VE Day – When Freedom Roared Back

Now we are fighting for lives. But we will need to summon the courage to maintain the freedoms for which so many fought and died during the Second World War, and so many more celebrated on VE Day.

In the week leading up to 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day on the 8th May, Tom Blackmore remembers why people fought and contributed in a thousand different ways to the defeat of the Nazis and why that has special relevance this year.

Early in this pandemic, before he was ill, Boris Johnson surveyed the future. He was introducing widespread restrictions on his people’s movement and freedom, but his concern was the disruption to GB plc. Not to worry he said, ‘The economy will roar back.’

After the Second World War there were many financial hardships and problems to be faced. The economy had been turned upside down by the war effort. There was widespread displacement, bomb fuelled dilapidation, and there was loss.

But there was also joy. Because in the war for freedom, those who loved freedom had won. The Nazi threat had been to freedom conducted under fair law, and it had been defeated.

On VE Day people tasted the first fruits of their freedom restored.

The Russians defeated one dictator to enable another and were lost for fifty years. They sucked the freedom from the Eastern Block, until the Berlin wall came tumbling down.

But in western Europe after the war, freedom came roaring back into everyday lives.

And governments took steps to protect it.

As well as commemorating victory, this year provides the chance to remember the first steps taken in Europe to ensure that there could be no repeat of the threat to freedom.

At the War Crimes Trials at Nuremberg, the allies sought to re-establish freedom under the law by giving to the leading Nazis that which they had deprived so many, justice. Opening a mere six months after the end of conflict, in November 1945 this justice was rough-hewn and incomplete. But it did allow for the collation of immense stockpiles of evidence of guilt which stands as record. And it did provide the opportunity to confront the leading Nazis with this evidence, and their part in the atrocities. And it did provide a springboard for discussions about the prevention of a repeat of barbarism.

These discussions continued through the 1940s in the shadow of the drawing up of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the United Nations in New York. And so, in 1950 Europe signed a legally binding treaty to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms enforced by a court. This Convention has become the pre-eminent regional instrument of the Universal Declaration.

In the Second World War people fought for freedom. When they won, they ensured that freedom roared back into all aspects of their life.

Now we are fighting for lives. But we will need to summon the courage to maintain the freedoms for which so many fought and died, and so many more celebrated on VE Day.

In the words of Franklin D Roosevelt :

‘All we have to fear, is fear itself.’

Franklin D Roosevelt, 1933 inaugural address


Every year in November, we rightly and properly remember those who died in war. In November 2020 let’s #rememberwhy

‘It was for this that we fought.’

Bob Cooper, The Times

This was the observation of Bob Cooper, a correspondent for The Times,  about the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials  which he attended for the vast majority of the year long sitting. And it was a much-loved quotation of David Maxwell Fyfe, one of the leading British prosecutors at the trials.

Every year in November we properly and respectfully we remember those who fought and died in the two world wars and in wars since. Those who fought and those who gave their lives must be remembered.

November 2020 provides a unique opportunity to explore why they fought, as Armistice shares November with two other significant anniversaries, that of the opening of the War Crimes Trials in 1945 and five years later the signing of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Second World War was fought in defence of a series of vital ideas; it was fought for the protection of what it was to be human – in the face of a regime that was rapidly degrading humanity in its’ relentless pursuit of power. Those who fought did not want to share, or their loved ones to share that plight. They were fighting for the maintenance of order, to protect peace and security, for freedom under the law, and for justice.

I was once told that a bank thronging with customers is at peace if it is sure that sufficient funds are stored in its vault. In the same way, a nation is at peace – as long as its’ citizens are confident that their fundamental rights and freedoms are respected and protected.

After the second world war and the profound continental disruption in rights and freedoms it was necessary to reset the lock on protecting them.

The Nuremberg War Crimes Trials began within six months of the end of hostilities. Thousands of documents of evidence were analysed, twenty-three defendants were cross-examined and tried, and most awoke to their guilt, and were sentenced. It was a flawed but glorious exercise in natural justice, and a public declaration of the restoration of the principles of the order of law. And it created a record of the barbarity of tyranny, and the failure of totalitarianism.

