By Jeff Olson
As we continue to recognize and commemorate the 75th anniversary of the sixth and final year of World War II, this week we will do so for one of the two greatest milestones of the war. VE Day (Victory in Europe Day) is the day on which Allied forces formally announced the surrender of Germany, which brought the Second World War to a close in Europe. The military surrender was first signed on May 7, but a slightly modified document with the final terms was signed on May 8 in Berlin.
On May 8, 1945, both Great Britain and the United States celebrated Victory in Europe Day. Cities in both nations, as well as formerly occupied cities in Western Europe, put out flags and banners, rejoicing in the defeat of the Nazi war machine. Celebrations immediately erupted throughout Britain and more than one million people celebrated in the streets. In London, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth appeared on the balcony alongside Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In a radio address to the nation, Churchill said: “My dear friends, this is your hour. We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing, but let us not forget for a moment the toil and efforts that lie ahead.” He went on to say, “My dear friends, this is your hour. This is not victory of a party or of any class. It’s a victory of the great British nation as a whole. We were the first, in this ancient island, to draw the sword against tyranny. After a while we were left all alone against the most tremendous military power that has been seen. We were all alone for a whole year.” Even after May 8, many soldiers, sailors and pilots were sent to the east to fight against the Japanese, who had not yet surrendered.
In the United States, the recent death of President Roosevelt who had led his country through the war years, was a saddening factor. His successor, Harry S. Truman, dedicated the day to Roosevelt and ordered that flags be kept at half-mast – as part of the 30-day mourning period. Nevertheless, there was great celebrating in America. In New York City, 15,000 police were mobilized to control the huge crowds that had gathered in Times Square.
The war in Europe was a long, hard-fought and bloody ordeal in which Great Britain stood alone against Germany for a while. Had it not been for the great leadership of Winston Churchill, the post-war map of Europe might very well have turned out differently. As he told the British people at the outset, “We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on beaches, landing grounds, in fields, in streets and on the hills. We shall never surrender. I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
VE Day meant an end to nearly six years of a war that had cost the lives of an estimated 50 million people, destroyed homes, families, and cities; and brought huge suffering and privations to entire countries. This of course was in addition to those wounded – physically, emotionally and mentally. And, the devastation wreaked on families from the loss of loved ones can in no way be accurately assessed in quantitative terms.
Not everyone celebrated VE Day. For those who had lost loved ones in the conflict, it was a time to reflect. Amidst the street parties and rejoicing, many people mourned the death of a friend, spouse, child, father, uncle or other relative or were still worried about those who were still serving overseas. For many of the war widows, all the excitement of VE Day celebrations was too much to bear and not something they could participate in. In addition, the hardships of the war years had taken their toll on many people and left them with little desire or energy for rejoicing. In some cases, their homes, communities and country and perhaps their families had been destroyed, and many war victims had to start over with nothing but their lives – but thankful for that. In Britain, the strain of air raids, the pressures of wartime life and the impact of rationing all left their mark on a weary population who knew there were more difficulties in store.
VE Day represented a part of the greatest victory of freedom over tyranny in the military history of the world. However, the war left much of Europe in shambles, but most importantly it left it free and with an opportunity for a future of peace. Winning the war didn’t necessarily mean winning the peace. That would be the greatest challenge of all for the long term.