May 8: Let’s be clear about the name of the war it ended

This is a guest post by Phil Carmel

May 8, V.E. Day, the anniversary of the final defeat of Nazi Germany, is a national holiday across much of Europe from France in the West to Russia in the East.

Strangely though, it is not a national holiday in the UK, perhaps because Britain continued fighting in the East right up to the defeat of Japan later the same year.

I say “strangely” because, but for Britain, there would never have been a V.E. day. In September 1939, Nazi Germany invaded western Poland and Britain and France declared war. Within nine months, there was no longer an independent France or indeed, an independent continental Europe, and Britain stood alone.

This war has a name: it is called World War II because ultimately, it was fought all over the world and because, in general, it was fought not just for territory but against evil. Britain could have chosen not to be involved. It was not invaded. Indeed, many on the far-right and the far-left actively campaigned for it not to be involved. They forgot their vast political differences and signed up to the Peace Pledge Union, their very own 1930’s version of the Stop the War Coalition. Their political descendants have historically opposed British membership of the European Union.

Back to WWII. While Britain chooses classic British modesty in its celebration of the defeat of Nazism, the further east you go in Europe the more bombastic and in-your-face the public displays of victory.

At some point eastwards though, this World War II we all recognise in Britain gets a different name. In Russia it is still called the Great Patriotic War as it has been for more than 70 years. This Great Patriotic War did not start in September 1939 but rather in 1941. For the then manifestation of Russia, the Soviet Union, this was a war of necessity, not of choice – not a fight against Nazism but a defence of invaded territory. Many millions of Russians died in the defence of this territory, although admittedly some of it wasn’t really their own. But as a result of the invasion by Nazi Germany of the territory of the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union did not join World War II as the popular narrative goes. Rather, it simply changed sides.

The Soviet Union didn’t join World War II in 1941, because it had already joined World War II in September 1939 when it invaded eastern Poland, the Baltic States and Bessarabia.

You may say that the Soviet Union didn’t have a choice. That it wasn’t ready. Perhaps it was better to prepare for two years and then fight the Nazis. But then again, neither was Britain. The disarmament of the 1930s meant Britain wasn’t ready in 1939. Logically, it shouldn’t have joined in. Logically, it shouldn’t have started the war against the Nazis. Perhaps, like the Soviet Union, it should have joined in with Nazi Germany. Logically, it should have pulled out after the defeat of France in 1940. Thank God it didn’t.

It is because Britain went in unprepared in 1939 and continued alone through 1940 and most of 1941, that the rest of Europe – and Vladimir Putin’s Russia – can celebrate May 8.

By the way, the Great Patriotic War didn’t fully end on May 8, 1945 either. It ended in 1989 and 1990 when the Berlin Wall came down and those European countries invaded by the Soviet Union in 1939, while it was fighting on the same side as the Nazis, finally received their freedom. And when those other countries suppressed by the Soviet Union as from May 8, 1945 finally also received theirs.

But one’s perspective on this narrative should not just be a history lesson. It remains critical today because it is the same fault line that divides democratic left and undemocratic left – why the former always believes in fighting totalitarianism while the latter so often excuses it when it comes from what it believes to be the left. And why the former still believes that racism and antisemitism and fascism somehow cannot really come from the left.

Recently, I was given a guided tour of the Museum of Ukraine’s History of the Second World War in Kyiv. Until very recently, it was called the Museum of the History of the Great Patriotic War.

There is a similar museum in Moscow. Maybe it too will one day change its name.