Nuremberg War Crimes Trials 1945 – 46

It was for this that we fought

The European Convention on Human Rights was a regional instrument, or off-shoot, of the Universal Declaration. Forty-nine sovereign nations are signatories to this treaty and subject to the Court of Human Rights. Any individual, in any of those countries, can take their government to this court if they believe their fundamental rights and freedoms are being undermined. It remains a flawed and glorious exercise in natural law, which has played, and continues to play, a part in the maintenance of civic harmony across the continent. And it creates a bulwark of protection against the return of dictatorship.

Council of Europe at the Hague 1949

It was for this that we fought

At a time seven decades on, when the tectonic plates of rights and freedoms are shaking, if not shifting, in 2020 it is worth sharing the commemoration of those who fought and died – with the consideration of why they fought and what they fought for.

Barricade of Flowers

The juggernaut of nationalism rolling down the road is a carnival float of ghosts, distant recollections, fears and frustrations as we grapple with global change. That makes a slippery enemy for those defending the barricade.

In February 2017 Dominic Grieve invited English Cabaret to perform Dreams of Peace & Freedom at the Palace of Westminster. In preparation for that performance we published the following blog as a press release. This in turn prompted Patrick Smith’s article for Buzzfeed which you can view here. We are delighted that Dominic Grieve continues in his support for The Humans in the Telling.

Written by Tom Blackmore

The Convention on Human Rights in Europe is an international treaty.

The juggernaut of nationalism is rolling down the wide streets of Britain once more. A general hue and cry has been raised under the flag of patriotism, and a brighter, bluer, paradise.

Down the street a barricade has been hastily erected. This was built by those surprised and blind-sided by the popular vote overcoming expectations in 2016. Those who were shocked that the mask of protest was nationhood.

Despite the efforts of many brave defenders, that barricade is not holding. Surprise, muddle, nostalgia, the pragmatism of economics, all mean that our membership of the EU is being sacrificed on the shrine of some people’s will.

We are watching from further down the street where it is still quite quiet. We are at work on the foundations of a further barricade, this one built to defend not business practices and trade, but rights and freedom.

For when the juggernaut has swept away economic co-operation, and the rules of the club, its’ declared intention is to sweep away all European law, including the Convention on Human Rights.

‘It’s more of the same,’ they yell, ‘more interference with our sovereign nation.’

Actually of course the Convention is something very different.

The Convention allowed individuals to take their government to court if their government failed to protect or even abused their human rights and fundamental freedoms.

It is not the rules of the club drawn up by nation members, but a treaty between sovereign nations, inspired by a global hunger for peace.

The Universal Declaration was the product of the United Nations, a project to generate good globalisation, or at least an attempt at it. It spawned regional instruments that captured its’ vision but sought to apply them to the character of the region.

In Europe, this was forged by the newly founded Council of Europe and its Parliamentary Assembly. And it was moulded by those who had made a forensic study of the totalitarian condition of the Nazi regime, and who had confronted the Nazi leaders at Nuremberg.

European Court of Human Rights, Strasbourg By LCB Photography

Nations draw up treaties to better manage relations with others. In the immediate aftermath of years of depression and war, European nations wanted treaties that would stop wars and bloodshed. They identified that nationalism, born from the fire of the industrial revolution, had stoked the flames of military aggression. And they wanted those flames extinguished.

Sovereign nations signed a treaty, agreeing that such a court should be built and that they would be subject to it to protect their people.

Although without any plans to expand, let alone the capability, or any immediate threat, nationalism loses its meaning. Patriotism should be contentment with ourselves, and the warm comfort of neighbourly co-operation. In fact, that it is what patriotism is.

The foundations of our barricade is history, its substance the peace and freedom enjoyed by many for 70 years.

But a word about this juggernaut. Nationalism only really works when it is expansionist. Nationalism is an idea that fuels empire. It’s a justification for minding some other nation’s business, and for capitalising on another’s wealth. It’s the big idea that makes that behaviour right. As a nation we know enough about that from the past 200 years.

The juggernaut of nationalism rolling down the road is a carnival float of ghosts, distant recollections, fears and frustrations as we grapple with global change. That makes a slippery enemy for those defending the barricade.

But perhaps the tactic of erecting a barricade is wrong.  Perhaps these wraiths need exorcism not challenge, a deep peace not battle. Perhaps, we, down the road, waiting for the juggernaut, should build and tend a mound of flowers, a garden barricade, where the ghosts can lie down and sleep – for those who call on the memory of ‘a sovereign nation’.