Sunday, May 8, 2016

Today is V-E Day - This Day in History

Yes, on this date in history 71 years ago came V-E Day, marking the Allied victory in Europe following the "unconditional surrender" of Nazi Germany. The Fuehrer had killed himself just days before in his underground Berlin bunker, as the Soviets pounded the city with relentless shelling. Very shortly thereafter, they would outright take over Berlin, taking down the Nazi flags and symbols, and hoisting the hammer and sickle. Germany, which only a few years earlier had still largely retained what could be seen as an empire (they were either allies with, or outright taken over, almost every nation in Europe), was now fighting a losing battle on all sides, as armies closed in all around them, choking off the life of the fascist state. Hitler had declared that he was building the "thousand year Reich", but it had lasted a little more than twelve years.

World War II was not over on May 8, 1945. There was still the war in the Pacific with Japan, after all. There was still months of fighting left, and many more deaths - civilian and military -would be lost yet.

Still, the worst was over with the end of the war in Europe. The casualties on all sides are simply staggering. In all, World War II cost over sixty million people their lives, but that includes the war in Asia. I wondered what the overall toll was in Europe, as well as the toll upon individual European nations - particularly Germany and the Soviet Union.

There was the war on the Eastern Front between these two nations that remains the single deadliest war in history. Think about that for a minute. Of all the wars that have ever existed throughout human history, the war between Germany and the Soviet Union was the deadliest.

There were a lot of famous battles in Europe during the war, but most of these came during the war on the Eastern Front, during which the Soviets managed to stop the seemingly invincible German military machine cold. The German advance was halted and, after a relative stalemate that lasted for years, the Soviets began to triumph in some key battles, and they began to advance forward. That meant that, for the Germans, every step that they took after a certain point was a step backwards. Before long, they had retreated all the way back to the Reich itself, which was collapsing in on itself. It would end in the rubble of bombed out cities, perhaps especially Berlin itself, the capital of the Reich.

But the losses suffered to achieve this were incredible! There are individual battles where the stakes were so enormous, that both sides just kept piling on all the military might that they could to achieve victory. The Battle of Stalingrad was probably the biggest single battle. I heard Norman Schwartzkopf and Charles Kuralt, in a documentary from 1994, state that of every one thousand soldiers on both sides sent to the battle, only three came out alive! When you see the images of the war in the East, particularly during the winter time, you begin to understand just how painful and demoralizing that particular part of the war was.

According to Wikipedia (, the numbers really are mind-boggling. The most deaths, by far, went to the Soviet Union. According to the website, the Soviet Union had an overall population of over 194 million in 1940. They suffered 10,700,000 military deaths during the war, and 15,900,000 civilian deaths, for a whopping total estimated dead at over 26 million! That, just for the Soviet Union itself.

For Germany, the numbers are equally unbelievable. Within Germany's pre-1937 borders, the overall population stood at just under seventy million. It suffered 4,400,000 military deaths. The civilian death toll is estimated at somewhere between 1,100,000 to 2,500,000. Austria (which became part of the Reich) suffered 260,000 military casualties, and another 120,000 civilian deaths. Then, for ethnic Germans living outside of the Reich itself, there are an estimated 600,000 military deaths, and somewhere between 200,000 and 900,000 civilian deaths. The estimated total of Germans lost during the war, then, are 5,500, 000 military deaths, and somewhere between 1,500,000 and 3,500,000 civilian deaths, for a total of between seven to nine million total dead!

True, that for the Germans, it was a war of aggression. Hitler wanted greater "lebensraum" for his Aryan Master Race of Germans, and so he and the Nazis favored pursuing territorial expansion, particularly to the East. They saw Russia and the East as their future colony, if you will. They pursued it, but they were never going to win that war. I know Americans like to think that they won the war and defeated Hitler, but the truth is that the Germans really lost that war well before D-Day, and the opening of the Western Front. Harry Truman, the future President of the United States, favored what is known as "bait and bleed", which is to say, pitting two enemies against one another and letting them weaken one another. Obviously, given the horrifying numbers of dead for both Germany and the Soviets, this policy worked. But it could also give a glimpse of true understanding for why the Soviets were not exactly trusting of the Western Allies after the war, and why these tensions led to the Cold War. I am not excusing them, but it becomes a bit more understandable why the Soviets wanted those buffer states in between them and Western powers.

