With the May 1945 conclusion of World War II in Europe, the geography, personnel and future of the region would be impacted in a major way.
Although fighting in the Pacific would last three more months, the victory over Germany and Italy was a major milestone in the Second World War.
After the defeat of Germany, that nation was carved up by the Allies, with the Soviet Union soon intent on dividing Berlin and the country itself. Some countries which were subjugated by the Nazis during World War II were soon under the domination of Soviet communism as the Cold War heated up. The United States and its friends soon created a defensive military alliance, NATO, which was matched by a Soviet-led military group, the Warsaw Pact. Elsewhere, the war hastened the end of colonial empires.
Overall, more than 55 million humans perished in World War II, of which twice as many citizens died as soldiers. For the Americans, about 60 percent of the 400,000 military deaths occurred in Europe. The sacrifice made by American forces on behalf of Europe are vividly witnessed in cemeteries throughout the continent. At a Luxembourg burial site, U.S. legend Gen. George S. Patton overlooks his troops.
The brutality of the Nazis in World War II would not go unpunished. Responsible for crimes against humanity collectively referred to as the Holocaust, Nazi leaders were captured, tried, and in a select few cases executed for committing atrocities. The Nuremberg precedent certainly helped furnish the momentum for the United Nations’ establishment of the Genocide Convention and Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, promulgation of the Nuremburg Principles in 1950, later regional trials for those accused of genocide, and the 2002 International Criminal Court. Meanwhile, individuals, international organizations, and nations themselves continue to hunt for Nazis who escaped justice.
Just as economic crises contributed to the conditions leading to war, the United States’ Marshall Plan helped get European countries back on their feet and keep the peace at a dangerous time in world history. The four-year plan assisted 18 nations with more than $17 billion in aid, including West Germany and Italy.
The fate of World War II leaders in Europe went in varying directions. American President Franklin Roosevelt died suddenly less than a month before the end of fighting in the European theater, succeeded by Vice President Harry Truman, whose attention immediately turned to ending the war sooner rather than later in the Pacific.
Ironically, Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower would follow Truman to the White House, albeit not for another nine years. Whereas U.S. leaders like Gen. Omar Bradley would live many years after the war ended, Gen. Patton died from injuries sustained in an auto accident seven months after V-E Day. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, whose inspirational words comforted and rallied a nation, was summarily voted out of office. Dictators Benito Mussolini of Italy and Adolf Hitler of Germany died within days of one another, killed by partisans and by their own hand, respectively.
The world has changed much in the 70 years after the end of World War II in Europe. However, there is no question that the consequences and legacy of that conflict are still felt in the region and worldwide. Hence, it is critical to comprehend the history, events and lessons of World War II going forward.
Editor’s note: Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies director at Delaware State University. A previous recipient of a military history fellowship from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Dr. Hoff served as ROTC director at DSU from 1993-1999. His late father-in-law, Salvatore Oliveto, served in the U.S. Army and participated in the liberation of Italy during World War II.