World War II did not end in May 1945.
But in Europe, hostilities finally ceased for the first time since 1939.
This month marked 75 years since half of the world’s most destructive war was brought to an end.
Recently, the Press & Dakotan spoke with Dr. David Burrow, chairman of the History Department at the University of South Dakota, about the European war’s end, the realities it created and an anniversary virtually lost to a new kind of conflict.
Closing The Curtain
Burrow said after nearly 5 ½ years of war in Europe, events began to accelerate in the spring of 1945.
“In March and April of 1945, the Western Allies are driving from France into western Germany and the Soviet Union is busy spreading out through eastern Europe while also driving towards Berlin.”
As Allied armies began coming across more evidence of the crimes of the Holocaust and the Soviets began the final charge on Berlin, Burrow said the situation completely collapsed for the Nazi regime.
“(Adolf) Hitler commits the regime to fighting until the very end,” he said. “There are various Nazi armies and regional commanders who control forces that are largely cut off from each other,” he said. “They get maneuvered into pockets because the goal of the Allies is to get to Berlin and get Hitler, so if there’s a small army that’s fighting and you can contain it somewhere and move around it to get to Berlin, that’s what you’re going to do. So there are lots of little pockets of combat. But by April 1945, none of these groups in Germany can communicate with each other.”
With his nation in ruins and the war all but lost, Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945 — leaving his subordinates to manage a hopeless war situation.
“Some like Goebbels commit suicide along with him, but because Hitler is convinced that some of his commanders have betrayed him, he ends up stripping several of his potential successors of their authority at the last minute, kicking them out and leaving them on their own,” Burrow said. “The military commanders end up taking over and Adm. (Karl) Dönitz is named overall commander.”
Victory In Europe Day(s)
With the elements of the German army surrendering to Allied armies in droves, it was quickly apparent to the remaining elements of the German high command that there was little use continuing the fight.
On May 8, Germany formally surrendered to the Allies — for the first time.
“There are sort of two days that are celebrated,” he said. “May 8 and May 9, which is officially Victory in Europe Day.”
He said that the Soviets are the reason for the discrepancy.
“I always like to point out to my students that part of the reason the Soviet Union delays having the surrender document signed (until) May 9 is because May 8 is the day the Red Army takes Prague, which had been the capital of Czechoslovakia. … They waited long enough to take one more capital of one more eastern European country before they signed a surrender agreement.”
A second surrender signing was held on May 9 as well.
While the news was celebrated, Burrow said it was somewhat subdued in comparison to those celebrations that would follow the end of the full conflict.
“For the capitals of Europe, you have people who are exhausted and relieved and, for the most part, very short of supplies celebrating as best they can,” he said. “There are public celebrations. People go out into the public squares. The surrender announcement is read out over the radio so there are lots of cheering crowds, but there’s not that much organized celebration.”
“The aftermath in Germany itself is figuring out what the occupation regime is going to be and which parts of Germany are going to be controlled by which of the different Allies,” he said. “Ultimately, Germany is divided into four zones — the Soviet, French, the English and the American — and then Berlin itself, which is deeply inside the Soviet zone of occupation, is also divided among the four Allies.”
Next came the prosecution of those who had perpetrated the war and the crimes that went along with it.
“(The Allies) start setting up the mechanisms for trying German military men, civilians and Nazi officials for war crimes at what would ultimately become the Nuremberg war crimes trial,” he said. “They start setting up, through the newly established United Nations, the basis for international law recognizing genocide as a crime.”
Various trials of Nazi leaders and subordinates would be held for years after the war. As late as last year, war crimes trials have been held for camp guards.
But the realities for the Allies were stark in war-torn central Europe after the conflict wound down, according to Burrow.
“They have to start rebuilding German cities,” he said. “They need to get food relief to German civilians whose normal supply lines and other things have been destroyed. They have to start sorting out the surviving prisoners. There are millions of displaced persons inside Germany — workers who had been forcibly brought to Germany … there are forced laborers who have to be repatriated and sent home, there are prisoners of war who have to be repatriated and sent home, there are Holocaust survivors. They’re not going to be returned to Germany and most of the Holocaust survivors end up in displaced persons camps that have to be maintained by the Allies. Ultimately those camps last for three or four years.”
Many of those survivors would emigrate to Israel or the United States.
And even with World War II over in Germany and Japan later in the summer of 1945, Burrow said that didn’t mean Europe was totally at peace.
“There’s guerilla fighting and resistance movements in the Baltic republics and in Ukraine and parts of Poland that last into the late 1940s,” he said. “The Soviet Union is still fighting partisan internationalist groups for a couple of years after the conclusion of the war.”
A 75th Anniversary Lost
Throughout Europe, plans were made to mark the 75 years war’s end. However, a new reality challenged these plans — the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even in Germany, there were plans to acknowledge the occasion.
“There were planned commemorations that acknowledged what Germany had done during the war and acknowledge the defeat,” he said. “The way that the German government constructs it now — Victory in Europe Day is the beginning of a move to German democracy. For the German narrative, May 9 is the end point of a dark period in German history and the beginning of a move to a very bright period in German history where eventually Germany would be unified and become a prosperous democratic state.”
In Great Britain, Burrow said the victory in the war is still seen as a major part of its national identity — and that some are even comparing the struggle against COVID to the struggle against the Axis powers.
“There’s a lot in the British press now about the British reaction to COVID and how they’re dealing with the pandemic that makes comparisons to the British experience of World War II,” he said.
In Russia, Victory in Europe Day is looked at as an affirmation of Russia’s place in the world.
“Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia regards the victory in World War II as one of the things that cements Russian greatness,” he said. “May 9 is a major holiday in Russia. It’s now called Victory Day. … Those commemorations were cancelled because he recently extended a lockdown to May 11. People think it’s significant that he extended the lockdown two days after these celebrations would’ve happened.”
While the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe may have been lost, Burrow said there’s still a lot to keep in mind going forward.
“It’s important to remember what it was and what it wasn’t,” he said. “Victory in Europe Day was not the end of the global war, but it’s important to keep in mind it does represent a legitimate global achievement, which was the defeat of the Nazi regime and the things that it stood for. For that reason, it’s worth commemorating and it’s worth commemorating to keep in mind the sacrifices of the men and women who participated in the struggle to defeat the Nazi regime.”
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