The reason why I have been asked to say something today, VE Day, is that I am ancient enough to have fought in the last war. In fact, there is a sense in which I am old enough to remember the First World War too, for I was born in 1914 as it began, and this is not as irrelevant as it might seem; for as a child I grew up in a world shaped and formed by reminders of the horrors and the tragedies, which that war had wrought in the lives of my elders and betters. Many people of my father’s generation had been killed or gassed or maimed in one way or another. At school, a man named Campbell, who taught me French, told us all stories at lunch about the war in the trenches; another named Wilson, who taught me maths and looked about sixty, but was probably twenty-five, had been shell-shocked and was deaf as a result; while Mr Blakeney, who strove to teach me the rudiments of Greek and Latin, had lost a leg. We didn’t like him much, and put a drawing pin on his chair in the hope that he would give a little yelp when we sat on it; but to our dismay he did no such thing. later, we discovered that the drawing pin had been bent flat, and we were all convinced that he had a tin bottom as well as a false leg; though a cigarette case in his back pocket is a more likely explanation.
But enough of the First World War and my childhood! The point of mentioning it at all is that people of my generation - all those who later fought in the Second World War - were brought up under the shadow of the First and in horror of it as utterly evil; and it was - tragic and desperately evil - for it was the suicide of Christian Europe. The sight of priests and padres, bishops and holy fathers blessing the men of all the great Christian nations - England, France, Germany, Austria, Russia, Italy, the United States - as they set out to kill each other, and praying for the deaths of those on the other side, sickened every thinking man (and most unthinking ones too), who recognized hypocrisy when they saw it. So my contemporaries and I grew up in an age when the idea of a loving god seemed to have been disproved by events; if there was a God at all, he didn’t seem to care what his so-called children did to each other on earth; and as for the Church, all it seemed capable of doing was talking sentimental rubbish about gentle Jesus meek and mild and his loving Daddy up aloft, while I and my fellow teenagers surveyed the world in which we had been brought up, and found it to be a wilderness littered with ten million corpses.
As a result we grew up in something like a vacuum of conventional faith; but if we found God difficult to take, at least we were still proud that our fathers had won the war, proud to be English, and happy to live in a country physically unravaged by the war, where many of the old Christian values were still honoured - love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, temperance, and the like - even if they were not always practised and the faith upon which they rested had been largely abandoned. But - and this is the point I want to make - if it was bad for us, it was infinitely worse for my generation in Germany; for not only their religious beliefs, but also their pride in being German, their hopes, and everything their parents had held sacred had been destroyed in the war. their country was occupied by their enemies, who took every opportunity to show their hatred and contempt; they were bankrupt, hungry, humiliated, and there were ten million people unemployed. If nature abhors a vacuum, mankind abhors a total absence of hope, and this did not go unnoticed in the rubble of post-war Germany.
Satan, we are told, was a fallen angel. I don’t know much about Satan, but if there is such a creature, he is at his most lethal, when he masquerades as a Saviour - his favourite disguise - and he has never been more deadly than when he turned up in Germany shortly after the First War with a small moustache and wearing a light brown uniform preaching a new kind of salvation. Satan or no Satan, no-one who lived through the twenties and thirties of this century can doubt the reality and the power of evil. It is as infectious as bubonic plague or killer ‘flu’, and it swept through Germany in the Hitler years like some mortal disease. Probably the most terrifying experience of my life was watching the speed with which the people of one of the most civilized and cultured nations of Europe fell victim to Hitler’s gospel of racial superiority and hatred. He ousted Christ from His throne in the hearts of millions of ordinary, decent Germans with ruthless efficiency and astonishing speed, claiming their faith, their worship, and their absolute obedience for himself, as if he were a god, loading their sense of guilt for starting the war and their failure to win it on to the Jews, and filling his disciples with a demonic energy in the process.
They were the herrenvolk, master race, whom the old Aryan gods of blood and war would lead to victory over lesser breeds like the Slavs and sub-humans like the Jews. The Christian virtues of humility, gentleness, and mercy were disgusting, unmanly, and unfit for a noble Aryan race. Courage in war, slaughtering your enemies, and enslaving the weak were honoured as the greatest of virtues. Poland and Russia were invaded, untold millions of civilians were hanged or shot, their villages burnt, while the gas chambers were built to dispose of such human filth as the mentally sick, the physically disabled and deformed, gypsies, and Jews. That was the evil, which was defeated fifty years ago today.
It was defeated at enormous cost by the courage and sacrifice of many people: Russians, French Resistance, Poles, Americans, Greek partisans, British, New Zealanders, Australians, Gurkhas, and many more. I can’t do them all justice here. Instead, I will finish by recalling briefly one moment when, by every ordinary military standard, Germany had won the war. Poland had been defeated, Russia had made an alliance with Hitler, America was neutral, France had capitulated, the British army had been broken in France, while the remnant of it which was snatched from the beaches of Dunkirk was demoralised and armed with little more than out-of-date rifles and walking sticks. In fact, Hitler had won. But a stubborn refusal to admit defeat possessed this nation, and together with the English Channel and the Royal Navy, it cheated Hitler of his victory. Nor was that all, for everyone was possessed, too, not so much by a determination to refuse to admit defeat - we knew that we had suffered a defeat - as by a determination not to succumb to evil. We were not a church-going nation; belief in God had not recovered from the damage done to it by the horrors of the last war; and although we all sang the National Anthem every now and again, no-one seriously expected God to save the King any more than he might save anyone else - if he existed at all. But, as I have said, we still tried to honour such Christian virtues as love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, and the like and were prepared to defend them; and when you remember such a saying as “Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord, shall enter into the Kingdom…but he who does the will of my Father”, perhaps that was enough. We could never have won the war on our own. But the world could not have won it, if we had succumbed in 1940. And that is something of which we can all be both justly proud and deeply thankful today on VE Day.