The victory was an overwhelming victory of a scale unknown in modern times, or any age of man: the greatest land power of Europe was occupied across its whole breadth such that surrender was almost unnecessary as it had ceased to be, and not just there, but victory was achieved across the world. Even greater than these, it produced a peace which has lasted 75 years in which time war between great nations in Europe has become unthinkable.
However, the peace was lost. It often is.
The crowds cheered Churchill when Germany was defeated and they knew that it was his words and his determination to action behind them which had driven the nation to victory – he inspired, he uplifted, he gave purpose to the grimmest of struggles, and silently in the secretive corridors of power he did not relax but ensured the right people (not the ‘approved’ people) were in charge of the war effort. The victory was his (and Vera Lynn’s).
Then two and a half months later, the people turfed Churchill out of office and installed Clement Attlee.
Having defeated national socialism, the Britons installed their own socialism. Attlee’s socialist government wrecked the economy and dissolved the Empire we had just fought to preserve. He was out after 6 years, but the long-term damage was done.
The end of the war could have allowed Britain and the Empire to be stronger than ever. Instead Britain, shorn of empire, began a steep decline such that it came to be accepted as our inevitable destiny, and we could not longer understand how we had been so great. That pathological defeatism is still with us in spite of all the proof against it. America on the other had rose further, in confidence and strength.
For Poland and Czechoslovakia, in whose names we went to war in the first place, it was a very bitter victory.
There are many examples in history of great nations destroying themselves in victory. Maybe we forget them because they disappeared. Far in our classical past, Sparta’s military system made its neighbours enemies and destroyed its own strength. Alexander following on conquered the Persian Empire but so absorbed Persian ways to rule it that his courtiers despaired that they had placed all Greece under a Persian king after all, and then tore the empire apart on his death. Greeks, Romans, Gauls, Germanic tribes and empires all tumbled at the point of victory. In 1763, Britain at last dominated North America, but then in consolidating its conquests drove the colonists into successful rebellion. In our generation, those Arab and Afghan men who rebelled against oppressors – how sore they feel now as someone else seized their victory.
Attlee then threw away the rewards that could have come of Churchill’s victory. The main reward of victory for the world, namely destruction of the Nazi menace, was undiminished. There could have so much more though. America rose to undreamed-of prosperity, while Britain’s recovery was stunted at birth. After 1951, Churchill and his successors began to recover, but were shackled to a deathly consensus form of government that was not broken until 1979. Whitehall was also by then riddled with Communist agents, which caused America to take sole control of the nuclear and rocketry programmes which had started as joint ventures. America became a titan of the Space race, while impoverished Britain launched but a single satellite. How had the mighty fallen.
The Suez Crisis could have restored confidence, but its failure sapped the remaining confidence we might have had. In 1982, Argentina invaded and occupied the Falkland Islands, and Whitehall was ready to give in at once – had it not been for the First Sea Lord bursting uninvited into the Cabinet Room, they would have. The swift victory in the islands was a waking up, a start to reclaiming the older victory.
After 75 years of peace, we have grown soft, and you might say we won the peace just so we could relax and soften, but challenges do not cease. If we forget what is possible, there will be no resistance to the next bloody invader or dictator. Hitler wanted to destroy our power but we destroyed it for him, if not in the way he thought, thank goodness.