WWII in Europe ended sixty years ago today.
At 2.41 AM at the Allied headquarters in Rheims, France - Colonel-General Alfred Jodl signed the document which certified the unconditional surrender of all German forces in Europe. The surrender was to take effect from 11.01 PM.
The bloodiest conflict in European history had been put to an end.
The Russians demanded a second signing in Berlin the next day to make sure nothing was kept from them by the Western Allies, thus making May 8 1945 the official "Victory-In-Europe" day and May 9 the official "Victory Day of the Great Patriotic War" for the Russian forces.
Total deaths, civilian and military:
Soviet-Russia - 25,568,000
Germany - 7,060,000
Poland - 6,850,000
Yugoslavia - 1,700,000
France - 985,000
Austria - 525,000
Italy - 410,000
Great Britain - 388,000
USA - 295,000
A total of around 40,000,000 people were killed in Europe in the war, the large majority of them in Eastern Europe.
Now that the war was over the soldiers could return to their homes, but to very different realities.
The Soviet-Union had carried the heaviest burden in terms of deaths and destruction, and the racial element in the German war in the East - against the "sub-human" Slavic races - had led to millions of civilian deaths.
The fighting and the widespread use of "scorched-earth" tactics by both the retreating Germans and Russians alike had totally destroyed the infrastructure and major cities in most of the western part of the country.
On top of that the Russians returned to the dictatorship of Stalin who had forgotten all about his own mistakes and defeats of 1941, but remembered to put returning prisoners of war into new prison camps on the grounds that If you were taken prisoner, you hadn't fought hard enough.
The German soldiers returned to an equally destroyed country, ravaged by years of concentrated allied bombing and occupied by the armies they had fought against for almost six years.
The Nazi dictatorship was gone, but the country would be divided into two political systems, the old provinces of Eastern-Prussia would cease to exist (they became part of Poland and Russia) and on top of that the German people was now not only associated with starting the war and the occupation but also the horror and shame of the Holocaust.
The British soldiers returned to a country, which had seen the horrors of modern war, being attacked by both the German airplanes and their V1 and V2 rockets.
Britain and their Prime Minister Winston Churchill had become a symbol of resistance when all of Europe had surrendered to German forces and Russia and the US were not yet involved in the war.
All the British had shared the experiences of the war and now that it was finished they demanded a more equal society away from the rigid framework of class.
The French soldiers returned to a country deeply wounded and frustrated by the war. The defeat in 1940 had created a national trauma, which in turn had lead to widespread collaboration with the German occupiers by many French people. Now that Germany had lost the war, the tables were turned once more and the whole experience would remain a painful and unresolved part of French life for many years to come.
The American soldiers would return to the most powerful nation in the world. The economic crisis of the 30's was put to an end by the huge demands for war time production, the US would soon be the only country in the world who possessed the most advanced weapon known to man - the Atom bomb - and the American soldiers with their easy manner, optimism, wealth and Swing music, came to represent a vision of a greater future to many Europeans raised on potatoes, polka, and second-hand clothes.
If WWII had a winner it was the USA.
Just as WWI had changed the map of Europe, WWII was no different. Out of it came The Cold War with the unstable equilibrium of "the terror balance".
Two massive superpowers that both possessed enough military power to blow up the entire world would spend the next forty years battling for world dominance.
WWII is by far the most written about, talked about, analysed, and filmed war of all time. To many people it still stands as "the good war", good because it was a clear-cut case of fighting the evil of the Nazi state and its leader Adolf Hitler.
Nazism, and the other nationalistic movements seen all over Europe was however a result of the complex economic and political situation of the 1920's and 30's
Hitler represented a reaction to the collapse of the "old world" which had existed before WWI. Nazism represented a longing for fundamental and "eternal" values (as opposed to the confusion of the modern world and its new ideas), a sense of belonging to a strong people or tribe (as opposed to the destruction of the ties with family and class represented by women's liberation and socialism). But Nazism also represented a change and new opportunities (like paid holidays and a car like the VW), which appealed to the growing middle classes.
