60th Anniversary of V-E Day

60 years ago today, on May 8, 1945, the unconditional surrender of the German armed forces (Wehrmacht) was signed by Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, ending World War II for Germany. Although more than three months of bloody fighting in the Pacific against Japan remained, the war in Europe was finally over.

The war, which lasted nearly six years for the European combatants and three and a half years for the U.S., changed the world forever. Killing on a scale not before seen in history became the norm. The horror of the Blitzkrieg and the Battle of Britain unleashed by Hitler were repaid by the Americans and British with the massive bombing of German cities. The horror of operation Barbarossa (the German invasion of the Soviet Union) and the crimes of the Einsatzgruppen mobile killing units that followed the Wehrmacht into Russia were repaid by the Soviet Union with the brutal conquest of the eastern half of Germany, with mass rapes and the subjugation of half of Germany under Soviet domination for nearly half a century. On the Eastern front, nations caught in the middle of this titanic conflict, such as Poland and the Baltic nations, suffered first under one tyranny and then under another. The Jews in Europe paid an even higher price, given their status as the primary target of Hitler's hatred, but Hitler's murder was by no means limited to the Jews. Although appoximately six million Jews died by various methods, including shooting, hanging, intentional starvation and overwork, and gas chambers, in Hitler's Holocaust, five or six million non-Jews met the same fate, particularly in Poland, the Ukraine, and western Russia. When the war was over, the division of Europe into two spheres of influence set the stage for the Cold War that dominated geopolitics for half a century.

As we celebrate the victory over fascism and Nazi-ism that took place sixty years ago, I'm actually struck by how relatively little discussion of this great anniversary there is here in the U.S., given its importance. The discussion that I do hear either tends to come from European sources or to dwell on the appropriateness of President George W. Bush's attending the celebration in Moscow, particularly the military parade that he will see with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Anne Applebaum, for example, puts it this way:
Try, if you can, to picture the scene. A vast crowd in Red Square: Lenin's tomb and Stalin's memorial in the background. Soldiers march in goose step behind rolling tanks, and the air echoes with martial music, occasionally drowned out by the whine of fighter jets. On the reviewing stand, statesmen are gathered: Kim Jong Il, the dictator of North Korea, Alexander Lukashenko, the dictator of Belarus, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the former dictator of Poland -- and President George W. Bush.

That description may sound fanciful or improbable. It is neither. On the contrary, that is more or less what will appear on your television screen May 9, when the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II is celebrated in Moscow. I have exaggerated only one detail: Although Kim Jong Il has been invited, his attendance has not yet been confirmed. But Jaruzelski is definitely coming, as are Lukashenko, Bush and several dozen other heads of state. President Vladimir Putin of Russia will preside.

Indeed, it is correct to be concerned that this celebration may be perceived as an endorsement of the Soviet Domination of Eastern Europe, particularly since Putin seems to want to make it into exactly that. Not surprisingly, the Baltic states are less than thrilled with the manner in which this anniversary is being celebrated, particular given that President Putin is still claiming that the Baltic complaints were being aired to mask a "discriminatory, reprehensible policy" against the Russian-speaking minorities in their countries. While it is indeed true that the Soviet Union bore the brunt of the European war, losing approximately 27 million people during four years of brutal combat, a contribution that has been downplayed in Western accounts of the war, it is equally true that Stalin had made a deal with Germany to carve up Poland and then took advantage of its victory to occupy the Baltic states, Poland, and half of Germany.

