After 75 Years, the Second World War Still Resonates
On May 9, 1945, Germany officially surrendered to the Allies. This week marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe.
It’s been four generations, which is plenty of time to forget basic history, let alone many key lessons.
Yet for all that has taken place in the intervening years, the war’s legacy remains.
In fact, if you really want to understand what’s happening today in the U.S. and across the globe, it behooves you to appreciate what came to pass long ago in bombed-out Berlin.
Berlin, 1945: Soviet Red Army soldiers raise flag over German Reichstag.
Let’s dig in…
As the Red Army overran Berlin, German leader Adolph Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945.
Among his last acts, Hitler transferred power as head of state to the chief of the German Navy, Admiral Karl Donitz.
Donitz directed German general Alfred Jodl to surrender unconditionally to U.S. and British representatives. There was a surrender ceremony in France on May 7.
The Soviets were outraged, considering that the bulk of the war’s fighting was on the Russian front. In deference to Marshal Stalin, another surrender ceremony was held in Berlin on May 8, this time with Russians in attendance. The terms went into effect the following day.
Americans and many Europeans celebrated “V-E Day” (Victory in Europe) on May 8, but for purposes of history May 9 is the date to recall.
German general Stumpf, Field Marshal Keitel and Admiral Friedeburg sign the “Instrument of Surrender” at Russian headquarters in Berlin on May 8, 1945.
Still, the paperwork of surrender wasn’t quite enough completely to end the war. Combat continued in places, courtesy of hard-core German holdouts, as well as partisans and others with axes to grind.
Meanwhile, tens of millions of displaced people were scattered to every corner of Europe. They wandered a devastated landscape, subject to privation, hard fate and gratuitous cruelty. Millions died as entire populations, representing a multitude of ethnicities, relocated from one region to another.1
From the Atlantic coast to the gates of Moscow, much of Europe was ruined as well. Roads, bridges, water systems, power plants, rail lines, mines, mills, factories, farms, houses, schools, municipal structures — bombed-out, shot up, burnt down or otherwise wrecked.
Food was scarce too, considering the previous six years of war and the vicious winter battles of 1945. There weren’t enough hands to work the land. Fields were littered with mines and unexploded ordnance. Farm equipment was destroyed. Many farm animals had been killed during the war. Mass starvation loomed.
In short, there was nothing clean or tidy about May 9, 1945, the last official day of the war. Yes, the fighting stopped for the most part. But widespread suffering and hardship continued.
The tasks ahead for everyone involved in the German surrender — both the victors and vanquished — were endless. The prospect of Allied occupation in Germany, and policing Europe during a problematic reconstruction, was the very definition of a Herculean task.
These kinds of challenges set the stage for the “last battle” of the war — the one for the narrative. And that aspect of conflict continues, and shapes the war legacy to this very day.
Every nation looks at World War II through its own national lens. And those national narratives differ vastly.
The principal victors were, of course, the Soviet Union, U.S. and Great Britain.
In the U.S. today, there’s a cultural tendency to regard World War II as an “American” effort, in which we “Yanks” worked with British and Canadian allies, and a smattering of expatriate French, Poles and others.
Much of this self-admiration comes from Hollywood, which has made countless movies about brave Americans – with the jolly Brits as a sideshow – bombing Germany and shooting up “Nazis.” And of course, the U.S effort is more than praiseworthy. Indeed, it was indispensable.
But even the best movies don’t offer a true education on what happened over the long haul.
Early in the war, British land forces were routed by the German army in France in 1940. They evacuated at Dunkirk. Then came the German air-blitz, the “Battle of Britain.” As war evolved, and with memories of World War I’s bitter trench fighting in the minds of Britons, the U.K. focused significant effort on aerial bombing against German targets.
Meanwhile, Britain waged another all-out war — truly one of national survival — upon and beneath the North Atlantic. Thousands of British and Allied vessels were lost to German submarines, with significant loss of life and critical loss of materiel.
In North America, safe from invasion and with ample petroleum and electric power, the U.S. spooled up idle industrial capacity. Audacious mobilization efforts swept away a decade of cobwebs from Depression-era shutdowns.2
U.S. industry built new ships by the thousands, aircraft by the tens of thousands and fighting equipment and kit by the hundreds of thousands and millions. General George Marshall oversaw the creation of dozens of army divisions, while Admiral William Leahy built a mighty fleet of epic proportion.
All this, while the U.S. waged its own air campaign against Germany. (And fought Japan in the Pacific!)
Soldiers and sailors, ships and aircraft, guns and transport, bullets, beans and oil… All came out of the U.S. industrial and training machine. Then in June 1944, U.S., U.K., Canadian and Allied forces swept ashore in Europe, with hard fighting to the last day on May 9, 1945.
But beyond the movies, and a smattering of historically inaccurate video games, it strikes me that Americans don’t think much about the broad scope of the war, or the what it “really” took to win it.
For most Americans and Britons, May 9 is just another day of the month. It’s regrettable, and a tragic failure of general education, in my view.
Arguably, Americans and Brits don’t commemorate May 9 because that was not when World War II ended for them. As 1945 unfolded, there was still a war to win in the Pacific and Asia, against Japan.
Then again, it’s not as if Aug. 15 — “VJ Day” (Victory over Japan) — is a major event either. Another failure of education.
In Russia, on the other hand, May 9 has long been a significant day, with military parades in cities across the nation (except this year, when festivities are delayed due to coronavirus).
In actual fact, Russia’s involvement in the war was far more significant than the American narrative would have you believe.
The vast majority of wartime casualties — killed, injured, missing — were on the Soviet side; about 27 million dead, by many accounts.
