“There is a hush over all Europe, nay, over all the world … Alas! It is the hush of suspense, and in many lands it is the hush of fear. Listen! No, listen carefully, I think I hear something - yes, there it was quite clear. Don’t you hear it? It is the tramp of armies crunching the gravel of the parade grounds, splashing through rain-soaked fields, the tramp of two million German soldiers and more than a million Italians - ‘going on manoeuvres’- yes, only on manoeuvres!” – Winston S. Churchill, broadcast of 8 August 1939
Beginning in September 1939, World War II was instigated when Germany invaded Poland in its quest for Lebensraum; two days later Britain and France declared war on the Nazi state. Over the following six years the Nazi war machine would encompass the bulk of Europe, parts of Africa and the Middle East, and would knock menacingly on Britain’s door.
The Blitz of 1940–41 saw the destruction of many British streets, but nowhere more so than in London. Children were evacuated to the countryside to try to take them out of harm’s way, while bomb shelters and blackouts became the norm of British life. It was a time when a siren would send a city underground and much of that wartime spirit kicked into action: songs were sung and community was vital. Overhead Spitfires and Hurricanes worked hard to defend Britain’s skies. In all, two million houses were destroyed and over 40,000 civilians lost their lives during this period.
However, the situation was much more dire in France, where Axis forces took control in 1940 and the infamous Vichy government established an authoritarian regime. This led to a strong French resistance network and the Allied espionage effort was focused there. Such characters as Violette Szabo and Nancy Wake operated here, right under the noses of the Gestapo. Sadly, Violette was not to survive the war – as was the case for a good many of the operatives on foreign soil.
Famously, American entry into World War II happened in response to the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, who were one of the Axis powers. Their fight against the Japanese was to last until 2 September 1945 – VJ Day. The Japanese surrendered in the wake of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when the total devastation of the atomic bomb was realised. Although the bombs were indiscriminate in their victims and the human effects were shocking, their use ended World War II. It is a testament to the destruction the bombs wrought that the A-bomb has never been used in active service since.
By the end of the war, in 1945, the barbarity of Hitler’s regime was laid bare, as concentration camps were found and liberated, the gas ‘showers’ and incinerators were discovered and skeletal victims of the persecution were rescued. The primary victims of the Holocaust were Jews from all over Nazi-occupied Europe, but other minorities also suffered the same fate: the disabled, non-heterosexual people, non-Europeans, non-white and political opponents to the Nazi Party, to name a few. The philosophy of eugenics had been brought to a horrifying conclusion under Adolf Hitler.
With the loss of 6 million Jews over the period of the war, a number of memorials focus upon this catastrophic decimation of the Jewish population of Europe. Yad Veshem is the largest of these, and its website provides a great resource for Remembrance. However, it is vital that all those who gave their lives to resist, fight or simply exist under the bone-crushing force of the Nazi war machine are remembered. Never forget the men and women who helped Jews escape persecution, those women who stepped up on the Home Front to help the armed forces, those people who gave their lives to make Europe safe for all once more.