two against Iraq - but none in any way like that one. For 60 years all the great powers have been at peace, except for one clash between China and India in 1962. Unlike in 1914-18, the bloodshed in the Second World War has led to an unprecedentedly long period of peace. One thing we can be reasonably certain of is that, because of the courage of the Great Generation, the Damoclean threat of Total War does not hang over our generation. Partly this was due to the magnanimity shown toward Germany, as presaged in Churchill's remarks about "our judgement and our mercy" on VE Day.

Of course we must eschew hubris, but even should terrorists detonate a dirty bomb in Trafalgar Square, making London uninhabitable for a half-century, it would not trigger the kind of world war that saw Britons dying in their hundreds of thousands fighting in Burmese jungles, sailing on Atlantic convoys, flying over German cities, suffering in Japanese PoW camps, criss-crossing African deserts, scrambling up Normandy beaches and landing in airborne assaults on Rhine bridges. The First World War tragically turned out not to be "the war to end all wars". The Second World War, however, thankfully was the Total War to end Total War, and that is certainly worth celebrating today.

Andrew Roberts's 'Hitler and Churchill: Secrets of Leadership' is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson

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