This is it. May 8, 2015. Seventy years ago it was VE Day for the first time in history, and the crowds went wild. Unfortunately, many people are going to head to work today praising the fact that it’s a Friday and never considering the historical anniversary. Even in my own family I got puzzled looks when I tested their knowledge of the day. (Yikes! And they have a historian living in the house…)
So what exactly happened on VE Day? Why is it significant? How does it impact us today? Here’s six things you need to know about the historical event.
1. VE stands for “Victory in Europe”
May 8, 1945, was a historic, never to be forgotten day in European history. It was the day the Allied leaders announced the surrender of Nazi Germany.
2. VE Day ended World War II in Europe
Six years earlier – in 1939 – Germany, at the instigation of Hitler, invaded Poland, beginning the Second World War in Europe. In the following year, German tanks swept through Western Europe, conquering the smaller nations and France. To the south, Mussolini’s Fascist government controlled Italy and worked in league with the Nazi Reich. For months, Britain held on, alone, but supported by a life line of American supplies while in the skies British and German pilots fought for air superiority.
When the Americans joined the war in 1941, manpower for offensive campaigns became available. Fighting in North Africa, Italy, and Southern France weakened the German hold on the continent. In June 1944, Allied Forces landed on the shores of Normandy and pushed their way toward Paris. While the Russians advanced from the east, the Germans launched a desperate assaulted in the frozen woods in December 1944; this is now called Battle of the Bulge.
However, with Allies controlling the skies and steadily advancing their armies, Hitler’s “fantastic” plans crumbled like the city of Berlin itself. The Russians captured Berlin on May 2, 1945, and the following week, German generals met Allied commanders to discuss terms of surrender. The documents were signed on May 7th and the leaders of the Allied nations – Truman, USA; Churchill, UK; DeGaulle, France; Stalin, USSR; – made their announcements of victory on May 8th.
3. VE Day was celebrated with great enthusiasm
United States, Britain, Russia, France, and all the small European countries rejoiced. Crowds cheered wildly as their leaders announced the electrifying news: the war in Europe was over! Citizens danced in the streets. Women kissed soldiers. Russians and Americans toasted the success of their armies.
There’s a book on our WWII history shelf and it’s titled “VE Day in Photographs.” When I open it and glance through a few photos, I can’t help but smile. The incredible joy and enthusiasm can be “felt” through the smiles and expressions captured in the photos.
However, as I turn to the last pages in the book, I see the photos of German civilians, and I think it would be wrong not to comment. They’re not smiling; some look bitter and sad. But others look relieved. Perhaps one of the most startling photos shows Soviet troops ladling soup into a container for an old woman. The German woman is looking at the soldier – her former enemy – in amazement; there’s a sense of relief on her face. The war’s over…maybe life will get better.
4. VE Day was not the end of World War II
Victory in Europe, yes. End of WWII, no. Remember, there were two theaters of war in this global conflict: the European theater and the Pacific theater.
So, while the war ended in Europe, the island fighting in the Pacific continued. While doing some research on VE Day, I found an interesting photo of American soldiers on Okinawa; they are listening to a radio broadcast of Europe’s news. They are full battle uniform and the looks on their faces clearly show that for them the war is not over. (I’m sorry I haven’t found these photos digitally yet, I’ll keep looking and if I find them I’ll share them on Facebook.)
5. VE Day was the beginning of a new era
The Russian advance from the east and their “liberation” of Berlin became the setting for a new era: The Cold War. Less than five years after the celebrations of VE Day, Winston Churchill would proclaim an iron curtain had fallen on Europe, separating East from West.
Though the Russians and Americans celebrated the victory in WWII together, there were underlying squabbles. The generals didn’t always agree. Stalin – the Soviet leader – irritated Churchill and Truman by insisting that he be the first Allied commander to announce the victory. And even while the Soviet and American troops partied together, there was an ever-present awareness of their differences, particularly in their ideology, religion, and government forms. The beginnings of the Cold War simmered even in the victory days.
Winston Churchill waving to crowds on VE Day, 1945
6. VE Day is still important
“Why?” you’re asking. I’m going let one of the victors answer your question…here’s Winston Churchill, speaking to the British people on VE Day:
I say that in the long years to come not only will the people of this island but of the world, wherever the bird of freedom chirps in human hearts, look back to what we’ve done and they will say “do not despair, do not yield to violence and tyranny, march straightforward and die if need be-unconquered.” Now we have emerged from one deadly struggle…
Victory in Europe Day is important because it reminds us to have courage. To fight on against forms of tyranny in our world today. To never lose heart, to never lose faith, to never lose courage.
P.S. What does VE Day mean to you? Your thoughts?