Victory in Europe: Old wounds ache 70 years after VE Day

Posted at 4:43 PM, May 07, 2015
and last updated 2015-05-07 17:46:47-04

Victory in Europe, first celebrated on May 8 in 1945, marks the end of the European phase of World War II. For much of the world, it was the end. For the United States, it was the last bank into the final stretch.

“It’s the end of the most destructive and the bloodiest conflict in the history of our species,” said historian Anton Fedyashin, professor of Russian history at American University in Washington. "Never before had humanity really descended to a level of mutual hatred and destruction as it did in the second World War.”

The 70th may be the last big VE Day anniversary World War II veterans will see.

According to the National World War II Museum, 60 million people died as a result of the second World War. Most of the deaths were civilians. The country that lost the most people by far was the Soviet Union, with 24 million dead, including 15 million civilians.

More than 400,000 Americans died as well; almost all were members of the military.

“It was at the time greeted with great jubilation throughout the allied countries,” said Ronald Spector, a history and international affairs professor at George Washington University. “It’s been taken to mean various things depending on popular memory, ambitions and objectives of various governments.”

There were a number of factors that made the allied victory possible. On the Eastern front, the Soviet Union held off a majority of the German Army, Spector said. The United States provided most of the arms for the Allies and pushed in from the West.

“The actual achievement of the victory depended on the soldiers of those countries, they had to do the tough work of winning the war.” Spector said.

There was no grand moment of surrender like that of Japan on Sept. 2, 1945 aboard the USS Missouri.

Instead, the surrender of the Germans occurred after back-and-forth negotiations between the Allies and the Germans, who were now led by Karl Donitz after Adolf Hitler committed suicide weeks earlier.

The Germans didn’t want to surrender to the Soviets, Spector said. But the United States would accept only an unconditional surrender.

During those negotiations, the seeds of the Cold War were sown between the Soviets — who thought they’d lost the most in the war — and the West, who felt that they’d won it.

For many countries stuck in the middle, the Soviet army became both a liberating and an occupying force. Mixed feelings continue to taint relations today.

“In many ways it determined the future of the world for the next 50 years,” Fedyashin said.

Ultimately, the Germans surrendered both to the West in Reims, France on May 7 and then to the East in Berlin. The terms took effect on May 8.

“I don’t think people realize that there was this process that preceded, this last ditch negotiations that preceded the final surrender,” Spector said.

Many leaders of the war didn’t live to see VE day. President Franklin D. Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, Hitler committed suicide on April 25 and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was executed on April 28. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was voted out of office by July.

VE was not, however, the end of the second World War. Celebrations in the United States were short lived compared to Victory in Japan day — the true end of the war — on Sept. 2, 1945.

The prospect of sending American troops from Europe over to the Pacific theater posed a tremendous psychological and morale problem for U.S. troops.

“That was one of the factors that motivated Truman to try to look for some way to end the war against Japan without an invasion – end it as soon as possible,” Spector said.

VE Day was once a chance for East and West to celebrate victory together.  Today, relations between Russia and the West are cold again.

While President George W. Bush attended 60th anniversary VE Day ceremonies in Red Square in 2005, President Barack Obama and most European leaders won’t be attending.

“The Ukraine business has poisoned the waters,” Fedyashin said.

Gavin Stern is a national digital producer for the Scripps National Desk.