Fortunately, President Bush seems to understand the appearance problem, and has visited the Baltic nations before proceeding to the Soviet Union. Indeed, he has gone farther than any previous President in accepting blame for the U.S. in making this deal with Stalin at Yalta, saying:
As we mark a victory of six days ago -- six decades ago, we are mindful of a paradox. For much of Germany, defeat led to freedom. For much of Eastern and Central Europe, victory brought the iron rule of another empire. V-E Day marked the end of fascism, but it did not end oppression. The agreement at Yalta followed in the unjust tradition of Munich and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Once again, when powerful governments negotiated, the freedom of small nations was somehow expendable. Yet this attempt to sacrifice freedom for the sake of stability left a continent divided and unstable. The captivity of millions in Central and Eastern Europe will be remembered as one of the greatest wrongs of history.
Although many have criticized the Yalta agreement in just these sorts of terms, it is quite remarkable to hear a sitting President of the United States do so, likening the Yalta agreement to the Nazi-Soviet pact that carved up Poland in 1939. In one way, I find it heartening to hear an acknowledgment that the U.S. itself was partially responsible for the Communist domination of Eastern Europe. There is no doubt that the U.S. partially was responsible, but let us also not forget that it was Hitler's deal with Stalin, then Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union, and then finally Stalin's territorial designs that were primarily to blame. Also, it still makes me uneasy because it is, as many of President Bush's proclamations are, a bit simplistic. From the safe distance in time of 60 years, it is very easy to label Roosevelt's decision to accept the carving up of Europe into spheres of influence as cynical, unjust, or a vestige of colonialism (which is why Churchill was thought to be less disturbed by the agreement than Roosevelt), and it probably was to some extent all three. On the other hand, it is easier to understand taken in the context of the time. The Allies were weary of war, and Japan had yet to be defeated. In May 1945 it was widely believed that defeating Japan would require a large-scale invasion of the Japanese islands. (The atomic bomb had not yet even been tested.) Challenging the the Soviet Union too aggressively, which, in response to Hitler's invasion, had built itself up into a military colossus unrivaled in the world in order to defeat Germany, would have meant being willing, if necessary, to go to war with an enemy that had become even more powerful than Hitler ever was while still needing to defeat another foe who was weakened but still dangerous. Although General George Patton might have wanted to attack the Russians right away, politically it was probably not politically or militarily feasible in 1945. Before you conclude that the U.S. sold out Eastern Europe in 1945, try to put yourself in the place of Americans and British in 1945 and then ask yourself: What could we have done? Stalin would have been unlikely to back down without a credible threat of war. Would you have supported plunging into a potentially even more bloody war with the Soviet Union, having just completed one such war?

Does this excuse our abandonment of Poland, the Baltics, and Eastern Europe to Soviet domination? No. But it does explain why it may have seemed acceptable at the time.

It's a hugely difficult question, but I think it illustrates exactly what Allied leaders had to ask themselves as they confronted the colossus that the Soviet Union had become. They had to ask themselves if they were willing to enter into another war. I don't know how I would have answered that question. However, one of the most useful things about studying history is that it forces you to think about such questions and apply the answers to events that occur in your own lifetime.

Other V-E Day articles and commentary:

V-E Day Slideshow
V-E Day Audio Slideshow
The full text of President Bush's speech in Riga
Bush flies into celebration, controversy in Russia
60th Anniversary of V-E Day
Bush criticizes deal dividing Europe after WWII
The Party to End All Parties
V-E Day in New York
Russians observe 60th anniversary of V-E Day
A peace tainted by horror


  1. Just a note to state that there has been considerable coverage of the anniversary of V-E Day in the Canadian media in part I suppose because the war marked a high point for Canada in international influence.

    As for Yalta, In his excellent book about FDR, Conrad Black writes (as part of his conclusion) "If he (Roosevelt) had been ambivalent about imperialism, had not forced Stalin, when the Russian leader subjugated Eastern Europe, to viloate agreements with the Western Allies and arouse American political and public opinion, and had not drawn the United States into an international organization even before the war ended, Stalin might have been able to snaffle up Eastern Europe without bringing an unwinnable war of containment and ideological and military competition down upon himself. In such circumstances the Soviet era, in Russia and its satellites could have been very prolonged."

  2. I appreciate your posts on WW II and holocaust denial.

    Regarding coverage of this anniversary in the US, I have a somewhat related story about how little Americans know about it. Many years ago when I was a reporter (let's say for the sake of argument that it was 30 years), a recent graduate of the University of South Carolina, also a reporter, said she did not know which countries fought on which side in WW II. I could hardly believe it. I was born in 1950, but WW II was an integral part of my growing up, from TV series to comic books to model tanks, ships and planes, and to war stories told by my father, we were immersed in this event. It is sad to me that this struggle of mythological proportions is so forgotten by so many (History Channel odes to the Nazi war machine to the contrary notwithstanding).


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