By Tom Anderson
On May 8th 2020, despite the circumstances of the coronavirus lockdown, the United Kingdom—like a number of other nations around the world—celebrated Victory in Europe Day. The British people were rightly reminded in Her Majesty the Queen’s message that this had not truly been the end of the Second World War, for fighting had continued in the Asia-Pacific front of the war for months more. As the grandson of a veteran of this front of the war, who was in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp near Nagasaki at the time when people were celebrating victory over Hitler back home, this reminder was greatly appreciated by me.
Nonetheless, VE Day was an important and cathartic moment in both British and world history. The end of any war, it should be reasonably obvious, is a fertile place for Alternate History speculation. It is natural to focus on the grand matters of nations and governments, of borders on the map that would stand for decades and rewrite the future. However, the Second World War is actually a rather poor example of this, because much of the postwar situation had already been settled; the European Advisory Commission, drawn up by the Allies at the Tehran Conference of 1943, had already defined what the postwar occupation zones of Germany would be, for example. I have seen alternate history speculation on what would have happened if the Americans made it as far east as Prague, for example—but the anticlimactic answer is that they would simply have withdrawn after the German surrender, as they did from parts of Saxony in our timeline. Similarly, Charles de Gaulle attempted to occupy Stuttgart with liberated French forces (as he rejected the zones that had been agreed to at a conference which he had not been present at) but was pressured to withdraw. While the details of Germany’s eastward territorial cessions to Poland and the Soviet Union were not fully agreed until the Potsdam Conference of 1945 after Germany’s surrender, the lines on the postwar map were largely clear long before Hitler put a bullet in his brain.
Instead of considering such matters of a grand scale, we can think about the smaller and more human consequences of the end of the war. It is a poignant reminder of the human cost of war when we reflect on those who lost their lives right at the end of any conflict, men and women who might have lived full lives and changed the world if political leaders had been less stubborn and ended an unwinnable conflict earlier. Of course, in the case of the Second World War there were good reasons for both Western and Eastern Allies to hold to a common commitment for unconditional surrender and reject German attempts at a separate peace with either; both were determined to ensure not only that Germany was defeated but that the Nazi ideology was cleansed from the world and its criminals against humanity brought to justice. I am reminded of an online alternate history work, whose name I sadly no longer remember, from some years ago—whose author posits the idea of a problem with the Trinity test, meaning that the atomic bombings of Japan are delayed by a matter of weeks, a month or two at most. A seemingly small difference, but the author then depicts the continued, futile clashes in the Pacific between the Allies and Japan, showing the deaths of then-obscure individuals in the US and Japanese armed forces such as Gene Roddenberry. We know, of course, that those people would go on to change the postwar world—yet such a scenario reminds us that there will be many more who would have done so if the war had ended a little earlier. Only examples from already-illustrious families tend to be discussed in our timeline, such as Joe Kennedy Jr. (the elder brother of John F. Kennedy) who was killed in action in 1944. But there will be many more we will never know.
London, which had suffered terribly in the Blitz and latterly from German V-1 flying bombs and V-2 rockets, saw huge celebrations for VE Day despite shortages and austerity meaning there was little to celebrate with. The Royal Family appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with Prime Minister Winston Churchill, an unprecedented event that showed how beloved the PM had become with the people—not so much his party, as the unexpected results of the ensuing election showed. One of my now-elderly neighbours was one of the children who played in the fountains of Trafalgar Square that day. Like many Londoners, he left the capital for pastures new in the aftermath of the war. The densely populated centre of London had been badly battered in the war (as had other cities to a lesser extent) and there was a major housing crisis to solve. While we think of London today as being crowded, a glance at the election maps of the pre-war period and the number of constituencies crammed into what we now call central London illustrates just how many people were living, often in poor conditions.
The Blitz and the diaspora partially broke down the pre-war culture of London, in particular its poor but culturally distinct East End. While London had always been a city with a large immigrant presence, from Flemish weavers in the 1200s to Huguenots in the 1600s to Chinese in the 1900s, successive new waves of immigration also changed the character of the city. Even though the population density in central London decreased, the city also expanded to take in the surrounding areas as new housing estates grew up (often in architectural styles that became much disliked). By the 1960s, Greater London was created to take in areas around the old County of London—though to this day, many people in outer boroughs such as Croydon, Bexley and Havering reject the idea of being identified with London. Some of those places had former strong identities as distinct towns, although this is also true of nearer places that now no-one would dispute as being part of London, such as Islington and Southwark. While the old East End or ‘Cockney’ culture is certainly not extinct, it has changed considerably from the form imperfectly romanticised in Mary Poppins or celebrated in the music of Chas and Dave. But perhaps this is appropriate, as the Blitz in 1941 destroyed the bells of St Mary-le-Bow Church on Cheapside, and legend had said that a true Cockney must be born within the sound of the Bow bells. There are few enough true Cockneys left by that definition. The changing character of the East End of London was reflected (not always terribly accurately) in the long-running BBC sitcom EastEnders.
Speaking of the BBC, it had become the first television service in the world (on top of its existing radio broadcasts) in the period 1936-9, before being shut down for the war. Apocryphal legend says that when broadcasts resumed in 1946, the continuity announcer began with “As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted...” In fact the first words spoken by that announcer, Jasmine Bligh, were the more prosaic “Good afternoon everybody. How are you? Do you remember me, Jasmine Bligh?” But inconvenient facts have never been permitted to spoil a good story, and this clearly inspired controversial London politician Ken Livingstone when he was elected Mayor of London in 2000. Livingstone, who had been born a few weeks before VE Day and in later life would show a worrying obsession with the man who had shot himself shortly before it, had formerly been Labour head of the Greater London Council, a body that was abolished by Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1986 for somewhat partisan reasons. On returning to office in this new elected position leading London, Livingstone in 2000 indeed began with “As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted...”
In a sense, this example shows how important legends can be. It doesn’t matter whether your street actually had a street party in 1945, or whether you had any food to have one with. It doesn’t matter that rationing and austerity would continue for many years after the war, as would National Service. What matters if that VE Day was the light at the end of the tunnel for the British people (as it was for many around the world) and, here and now facing a new crisis, it is a spirit we need more of. We have spent decades honouring the sacrifices of those who died for us to usher in the ever-lengthening ‘postwar era’; yet in the years before the war, the papers were full of editorials complaining that these soft kids of the 1930s would go to pieces if there was another Great War. History repeats itself, and the Queen said in her address to the nation (and she would know) that the actions of British people here and now show that she could “...say with pride that we are still a nation those brave soldiers, sailors and airmen would recognise and admire.”
Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions, Cometh the Hour), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, and The Surly Bonds of Earth