Remembrance day prayers

The Day the War Ended
July 7, 1995

Martin Gilbert has just been appointed as Jewish Chronicle professor of Jewish studies at University College, London. His tenure happens to coincide with the forthcoming Research Assessment Exercise. In this assessment period he has already published three single-author books, First World War (1994), In Search of Churchill (1994) and the one under review, two hefty volumes of Churchill's war papers, and a plethora of occasional articles and reviews, to say nothing of an Atlas of British Charities (1993) and multiple new editions of his copious historical atlases, on everything from Jamestown to Jerusalem. For the purist, no doubt, there is a dearth of refereed articles in the right journals. One cannot have everything. Here is not so much the lone scholar as the lone cottage industry. Finding four items to declare should not present too much of a problem.

A prodigious output, then, a phenomenal reach, and an international reputation - cited by George Bush on the lessons of appeasement and consulted by John Major on the lesions of the special relationship. But the RAE is a peer not presidential review, quality- and not quantity-driven, or so we are assured. What will the new professor's peers make of the profundity and originality of his recent work? What does he have to say, and how does he set about saying it? Quo vadis Martin Gilbert?

His latest book yields some indicative answers. The Day The War Ended relates the events and evokes the moods of VE-Day all over the world, though the focus is quite properly on Europe itself. Like much of his recent writing, it takes on the character of an act of witness. It is an anniversary production or, less charitably, an opportunistic one, similar in conception and construction to 1945: The World We Fought For (1985, reissued 1995), by Robert Kee, a less assiduous but more discriminating historian, whose own recollections also appear in Gilbert's work. Both authors seek to make of the tesserae of personal testimony a mosaic history. The difference between them is that Kee uses the testimony to illustrate a number of specific themes, the grandest of which is dramatised in his title. His mosaic resolves itself into a series of easily decipherable tableaux. Gilbert, by contrast, has no themes, other than the pity of war and its perennially unfinished business - both better developed in his earlier, exhaustive Second World War (1989). His mosaic is colourful but inchoate. The detail is startlingly good, but it is all too busy; there is nowhere for the eye or mind to rest. The characteristic linking passages of The Day The War Ended - "another camp . . .", "another surrender . . .", "another serviceman . . .'' - beckon us on impatiently to another page and another individual tragedy. Contrary to the author's original intention, evidently, it is this specially solicited testimony, in the form of letters, diaries and reminiscences, which lends the book some distinction and a kind of flickering human presence - vital, needful, and wonderfully direct.

All of the testimony is scrupulously and individually acknowledged. Much of it concerns deprivation and revelation, variously interpreted. Much of it is Jewish. An inmate of Belsen recalls "the sound track that tells us in a number of languages that we have been liberated by the Allied army. To me it means that I can now spit out the undigested lump of my prisoner past." A British war correspondent in Germany notices "the bare patch on the wall of every house showing where the picture of the Fuhrer used to hang". A returning prisoner of war remembers, "by May 8, I was in Chiswick, with a pile of ham sandwiches and three bottles of hooch. I wasn't the least impressed by the Victory junketing going on in London or radio reports of Churchill on the balcony at the Palace. I'd made it." For another former prisoner of war it took a little longer: "Then one afternoon I entered a Forces canteen and climbed up to the tiny chapel in the attic. There I sat alone, still dazed - my normal state over the preceding months. I picked up a Prayer Book and opened it at random, at the Epistle for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity, as it chanced. Chanced? I came to the words: 'Now all these things happened to them for ensamples, and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come. Wherefore, let him that thinketh he standeth, take heed lest he fall.' My eyes read no further. A huge wave of relieving grief rose within me, would not be controlled, broke into total weeping. All the grief of 1940, of seeing friends die day by day. All the privations and separations of POW life; all the frustrations of the joyless return; all sought expression. I do not know how long I knelt there, crying. Nobody else came in and at length I dried my eyes, pulled myself together and left. From that moment, though still slowly, life returned: my war was over."

The tesserae are eloquent indeed; but the mosaic, like the author, is mute. Gilbert is notorious for his authorial reticence.

The issue is impossible to avoid in any serious consideration of his work. It has been aired most fully in the context of his mountainous official biography of Winston Churchill. In The Day The War Ended his self-denying ordinance is virtually absolute. The very occasional comments he does offer are not merely slight but surprisingly melodramatic. "With a single pistol shot, the Thousand-Year Reich, proclaimed as such by Hitler with confidence and bravado in 1933, was to all intents and purposes at an end. It had been 12 years of tyranny, bloodshed, war and evil on a scale which, even in the retrospect of 50 years, defies the imagination of those who did not witness it, and defies the understanding of those who did. As Soviet shells still fell around the Chancellery, Hitler's body and that of Eva Braun were taken up from the bunker to the courtyard above, doused in petrol, and set on fire. That same day . . ." - and off we go again, lickety-split, to Ravensbruck.

Gilbert is a recorder and, increasingly perhaps, a remembrancer. He almost never probes the lies and silences of his subjects. Like Churchill, they are allowed to speak for themselves. This produces work that is in every sense monumental and in the strict sense sentimental. The memorial is the message. "History is not what you thought," said Sellar and Yeatman in 1066 and All That. "It is what you can remember." And, they might have added, what Martin Gilbert can write down.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, University of Keele.

The Day the War Ended: VE-Day 1945 in Europe and Around the World

Author - Martin Gilbert
ISBN - 0 00255597 2
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £20.00
Pages - 473

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