Europe // Analysis

13 may 2015

Two Wars, One Memory

Alexey Gromyko Doctor of Political Science, Director of the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IE RAS), RAS Corresponding Member, RIAC member
Photo:
REUTERS/Phil Noble
A veteran holds a Union flag during an armed
forces and veterans' parade on the final day of
70th anniversary Victory in Europe (VE) day
commemorations in central London
May 10, 2015

Britain, as an ally in the anti-German coalition, made an invaluable contribution to the victory in World War II. As in the rest of Europe, Victory Day in the United Kingdom is celebrated on 8 May, not 9 May. This is a day of remembrance celebrated every year with annual parades and events dedicated to those killed in the terrible war of 1939-1945. Yet, for Britain, World War II is inseparably linked to World War I, which was just as tragic for the United Kingdom. The reason for this is commented on by Alexei Gromyko, Director of the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Head of the Centre for British Studies, expert at the RIAC.

Britain has special feelings about Victory Day celebrations. The country participated in World War II from 3 September 1939 to September 1945, when Japan capitulated. For Britain, this is a major celebration.

British people are very reserved and conservative about any revision of historical events. For them, such dates are not subject to revision. For Britain, the First and Second World Wars were watersheds in the nation’s 20th century history, events on which their national awareness and national pride are based. In Britain, both the First and Second World Wars are seen as a monolithic historical epoch, unlike the perception of the First and Second World Wars in Russia. So, for Britain the Thirty Years’ War is no longer an event of the 17th century, but rather a historical period of the 20th century. This is what Winston Churchill called it. It is a very popular celebration, marked annually, even though without military parades. Memories and signs of respect are part of the mass culture. Annual ceremonies involving the Royal Family and the country’s top politicians are held on 8 May at the Cenotaph war memorial on Whitehall.

In Britain, both the First and Second World Wars are seen as a monolithic historical epoch, unlike the perception of the First and Second World Wars in Russia. So, for Britain the Thirty Years’ War is no longer an event of the 17th century, but rather a historical period of the 20th century.

In World War I, Britain lost far more lives than in World War II. In the First World War, around 700,000 Britons were killed, whereas in the Second World War, about 450,000. Though World War II was less tragic for Britain in terms of human losses, in certain aspects it remains the most important in the public awareness, not least because, in World War I, Britain suffered multiple defeats, including the famous Battle of Gallipoli in Turkey in 1915. In April 2015, Britain, New Zealand and Australia marked the 100th anniversary of that battle.

In the Second World War, unlike in the First World War, Britain was a theatre of military operations. At least 60,000 British civilians were killed, mostly as a result of bombings by the Luftwaffe.

We should also remember that, during World War II, for several months Britain remained alone, face to face with Nazi Germany. This, too, adds to Britain’s national pride. Thus, World War II for the British people is the second great war won by Britain, together with its allies, in the 20th century. It should be noted that Britons see their contribution to victory over Nazi Germany as much more important than it is considered in Russia. Unfortunately, Britain’s ideas about the size of the contribution made by this or that country to the victory in World War II hardly fit into the historical facts that became an axiom in Russian historiography. Britain primarily remembers its losses and its contribution to the victory and, unlike Germany and even France, is not inclined to pay much attention to the USSR’s role in winning the war.

The material was prepared by Maria Gurova, editor of the RIAC website.

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Alexey Gromyko, “Two Wars, One Memory,” Russian International Affairs Council, 13 May 2015, http://russiancouncil.ru/en/inner/?id_4=5906

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