Hitler's solution was war, which would bring his chosen people - the Germans, all they needed: Land, wealth, restoration of their honour and national unity, and a position as revered world leaders.
His war didn't bring Germany that, but that didn't mean others would not reap from what was sowed. Russia and the USA had only committed to the war when they were drawn into it, but they ended up as the two new superpowers that would dominate world politics for the remainder of the century.
Russian troops stayed in Eastern Europe until the Perestroika of the 1990's and US troops are still stationed in Germany and other European countries.
WWII created a civil war like situation in many European countries, both during and after the German occupation. In the early part of the war - 1939 to ca. 1943, most people accepted that Germany would win the war and be the most powerful nation in the world. Governments acted accordingly, signing treaties and agreements with Germany and tried to make their relationship with the undisputed rulers of Europe as congenial as possible.
Then things changed. And the major change was that the German armies began to loose battles. Now most people and governments could see that perhaps Germany would loose the war andwhat was now known as the Allied nations would be the new rulers of the world.
Some had taken side from the very beginning, like Churchill who never believed Hitler could be trusted, or the European communists who had often fought against the equally combative extreme right.
Some had embraced the arrival of German troops as liberation from other oppressive systems, which was the case in some parts of Soviet-Russia. The same happened in countries where ethnic groups had battled each other for centuries and the Nazis had been clever at exploiting this for their own ends.
The end of WWII didn't mean the end of fascism or strong nationalism. Governments which incorporated ideas borrowed from the Nazi state could be found in Spain, Greece, Portugal and in many counties in South-America (the Peron government in Argentina even became a safe haven for prominent Nazis who were brought in to train both the Army and the secret police)
In Germany the Allied occupation forces launched the Nuremberg Trials, which brought the most prominent members of the Nazi state to trial and sentenced them to death or long prison terms for crimes against humanity.
The problem was however that in the lower echelons of society little was done about de-nazification, in many towns and cities it was still the old members of the Nazi party who sat in offices and handled the civil administration.
Nazism had ruled Germany for more than twelve years and the Nazis had themselves put away all capable persons who didn't agree with them.
Nazi's or not, they could make the country function again and besides: What else to do - arrest the whole goddamn country?..
If WWII was perhaps not the "good war" it was certainly "the peoples war"
The nations most committed to the war had to mobilize the entire population to have a chance at winning. Unlike WWI where soldiers volunteered for duty, WWII meant the Government called you up for service. Your wife didn't stay at home, but got a job at an airplane factory making the planes your younger brother was trained to fly.
Your mother and sister didn't sit at home waiting for you to return, because that home was destroyed in a bombing raid and the two women were busy manning an anti-aircraft gun, while you were attacking a village full of other civilians.
Both the Soviet state and the Nazi state had to appeal to the patriotic spirit of their people and play down on the ideological rhetoric. In 1941 when German forces were within miles of Moscow, Stalin appealed to the Russian people to fight for "mother Russia" not he Soviet State. Banners, posters and movies reminded Russians of their glorious defence against Napoleon's armies in the 19’Th century or the Teutonic knights during the middle ages. Even the soldier's uniforms where changed from the drab "workers shirt" of the revolutionary Red Army to incorporate insignia and designs from the Czarist era.
In the last months of the war the Nazi propaganda cleverly exploited the (justifiable) fear of Russian retaliations now that the Red armies were entering Germany itself. The "Red animals" came to rape, loot, kill, and torture so was it not in fact better to die fighting them?
Hopefully war on the scale of WWII is a thing of the past. Today’s armies command much more firepower than those of WWII, but the nature of global conflict has swung back to the good old days of colonialism where vastly superior imperial armies go out to suppress smaller or larger groups of "bandits" stirring up trouble on the outer rims of the empire.
Well, a toast to those who had to live through WWII, and also an opportunity to post the last Panzer (I've had enough, I guess!)
All wars should end like this, in spring...