Opinion

The challenges of commemoration: how do we remember VE Day in the time of coronavirus?

Friday marked 75 years since the Allied victory in Europe – but it was no ordinary VE Day. The planned parades, street parties and church services never happened. A socially-distanced concert from Buckingham Palace, followed by a broadcast from the Queen, was as close to normal as we got.

Social media saw disagreement about how to mark the occasion in the midst of coronavirus. A YouGov poll conducted back on 29 April found that 67% think it is ‘right’ to celebrate VE Day, compared to 10% who think it is ‘wrong’ and 23% who ‘don’t know’. Indeed, some found the idea of any celebration to be problematic given the current climate– after all, the UK coronavirus death toll had exceeded 31,000 by Friday morning and we have the worst death toll in Europe. It’s often been asked why we ‘celebrate’ VE Day at all, when we mourn on Remembrance Sunday.

In truth, it’s up to every one of us to choose how we commemorate those who gave their lives in the First and Second World Wars – and, indeed, any conflict. Our families all have a different relationship with war. VE Day is about remembrance, but it is also about peace in Europe – as fragile as that peace has been. It can be about celebration, remembrance, or both.

It reminds us of the hope, strength and togetherness that defined Britons in the Second World War and it’s clear to see why even the Queen has invoked parallels between COVID-19 and that famous ‘Blitz spirit’. Such comparisons have their critics: for a start, we are not really at war – in fact, we’re working with other countries to fight a global health crisis and our ‘victory’ will be a shared one, despite progress being hampered by isolationism and frayed international relations.

But it’s clear to see why we might draw inspiration from the lessons of conflict. In wartime, families were also separated – by evacuation, and the death of loved ones before their time. Britons had to show courage, resolve and enormous optimism in the face of unthinkable catastrophe. Friday, it seems, offered a similar flicker of light, for those who wanted it. Like the weekly Clap for Carers, or children’s rainbows appearing in windows across the land, the sight of bunting and households gathered in their front gardens at 3pm to raise a toast to veterans presented a momentary glimmer of happiness and togetherness for those who wanted to be part of it.

Friday presented problems, though. Demonstrating a distressing lack of that ‘common sense’ that Boris Johnson has asked us to show as lockdown is eased, some commemorations flagrantly violated social distancing rules. In my town, I heard about a nurse sobbing when she returned from work to discover a street party taking place. I heard about barbecues and cake sales and saw videos circulating on social media showing neighbours dancing together.

What seems an error of judgement from major news channels led to pictures broadcasted of big crowds gathered in streets to sing ‘We’ll Meet Again’. A widely shared clip of a street in Warrington performing a ‘socially-distanced’ conga line was shocking to watch: with families prevented from being at the bedside of seriously ill loved ones, or even attending their funerals, the sight of people coming together in such a frivolous, meaningless way must have been heartbreaking for many.

Yet the actions of a minority, whose mistake endangered the safety of their neighbours and families, should not be seized upon to ridicule the very idea of VE Day and remembrance. We should also be asking questions about the role of the government and the press in coming up with Friday’s jarringly optimistic headlines that, in the eyes of many, compared the easing of lockdown restrictions to Britain’s reclamation of its freedoms in 1945. VE Day was the end of Britain’s Second World War, but Friday was far from the end of Britain’s present day trials – a fact lost on many, who we can only hope are now reflecting on the selfishness of their actions. While it should have still been possible to mark VE Day, comparisons with the easing of lockdown were unhelpful. The likes of the infuriating Warrington Conga Line distracted us from the real importance of VE Day.

My family’s commemoration, we decided, was to be about celebrating peace. We dug out some old rainbow bunting (doubling up, I suppose, as a tribute to the NHS, the crowning achievement of the postwar welfare state) and sat out on our front driveway in the sunshine. We listened to radio hits from the early 1940s and thought about what must have gone through the minds of those Londoners who spent their nights sleeping on Underground tracks. Our little act of remembering and celebration, our way of marking the moment, didn’t require coming into contact with anybody else.

Other criticisms of VE Day voiced on social media centred on unease about what we might term ‘patriotism’. It’s an important, and complex, conversation to be had. The Union flag, that ubiquitous feature of a VE Day celebration, has heavy baggage and there were some accusations that VE Day represented nationalism, Eurocentrism, and the whitewashing of history.

Collectively, we need to work out how we can reclaim symbols of national identity from the clutches of extremism, to make ‘Britishness’ something inclusive, solidaristic, even progressive – rather than something hijacked by the far right. We must be prepared to remember British sacrifices, but to reflect on a difficult national past. When remembering, we can confront dangerous nationalism by ensuring that our remembrance takes into account the bravery and sacrifices of millions of Commonwealth and British Empire soldiers, and even those who lost their lives fighting for our enemies.

Yes, many took it too far on Friday: remembrance doesn’t require barbecues and conga lines. But their actions do not delegitimise the significance of VE Day, which is about remembering those who gave their lives in the name of freedom, celebrating the peace that they fought for, and reflecting on the fair, modern society that the Second World War birthed.

Oliver Shaw

Oliver (he/him) is the Senior Current Affairs Editor at The Oxford Blue for the summer vacation and Michaelmas 2020. Oliver lives in Warwickshire and is entering his final year studying History at Merton College.