We’ve all heard that campus address declaring that graduation does not mark a conclusion, but a beginning.
V-E Day was like that. We usually think of victory in World War II as an end: the final defeat of Adolf Hitler and minions, the crushing of Nazi ambitions for world domination, Europe unchained. Historians like to paint 1945 in ebullient shades, using a glossy palette to portray liberated capitals, heroic military parades, and delirious crowds shouting themselves hoarse. Freedom! What’s not to like?
Amid the hoopla, however, we should try to revisit that era not on our terms but its own. The Europe of V-E Day was in extremis. Tens of millions had died there; millions more had missing limbs, shattered minds, and other wounds that would never heal. Fighting had obliterated entire cities, most by air but some in landward sieges a time traveler from the Thirty Years War would have recognized instantly. Europe in 1945 was a continent as trash heap.
The Allies had smashed the Wehrmacht—but Germany’s armed forces were not all that got smashed. Consider France. To isolate Normandy and prevent German reinforcements from rushing to the province, the western Allies prefaced their invasion in June 1944 by raining bombs on France and its inhabitants. The preliminary air assault killed 20,000 French civilians—the very people the Allies were coming to liberate. Death and destruction were just one subset of the European crisis. People had hardly anything to eat. The shape of the fighting kept the Allies from unshackling the Dutch until well into 1945. Nazi rapacity resulted in the “hunger winter” of 1944–1945 that saw some Netherlanders try to survive on 400 calories a day; 20,000 starved to death. In 1945 no one in Europe was dining especially well.
Allied soldiers were liberators, certainly. But they were also strapping young men—4.5 million by war’s end. Unfettered by the trappings of civil society and operating under what we delicately call today the “50-mile rule,” many were doing what soldiers do. The result was a venereal disease epidemic. Even Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower could do little to stop the infectious carnival. By June 1945, about 15 percent of U.S. Army personnel in Europe—half a million men—had contracted some form of VD.
Germany’s situation was uniquely complex. Bombing had wrought enormous ruin—to the point that Allied fliers complained of running short on targets. The former Reich bristled with calamities only its conquerors could address. What would become of millions of freed concentration camp prisoners, many near starvation, never mind riddled with typhus, typhoid fever, or cholera? Or millions of slave laborers suddenly wandering hundreds of miles from wherever the Germans had dragooned them? Or refugees, including ethnic Germans fleeing territory the Reich had subjugated and abandoned? The world came to employ a new set of initials: DP, for “displaced person.” The seeming solution—go home—was often a pipe dream. The war might have consumed those homes or their occupants, or transformed homeland politics to preclude safe return. Germany alone counted at least at eight million DPs, mostly warehoused in camps— sometimes the very enclosures in which the Nazis had penned them.
V-E Day was the start of the tough job of rebuilding Europe, restoring public health and polity, feeding the starving, and remaking Germany into a law-abiding nation. These tasks required time, creativity, and mountains of money, as well as what we now call non-governmental organizations. For instance, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, established in 1943, waged a heroic fight against misery on its particular battlefields: soup kitchens, first aid stations, and delousing facilities.
A leading strategist once pointed out that the real purpose of war was not merely to win battles, but a “better peace.” Europe’s reconstruction was the true victory of World War II, America’s greatest achievement of the 20th century, and a process that began on “commencement day”—May 8, 1945
Originally published in the June 2015 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.