Seventy years ago, in a little red schoolhouse in Reims, Reichspräsident Admiral Karl Dönitz and Generaloberst Alfred Jödl met with the representatives of the Allied and Soviet High Commands to sign the instrument of surrender of the Third Reich. It was 0241 hours Central European Time on the 7th of May 1945 and took effect at 2301 hours on the 8th of May. Although the Germans of Army Group Center continued to resist the Soviets in Prague until May 11th, for most people the long nightmare of the War in Europe was over.
Hitler and Mussolini were dead, but so was Roosevelt; even Churchill was soon to be voted out of office. The United Nations had crushed the Nazi viper in its nest and freed the subject peoples of Europe from slavery and death. Across the continent there was riotous celebration as millions of poured out to into the streets to celebrate the end to the killing. In London, Princess Elizabeth and her sister Margaret slipped out of Buckingham Palace to party with their countrymen in the West End; while in Paris, the Champs-Élysées was packed by a sea of humanity singing and crying in joy. Even in the devastated cities of the Reich, the shocked and terrified people of Germany gave thanks for having survived the Allied bombers and the Russian hordes; and they prayed they would survive the peace as well.
President Truman announced the surrender of Germany to the American people over the radio, calling it “a solemn but glorious hour”. He lamented the absence of Franklin Roosevelt – the great architect of victory – from the celebrations; and he reminded the American people of the work still to be done. Europe was at peace, but Japan remained unconquered. Even as the Wehrmacht was laying down its arms, the Australians were landing in Borneo; British forces were fighting in the jungles of Northern Burma; and the Americans invaded Okinawa. Japan would not surrender until the 15th of August, and only after the Soviets invaded Manchuria and both Hiroshima and Nagasaki had died under atomic fires.
After the celebrations, the grim reality: Europe was ruined. The war had lasted 5 years, 5 months and 7 days, raging across the entire continent. Over 45 million people had died in that period, a rate of 22,700 per day. One in five Poles alive in 1939 was dead in 1945. One in four Russians had been killed or wounded. The scale of destruction and suffering was beyond comprehension. As the armies of liberation swept into the Reich out of east and west, they uncovered the hideous proof of the Nazis’ genocidal evil. The camps stood like little reproductions of Hell built in silent forests, between unknowing hills: Sobibor, Belzec, Majdanek, Chelmno, Auschwitz, Treblinka. “Arbeits macht Frei”: the gallows humor at the entrance of the camps that greeted the victims of the Shoah like a risus sardonicus. Out of 3.3 million Jews living in Poland, only 300,000 survived.
The victors in the war had suffered almost as much as the vanquished. France had been occupied; the Soviet Union had witnessed the worst brutalities of the conflict; even Britain had been bombed and half-starved. Their empires would rapidly crumble despite the efforts of the metropolis to reimpose its rule. The Age of Europe ended: the continent that had ruled the world was now divided and occupied by the two giants from her periphery. When the French and British forgot this fact and tried to reassert their independence of action in the 1956 Suez Crisis, Eisenhower and Khrushchev pulled short the leash. The Iron Curtain fell from the Baltic to the Black Sea; and another 47 years were to pass before Europe would be wholly free.
Today we commemorate the sacrifice of our grandparents: the brave men who stormed the beaches or jumped out of the sky to break the bonds of tyranny; and the courageous women who worked in the factories, kept stoic watch as the bombs rained down upon them. They fought and died for a better world for themselves and their kids; a free world, a democratic world. They were the greatest generation. As we remember their triumph and their glory, we should also reflect that their task remains unfinished. Slavery and despotism still exist in the world; democracy is under threat in every country from extremism, depression and inequality. War again threatens the peace of Europe and Asia. Will our generation rise to the challenge of the times and secure for our children a better world, a brighter future?