Search This Blog

Friday, 8 May 2015

History in Focus: V-E Day

Today the British news has been dominated by the results of the general election but worldwide it is 70 years since V-E Day; the day where Nazi Germany officially surrendered to the Allies and ended the Second World War in Europe. Although the war would continue until September 2nd when Japan surrendered as well. Today though I will not only discuss V-E Day but also the result of the general election which has a few stark similarities to the aftermath of V-E Day. To start with how did the Allies manage to cause the collapse of Hitler's 'Thousand Year Reich' after just short of six years of fighting?

The beginning of the end of the Axis in Europe- For the first few years of the Second World War Hitler and the Wehrmacht had successfully managed to conquer most of Europe. By 1941 Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Low Countries and France had fallen to the Blitzkrieg tactics (using the Lutftwaffe to bomb enemy lines followed by tanks to wipe the rest out and infantry coming after to mop up the survivors). If not for the British Royal Air Force (RAF) managing to defeat the Luftwaffe in aerial combat Britain could have been on this list as well. On the 22nd June 1941 Hitler in the largest invasion in the history of warfare invaded the Soviet Union and had managed to capture Minsk, Kiev, Sevastopol as well as lay siege to Leningrad (modern day St Petersburg) and Stalingrad (modern Volgograd). On the 2nd December 1941 the 258th Division reported that they were so close to Moscow that they could see the spires on top of the Kremlin. However then things started to go bad. Hitler's egomania had made him believe that he was the greatest military commander in the history of the world and that he was chosen by providence to lead the German people to greatness. He simultaneously tried to fight the British, Soviets and Americans following their declaration of war on Japan following Pearl Harbor which drastically overextended his forces. In North Africa Field Marshal (Generalfeldmarschall) Erwin Rommel's Africa Korps were given few resources with most of it diverted to the Eastern Front. His defeat at the Second Battle of Al Amein in in the November of 1942 can be seen as the beginning of the collapse of Hitler's empire. With Rommel defeated the African front collapsed and the Wehrmacht started to see more defeats. However many historians see the Battle of Stalingrad as the main turning point against the Axis in Europe. Hitler wanted Stalingrad destroyed for it bore the name of his hated adversary Joseph Stalin. In the February of 1943 with the German 6th Army and elements of the Romanian army surrendered to the overwhelming forces of the Red Army. After five months of bloody fighting and a bitter winter which led to many dying of the cold the 6th Army was destroyed or captured with the Axis suffering 850,000 casualties to Soviet casualties of 1,129,619 and 40,000 civilians. The Wehrmacht slowly started to be pushed from Soviet lands.

The noose tightens- In January of 1943 the Prime Minister of Britain Winston Churchill, President of the United States Franklin Roosevelt and leading generals of the Free French Charles de Gaulle and Henri Giraud met at Casablanca and stated that they would only accept 'unconditional surrender' of the Axis forces. What followed was a bombing campaign against German industrial areas across the Rhineland from Allied forces and an invasion of Italy. Churchill described Italy as 'the soft underbelly of the Axis' and thought that by going through Italy they could take Germany off guard thanks to their efforts in Russia. Hitler counteracted by invading Italy as well as Yugoslavia and Greece to counter the Allied invasion. However things were going badly for Hitler in Germany. Popular discontent from food shortages and anger at the Nazi high command for getting them into a war that was clear that they were not winning. Groups such as the Edelweiss Pirates intentionally sabotaged Gestapo efforts and handed out Allied propaganda while White Rose led by Hans and Sophie Scholl handed out leaflets and asked for peaceful resistance against the Nazis. Unfortunately they were captured and beheaded by the Gestapo; they were only in their early twenties. In the Soviet Union the Red Army was pushing back the Wehrmacht so by 1944 they had pushed the Axis out of Ukraine while the Western allies made a series of daring attacks at Monte Cassino. On June 6th 1944 in Operation Overlord but more commonly known as D-Day in what was the largest amphibious invasion 156,000 Allied troops landed in Northern France. By August Paris had been liberated with Charles de Gaulle riding triumphantly into the capital. Soon the Allies were determined to destroy the Nazis after the discovery of the concentration camps. Following 1942 the SS and Gestapo had been rounding up Jews, Eastern Europeans, Romani, homosexuals and left wingers to name just a few and placing them in camps such as Dachau and Auschwitz. By 1945 around 11 million had been murdered in the camps with half of them Jews. Reports started to drift into public knowledge in and out of the Third Reich turning all against the Nazis who found out.

