In commemoration of the 70th anniversary of VE Day, I discuss the immensity of the victory that was achieved over the Germans, the cost of that victory, and the German perspective and experience in facing utter defeat. I conclude with some thoughts on the future of Europe, and the need for continued vigilance in the face of re-emergent nationalistic movements.
Seventy years ago today, representatives of the German High Command signed the Instrument of Surrender document, by which all German forces were to lay down their arms and surrener unconditionally to the Allies. This day (and on May 9th in Russia owing to time zone differences) has since been commemorated as VE day, celebrating victory in the European Theatre of the Second World War, and the final, complete defeat of Nazi Germany.
VE day commemorates one of the greatest military victories in modern history. For some four years during the period 1940-1944, most of continental Europe was under the direct or indirect control of Nazi Germany. This brutal regime was responsible for the murder of millions of Jews, Gypsies, Russians, Poles, and others who fell under its rule, and the enslavement of millions more on its farms and in its war factories. Freedoms were quashed, human rights ignored, and basic human dignity abandoned on an immense scale. Goods, resources, and treasures of all sorts were looted, stolen, seized, and stripped from all over Europe to feed the German war machine, and to maintain the living standards of the German people (particularly the Nazi elite).
The defeat of this monstrously evil regime is a task of which all those who contributed ought to be indescribably proud. Though the Allies were themselves not blameless in their conduct, and the Stalinist regime in Russia was in at least some ways quite as bad as the Nazis against whom they fought, nonetheless it must be said that the defeat of the Nazi regime is an unequivocally good outcome, one worthy of our jubilant celebration.
Whist celebrating the achievement, however, we must not lose sight of the immense cost of the victory. The Germans were an exceedingly formidable enemy, not at all like the bumbling, goose-stepping, Hitler-heiling buffoons who cannot aim a rifle, as they are so often depicted in Hollywood films. The German army was, arguably, the most proficient fighting force in the world at the time. The German soldiers were well-trained, tightly disciplined, and led by an extremely competent and professional General Staff. The German military was equipped with some of the finest and most advanced military hardware in the world at the time, including (by the end of the war), the first jet aircraft, assault rifles, and the exceptionally well armed and armoured Tiger tanks. Though there often were not enough of the latest equipment to go around, the fact remains that the German military was an exceptionally competent force: it fielded well-built aircraft manned by skilled pilots, modern tanks commanded by officers well trained to exercise initiative in combat situations, and was comprised of soldiers who, until the very end, fought fiercely and ably for their Fatherland. British historian Max Hastings has said of the German army: “there’s no doubt that man for man, the German army was the greatest fighting force of the second world war”.
The immense difficulty of the task of defeating this formidable force is illustrated by the casualties suffered by the Allies in doing so. Nearly one million soldiers from the western allies, including France, the United States, and Britain and its Empire, died in the fight against the Germans. As staggering as this number is, it is dwarfed by the mammoth losses suffered by the Soviet military, which are estimated at around 11 million killed. In total, around 12.5 million allied soldiers died in the fight against the Germans and their allies in the European theatre, in addition to perhaps 25 or 30 million civilians.
The toll was not only heavy in terms of human lives. The British Empire, United States, and Soviet Union all had to devote over one half of their entire national output for a period of some four years to the war effort, representing a titanic commitment of resources. Years of ground fighting, aerial bombardment, resource shortages, and other wartime-induced hardships and damage left the continent in ruins, with aerial or ground combat taking place in the modern-day nations of: Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, France, Britain, Italy, Albania, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Greece, Kosovo, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Russia, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Austria, and Germany. Many of the great capitals of Europe were badly damaged by bombing or ground combat, including London, Rome, Athens, Belgrade, Budapest, Leningrad, Warsaw, Vienna, and Berlin – Paris was luckily mostly spared. The immense cost at which the victory over the Germans came is something that must never be forgotten.
The German Perspective
It is important and valuable, I think, to pause in our recollections for a moment to consider, as is seldom done in Allied nations, the German perspective on VE Day. Hitler had promised the German people a new beginning. He promised an end to the humiliation suffered following the First World War, a restoration of their lost territories, and the establishment of a strong, proud, respected German Reich which would be a home for all the Germans throughout Europe. They were promised a Volksgemeinschaft, a national community established to promote the welfare of all German people, operating in a spirit of brotherhood and mutual commitment. They were promised the establishment of a New Order in Europe, a continent unified under the hegemony of Germany, which at last would finally achieve the pre-eminence and the expansion room for German settlers that it deserved. It was the dawning of a new golden age for Germany, the beginning of the Thousand Year Reich.
The sacrifice made by the German people in fulfilment of this dream was immense. About 5.3 million German soldiers were killed in the war, and when several million civilian deaths from famine, disease, war crimes, and allied bombing are added, the total death toll amounted to roughly 10% of the pre-war population of Greater Germany. Notwithstanding the many promises made to them, ultimately this sacrifice was all in vain. By the conclusion of hostilities, the German state had been completely destroyed, its leadership killed or captured, its government ceased to exist and the entirety of its territory occupied by its enemies. Almost all major German cities lay in ruins, devastated by years of allied bombing which left tens of millions homeless. In addition, millions of German women were raped by Soviet soldiers as they fought their way through Germany’s Eastern provinces, while some 30 million Germans from the East were forced to leave their homes, the terriroties in which they had lived to be transferred to other countries.
Perhaps never before in modern history has a large, modern state been so overwhelmingly and completely defeated, subdued, and destroyed. There is even a word to describe this victory by total destruction of the enemy state: debellation. The unconditional nature of the German surrender left them with no negotiating power at all. German independence was not properly restored until 1955, and even then the allies retained certain special rights over Germany until the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany was signed in 1991.
By the end of the war, the spirit of the German people had been completely crushed. Their dreams and everything they had worked for twelve years to build, destroyed. They now faced a legacy of shame for the monstrous crimes they committed, a shame which continues to haunt the German people to this day.
Today, seventy years later, Europe is a very different place. Its cities have been rebuilt, Governments re-established, and freedoms restored, and in many places even established for the first time. The German dream of a united Europe is at long last being achieved, though in a very different form. For all its faults, the European Union represents a fundamental shift in European politics and society, a putting aside of the old national rivalries which have been the cause of so much suffering and death. Now the nations of Europe are coming together in a spirit of cooperation and friendship to work together for the common good.
We must also recognise the continued threats to peace and freedom that still lurk within many European nations. In times of uncertainty and difficulty, such as recently occurred following the global financial crises, we tend to observe a rise in nationalistic xenophobia, a turning inwards and away from the ideals of European community and brotherhood. The recent rise in anti-Semitic attacks and other incidents in France, Germany, and elsewhere is a particularly disturbing manifestation of this.
As we celebrate this anniversary of VE Day, therefore, we rejoice at the victory that was achieved, mourn at the immense cost at which this victory came, and reflect on how we can work towards a better, fairer, kinder future, one in which the horror and barbarity experienced by Europe during five long years of war will not be repeated.
Lest We Forget.