Indeed, the hardest and most continuous fighting of the war was on Germany’s “Eastern Front” against the Soviets. It was a meatgrinder. Over several years, scores of German divisions fought against — and were mostly annihilated by — well over five hundred Soviet divisions. The sweep of geography and scope of combat was unheralded in world history.
In just the first year of the German invasion of the Soviet Union (beginning the night of June 21, 1941), nearly 10 million Russians were captured or killed.
From 1942–45, millions more Russians died in stupendous battles, the scale of which stagger the imagination. Thick books bend countless library shelves, describing the defense of Moscow, siege of Leningrad, defense of Sevastopol, cauldron at Stalingrad, Kursk, Crimea, Bagration. These battles, and many more.
There’s no escaping either the cost or outcome of those battles. According to historian David Glantz, well over 80% of German combat power was destroyed by Soviet forces.
And that is truly “how” Germany was defeated. The Russians killed most of Germany’s soldiers.
In this historical light, it makes sense that in Soviet times, and now as the Russian Federation, the “Great patriotic War” is a foundational story of near-Biblical significance. The war and its total national sacrifice are a centerpiece of Russian identity.
And thus, the Russian view of May 9 is unlike what prevails in the West.
Other European nations have their own, self-focused war narrative as well. France, Netherlands, Italy, Poland, Baltic states, many more… Often, the national story highlights a country’s contribution to defeating Germany, while downplaying collaboration.
Not uncommonly, these local narratives quietly ignore the point that liberation across Europe occurred via the tank armies of one or another of the three big names. Indeed, no “continental” nation freed itself.
Meanwhile… The outcome of World War II left a titanic Red Army in Eastern Europe, and a massive U.S. Army to the west. Here’s a map of the lines of control as major combat ended.
Front lines as WWII ended. White areas still under German control3
The end of the formal conflict on May 9 set up conditions that led to the Cold War, a 45-year period when two superpowers dominated virtually all activities and politics within Europe.
In this respect, it’s important to understand that military power is not simply a factor of people or even geography.
Instead, modern military power is a first derivative of national economic and industrial power. In other words, only developed nations with a deep industrial and financial complex can build and maintain significant armies and navies. In 1945 and the years afterwards, that was the U.S., and — via immense commitment — the Soviet Union, now Russia.
Look at it this way… After May 9, 1945, Europe lost control of its fate. One Russian observer, Rostislav Ischenko, recently noted that “Europe has not been able to protect itself since 1940, when the Wehrmacht defeated the French, Belgian, Dutch armies and the British expeditionary force within a month.” After 1945, he points out, European nations had little choice but to accept their occupying military protector, the Soviet Union or U.S.4
In the Cold War decades post-1945, each superpower offered European “friends” a military umbrella. Across Europe, local and regional conflicts were frozen in time. All this while the U.S. helped rebuild Western Europe via the Marshall Plan, to dovetail with U.S. economic, military and political interests. The Soviets, too, created an Eastern European economy to dovetail in many respects with the Russian plan.
This post-war correlation of forces illustrates a broad theme of history. We have two competing nations –—with competing ideological systems — jockeying for position to dominate the global economy through military display, finance, access to resources and industrial growth and power. Plus, operations of influence… To win the narrative of which side will dominate the globe.
In short, we see in post-war history the actions of powerful countries pursuing fundamental national interests; a concept of politics that is the key motivating force of any country’s foreign policy.5
And that brings us to the modern importance of May 9, 1945…
We look to the past exactly because it’s not 1945 anymore. It’s 2020, and much has changed. But the intellectual and policymaking approach of many people who run the U.S. has not kept up with the times.
In 1945, the U.S. was an industrial powerhouse, with robust supply chains feeding factories that led the world in things like statistical quality control. In 2020, the U.S. has “deindustrialized” in many ways; the current virus crisis highlights just the loss of medical capability. But as I’ve discussed before, a “real” economy makes real things.
In 1945, industrial areas of Europe, Russia, Asia were bombed flat. The rest of the world — excepting the fortunate U.S. — was mostly undeveloped. But in 2020, the rest of the world has built out on a massive scale. The competitive playing field is no longer tilted towards the U.S. in every respect.
In 1945, the U.S. was an immensely wealthy country, with over 10,000 tons of gold in the vaults, no trade deficit and a super-strong dollar.
But now, in 2020 the U.S. runs a financialized economy built around a casino-like sense of just betting on stuff. The country is long off the monetary gold standard, with a deteriorating currency and $23 trillion of national debt. Interest on that debt alone equals the annual defense budget.
In 1945, U.S. universities generally graduated thoughtful and informed people who focused on getting things done. Indeed, the war legacy, and grads of those universities, took Americans to the moon in the 1960s.
But in 2020, many U.S. universities are pedagogical jokes. All too many schools offer long lists of fluff courses when they’re not teaching remedial reading and math to unprepared students from decrepit secondary school systems across the land.
I could go on, but I’ll end by saying that in 1945, the U.S. had people at the top with a sense of strategic vision; the aforementioned Gen. Marshall and Adm. Leahy come to mind, along with many others.
Today, the ability of U.S. policymakers to do “strategy” is clearly abysmal. The endless, failed wars in the Middle East, and horrid relations with nuclear-armed Russia and China speak volumes.
May 9, and now the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe, offers a solid point from which to look back and ponder what has happened over time. To this last point, I’ll just echo the great British military historian J.F.C. Fuller, who once lamented the dominant “witch doctors of war,” when his country required “true surgeons” of strategic thinking.
On that note, I rest my case.
That’s all for now… Thank you for subscribing and reading.
Managing Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder
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5 As Hans Morgenthau, a leading political scientist of the 20th century, broadly described it, “The meaning of national interest is survival; the protection of physical, political and cultural identity against encroachments by other nation-states.” Ref: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s41111-017-0080-0