For France, there were 217,600 military deaths (including colonies), and 350,000 civilian dead. well over 300,000 deaths for Greeks, and the vast majority of them were civilians. Just shy of 600,000 dead in Hungary, with relatively equal numbers between military and civilian dead. Italy suffered over 300,000 military deaths, with another 153,200 civilian deaths. There were 17,000 military deaths from the Netherlands, but a whopping 284,000 civilian deaths! For Romania, 300,000 military dead, and 500,000 civilian dead! For Yugoslavia, 446,000 military dead, and another 581,000 civilians lost. The United Kingdom lost 383,800 military deaths, and 67,100 civilian deaths. For the United States, 416,800 dead, although this number includes the Asian war.

However, the most deaths for a single country, other than the Soviet Union or Germany, was suffered by Poland, which lost 240,000 civilians and estimates that range between 5,380,000 to 5,580,000 civilian deaths!

We all know about how the Nazis murdered six millions Jews. The Holocaust took place in two different ways. First, and most infamously, there were the death camps, the largest of which was Auschwitz. But the other part of the Holocaust was on the Eastern Front, when the Germans would round up Jews (and other undesirables) and shoot them en masse. Six million Jews!

And it was not only Jews, of course. There are various estimates as to the total number of dead by the Nazis, who pursued genocidal policies. The estimates range by the millions, so no definitive account exists now (and possibly, even probably, never will). But even the lowest estimate stands at roughly 11 million, and quite a few suggest higher, even much higher, numbers than that! There is still a debate about whether or not non-Jews should be included as part of the Holocaust or not.

But one way or another, the costs of this war were truly staggering and mind-numbing!

The late Kurt Vonnegut considered World War II the last necessary war. He himself was a veteran of the war, and was taken prisoner by the Germans. He was taken to Dresden, where he was one of the few survivors of the infamous Dresden fire bombings that destroyed that city. Dresden had remained relatively free from the constant bombings that other German cities had regularly had to endure, since it was an "open city", meaning it had no military value. There had been drills and exercises before, but they had been false warnings that had not actually materialized into anything. But that changed in February of 1945, when the city became the site of what Kurt Vonnegut called the single greatest overnight mass murder in history. He continued to write and talk about the bombing throughout his long and storied writing career.

Some may contend with Vonnegut's assertion that Dresden was the worst overnight massacre in history, but many agree that World War II was the last "necessary" war, if you will. There were aggressive powers that wanted to take over huge chunks of the world, and thus plunged the world into war. The biggest (and usually considered the most evil) of these was Nazi Germany, and the suffering that was inflicted as a result are mind-boggling, and hard to grasp for those of us who were born well after the war, and did not actually see these events unfold. Yes, we have the history books, but can you imagine what it would have actually been like to live through it, to see the war? The deprivations, the deaths, the uncertainty, the rations, the headlines! The revelations that came of the numbers of dead that came as a result, and the documented cruelty of a modern state, intent on wiping out an entire segment of the population.

As you can see, the war was not just costly for those who were literally fighting it! At a time when there was really very little to celebrate in Europe, the end of the war truly marked a momentous occasion and, for once, it was cause to celebrate! So much so, that we still recognize it every year on this day, May 8th. V-E Day.

That said, it should be noted that in the Soviet Union, and still presently in Russia, V-E Day was officially celebrated on the 9th of May, and not the 8th, even though Germany had already officially surrendered. Still, we are celebrating the same event, the guns and tanks and bombs falling silent, and Europe's deadliest conflict in history (and that's saying something) finally coming to a close.

I got the numbers for this blog entry from the following websites:

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