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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 May, 2005, 11:26 GMT 12:26 UK
A peace tainted by horror
By Sir Martin Gilbert
Historian

In the struggle that ended on VE Day, racist and national hatred consumed more civilians than in any previous conflict.

Those civilians were unarmed and unprotected. Indeed, it was the forces of law and order - the police and the army - that turned most savagely against the innocent.

Soviet Jew in liberated Dachau
Beyond description: Allied troops discovered the horror of Nazi camps
Nazi race hatred, race laws, and racially dominated education, demonised whole peoples.

Jews, Slavs, gypsies, the mentally ill, homosexuals, were singled out as unworthy of life - and were murdered.

As the war drew to an end, the Allied soldiers came across horrendous signs of the mass murder that had stalked Europe.

Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz. British troops liberated Belsen. American troops liberated Dachau. What they found in these camps was almost beyond description.

Agonising sights

Victory on the battlefield normally comes with rejoicing.

While every victorious nation was relieved that the ordeal of its fighting forces was over, and that relentless bombardment from the air was at an end, the sights of Europe were agonising.

Nations that had suffered under German occupation found a new ruler: Soviet Communism. The liberties they had dreamed of while they were captive were, in the very moment of liberation, denied them.

Millions of German civilians fled westward to try to escape the Soviet forces. Millions of German soldiers were taken into captivity deep inside the Soviet Union.

More than 1,000 Jews were murdered on Polish soil as they tried to re-enter their homes
Civilians liberated from the concentration camps languished in Displaced Persons Camps.

Many Jews who tried to return to their homes found that they were not welcome. More than 1,000 Jews were murdered on Polish soil as they tried to re-enter their homes.

Bitter-sweet peace

The Germans huddled in a bomb-scarred, starving land.

Observation post on Austrian-Czech border
Some nations swapped Nazi for Soviet rule
Hunger stalked even the liberated nations. Desperation was the mood of many of those liberated. They were not to know that within two years the United States would launch the Marshall Plan, to bring food and aid to a ravaged continent.

The days of peace were bitter-sweet.

Too much blood had been shed, too many homes destroyed, too many families would never be reunited.

Most bitter of all, for some, those who were able to leave the European continent found that their stories were not of interest to their new hosts.

"Put the war behind you," was the repeated refrain. "Don't disturb us with your horror stories".

One can only pray that Europe will never again see even a fragment of such horrors that became a part of history on 8 May 1945: even if, until today, there are those for whom they are very much a part of their memories - and their nightmares.

Martin Gilbert is the author of 75 books including The Second World War, published by Weidenfeld in the UK and Holt in the US. He will be taking part in the BBC's global phone-in programme Talking Point, on Sunday 8 May.




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