But few people today are aware of their origin.
The use of “V” as a symbolic message of defiant resistance to tyranny was first proposed by Victor de Laveleye, a member of the Belgian Parliament who went into exile in England after the Nazis invaded Belgium in 1940.
De Laveleye worked for the BBC during the war, broadcasting regular shortwave radio announcements to his countrymen in Belgium.
In his broadcast on January 14, 1941, de Laveleye proposed what became the “V campaign.”
“I am proposing to you as a rallying emblem the letter V,” he said, “because V is the first letter of the words ‘Victoire’ in French, and ‘Vrijheid’ in Flemish [the two major languages of people in Belgium]...the Victory which will give us back our freedom, the Victory of our good friends the English. Their word for Victory also begins with V. As you see, things fit all round.”
Shortly after de Laveleye’s broadcast, Belgians began surreptitiously chalking and painting V’s on the walls of buildings in Belgium.
Soon, the V symbol began appearing as defiant graffiti in other Nazi-occupied countries.
In a radio speech on July 19, 1941, British Prime Minister Churchill announced an effort to actively promote the V campaign throughout Europe.
“The V sign is the symbol of the unconquerable will of the occupied territories and a portent of the fate awaiting Nazi tyranny,” Churchill said. “So long as the peoples continue to refuse all collaboration with the invader it is sure that his cause will perish and that Europe will be liberated.”
The V campaign was heavily publicized by the BBC and soon became highly popular throughout Europe.
As the hand gesture and “V” graffiti spread in German-occupied countries, it annoyed the Nazis enough for them to try to undercut its symbolic value.
Nazi propaganda started claiming that V stood for the German word viktoria and that the use of V’s by civilians was a sign of their support for victory by Germany.
But, as most people knew, that was just another example of a “big lie” by the Nazis.
• Historic July 20, 1941 New York Times article “British Open ‘V’ Nerve War; Churchill Spurs Resistance”
• Historic article about the V campaign in the July 28, 1941 issue of Time magazine
• Wikipedia entry on uses of the V hand gesture in various cultures
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