Wednesday is V-E Day — Victory in Europe — the 74th anniversary of the formal end of World War II in Europe, when the allied powers defeated German leader Adolf Hitler and his once invincible Nazi war machine.
While V-E Day is not considered a major day of reflection and thanksgiving in the United States, it is observed across Europe and much of the former Soviet Union.
The true number of people killed in the war may never be known, but historians believe at least 35 million Europeans were killed during World War II, including 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis.
V-E-Day is also marked in Israel, home to thousands of Soviet Jewish immigrants and Holocaust survivors.
Surrender May 7
Germany offered unconditional surrender on May 7. Gen. Alfred Jodl, representing what was left of the Nazi leadership, signed four separate surrender papers at U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower’s headquarters in Reims, France — one each for Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the United States.
U.S. President Harry S. Truman and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared that May 8 be celebrated as V-E Day.
At Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s insistence, however, another Nazi general signed additional surrender papers in Soviet-occupied Berlin, and Stalin declared May 9 as victory day.
Celebrations break out
Huge celebrations broke out across Europe. Stalin and Churchill were revered as heroes. They’d crushed an enemy whose fanatical leader once swore he would rule the globe for a thousand years.
Hundreds of thousands packed Times Square in New York City, where the jubilation was tempered when Truman reminded celebrants that there was still the war in the Pacific that needed to be won.
In Germany, survivors wandered through cities blasted into an unrecognizable state from allied firebombs. Their homes were gone, and there was no food. Hitler escaped punishment by committing suicide in an underground bunker.
Loss of Roosevelt
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who led the United States through the Depression and war, and had become a steadfast ally to Churchill and Stalin, did not live to see victory.
Author and Marist College history professor David Woolner called Roosevelt’s final days a “heroic and historic story.” In his 2016 book “The Last 100 Days: FDR at War and at Peace,” Woolner chronicled the president’s life from Christmas 1944 until his death from a cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1945, a time when the German army was crumbling.
“This was a man who was confined to a wheelchair since the age of 39, couldn’t get out bed in the morning, yet has to run the United States,” he said.
Roosevelt was severely ill, suffering from heart disease. He was in nonstop pain from the heavy steel braces around paralyzed legs, the result of polio.
Woolner noted that Roosevelt knew running for an unprecedented third term in 1940, and then a fourth term in 1944, would certainly shorten his life.
But Roosevelt was fighting enemies on two fronts, against Germany and Japan, and the country needed him to negotiate with a sometimes-disagreeable Churchill and a paranoid, distrustful Stalin.
“He frankly admits that he used the war as an opportunity to draw the Russians into the international community because he understood that there wasn’t going to be peace in the world if the great powers didn’t get along with one another,” Woolner said.
Differences among victors
In his last State of the Union speech, Roosevelt said, “The nearer we come to vanquishing our enemies, the more aware we become of the differences among victors.”
“Almost as if he was warning the American people that this was not going to be an easy task to maintain good relations among the allies once the war was over,” Woolner added.
Roosevelt died at age 63, less than a month before the Nazis surrendered.
He did not live to see the United Nations come into being or the formation of his other postwar vision: a Jewish homeland in the Middle East. That task was left to his successor, Truman.