This week we celebrated the 75th anniversary of VE day. 75 years ago Britain, and other allied countries, celebrated the end of the Nazis. I asked my British father and German mother if they could remember the day – they could not. My mother commented though that it was a bittersweet event.
It was the end of Nazi rule but not the end of the effects of the war on my family. My grandparents were not Nazi sympathisers – my grandmother nearly got carted off by the SS for refusing to say heil Hitler and my grandfather had been sent to the Eastern front (despite speaking fluent French). At the end of the war my mother says the main thing was that they were grateful not to be in Russian hands. My great grandparents in Silesia were less fortunate. My great grandmother did not survive and died as a result of her treatment in 1947 when they were expelled from their home.
My grandfather was a POW but had managed to flee the Russians. He had been serving as a truck driver at the time and always made a point of reversing in at night so he could pull out quickly if he needed to. This ended up saving his life – he made it to safety while his friend in the truck behind, who had lost precious minutes having to reverse, did not. Picking up refugees on the way where he could, my grandfather then drove West until he hit the American lines. He had pilfered a box of booze which he used to bribe his way through check-points to avoid being sent back. He finally made it home after some time in captivity.
Had he ended up as a Russian POW things would have been very different. My mother still remembers the women in her building waiting desperately for their husbands to return from the Gulags. She remembers in 1950s when the last surviving Russian POWs were sent home how these women all waited full of hope for their husbands to be on the final train out. Most of them never came back – some estimates put the death of German POWs in Russian captivity close to 1 million. Whilst my mother cannot remember VE day she does remember the anguish of this day in the 1950s.
Celebrating the victory of VE day is clear as a Brit but celebrating the defeat as a German is different. My country lost 25% of its land and 18 million Germans found themselves on the wrong side of a new border. 12 million fled or were expulsed, while 2 million, mainly women, children and elderly, died as a result of the treatment they received, including in concentration camps. Nonetheless the defeat was the best thing that could have happened to Germany – the Nazis destroyed an amazing country and would have continued to do so. They were fuelled by an agenda of hate and discrimination.
So as a German I celebrate the defeat that happened 75 years ago. I remember all the lives lost but also all those saved as a result of the defeat. Celebrating defeat is not something we tend to do as humans. We are always quick to celebrate victories but try to forget about or ignore defeats. As history shows however defeat is not always a bad thing and we should always learn from our defeats. Even in today’s world where we talk about “learning from failure” still too few companies actually do this. When an initiative fails we still tend to see blame being allocated and people suffering the negative impact. We rarely see the failure being elevated so that we can learn from it. We rarely celebrate the “defeat” of an initiative. Perhaps just as in 1945, defeat is still too raw when it happens, and we need time to recover and see the good that comes out of it, and learn the lessons that we must learn. And learn we must, otherwise there is the danger that the same mistakes happen again. So however you are celebrating this VE day take a moment to reflect, remember and learn.