The end- Soon the Allies started to think of a post-war Europe with Poland decidedly to be a Soviet client. This explains why Stalin ordered the Red Army not to enter Warsaw to aid the rebelling Polish fighters; waiting until the Nazis had put them down before sweeping in. On the 20th July 1944 Operation Valkyrie came into effect. Wehrmacht officials including Claus von Satuffenberg placed a bomb in Hitler's bunker in an attempt to assassinate him. He narrowly survived and the plotters were executed. In 1945 the bombing campaign escalated including the tragic fire bombing of Dresden which claimed up to 500,000 lives and still remains a controversial issue between Germany and Britain for Dresden held no strategic industries or of any strategic importance. The same month that Dresden was bombed Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt met in Yalta in the Crimea determined to see the destruction of the Third Reich and divide it into zones of occupation to ensure that after the war militant groups could not come to power as they had done following World War One. It was now bleak for Hitler. He was confined to the Fuhrerbunker in Berlin which was constantly being bombarded by bombings and he was ordering the movement of divisions which no one had the nerve to inform him had been destroyed. Inflamed by the horrors uncovered in the concentration camps in both the east and west the Allies continued to fight. Soon the Low Countries, Norway and Denmark had been liberated (on May 2nd) and the Soviet Union had crossed the Oder River and was bearing down on Berlin. On the 28th April in Italy Benito Mussolini and his mistress were gunned down by partisans and hung from street lights. Two leading Nazis, Hermann Goring and Heinrich Himmler who had been influential in the Holocaust, tried to surrender to the Allies and were quickly arrested. On the 29th German forces in Italy surrendered. Hitler did not wish to suffer the same fate as Mussolini so married his longtime partner Eva Braun as the Red Army waged war in the streets of Berlin. He shot Eva Braun and then himself. His Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels was made Reich Chancellor and Admiral Karl Donitz Reich President. The Part Chancellor Martin Bormann tried to flee Berlin but was killed and Goebbels had his children poisoned before he shot his wife and himself. The Soviet Union in triumph flew the hammer and sickle over the Reichstag and on May 8th Donitz surrendered to the Allies. War had ended in Europe.

Aftermath- At Yalta Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill had agreed on making Europe safe for democracy with free elections in Germany. At Potsdam however matters were different. Roosevelt had succumbed to polio and had passed on leaving Vice-President Harry Truman as President. Churchill's bravado of now descending on Japan with no social reform upset the British public who wanted reform and an end to fighting so in the 1945 General Election Labour won making Clement Attlee (who was Deputy Prime Minister during the war) Prime Minister. Thus the anti-communist Truman and paranoid Stalin bickered at Potsdam. Churchill even saw the Soviet Union as a threat and created a plan before he lost the election to rearm Germany and battle the Soviets in what he nicknamed Operation Unthinkable. Truman informed Stalin that he had a new weapon to end the war quickly. In September that new weapon was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki taking thousands of civilian lives, poisoned hundreds more and wiped both cities off the map. They were nuclear bombs. Stalin instantly pushed forward his project and started establishing communist governments in Poland and Eastern Europe. The Cold War had begun. In France de Gualle briefly was Head of the Provisional Government but resigned for the first elections issuing in a new era for French politics. In the rubble of post-war Europe a new age was beginning.

Relation to the 2015 election?
First both elections saw the first time that a new generation could vote in turbulent times. In 1945 a wave of politically minded people could now vote who went through the uncertainty of economic turmoil that plagued the 1930s and the devastation of war while the politically minded generation who could vote in the 2015 election (including myself) grew up in the uncertainty of a post-9/11 world with the turbulence caused also by the 2008 Banking Crisis. The 1945 election also saw one party (Labour) come out of a coalition and dominate the election with Labour gaining 239 seats while the Conservatives lost 197. The election also saw the place where I live, Doncaster, first elect Labour as the MP and ever since it has voted Labour with Doncaster currently being Labour's base. In the 2015 election we saw the Conservatives dominate their former coalition members, the Liberal Democrats, who now only have 8 seats. What can be certain though is that there will be great change. Following 1945 Clement Attlee issued in a wave of reform including installing in a benefit system for the needy, a nationalized health system (the NHS) and the start of decolonization with Indian independence in 1947. This election will be the first time the Conservative Party has been in power by itself since 1997. With the Conservatives on their own in Downing Street they will change Britain but whether for better or for will we will have to wait and see.

No comments:

Post a Comment