VE Day: Seventy Years

8 May 2015

Friday


General Jodl signs the instrument for the unconditional surrender of Germany; Jodl would later hang at Nuremberg.

General Jodl signs the instrument for the unconditional surrender of Germany; Jodl would later hang at Nuremberg.

In Seventy Years, posted on 01 September 2009, I acknowledged the seventieth anniversary of the beginning of open armed conflict that began the Second World War. In that post I wrote:

During the middle of the twentieth century civilization experienced a convulsion of apocalyptic proportions. The sky was filled with airplanes, the sea was filled with ships above and below, great cities were destroyed in a single night, entire populations were displaced, and millions upon millions of people were killed.

Now, more than five years later, it is time to commemorate the termination of that apocalyptic conflict, in so far as the war came to an end in Europe on VE Day (Victory Europe), Tuesday, 08 May 1945. A week earlier Hitler had committed suicide in his Berlin bunker. Most German cities had been reduced to rubble long before. In the week between Hitler’s suicide and VE Day, Joseph Goebbels, appointed Reich Chancellor by Hitler just before his suicide, committed suicide with his wife after killing their six children, Tito had triumphed in what would become Yugoslavia, the Soviets took Berlin, Rangoon was liberated from the Japanese, and Mauthausen concentration camp was liberated.

Nazi Germany formally surrendered unconditionally at the Western Allied Headquarters in Rheims, France, on Monday 07 May 1945, but the ceasefire took effect one minute after midnight on Tuesday 08 May 1945. Reich President Karl Dönitz ordered the surrender, and General Alfred Jodl signed for Germany. Later at Nuremberg where both were tried as major war criminals, Jodl was sentenced to death; Dönitz spent ten years in Spandau prison.

As though a portent of what was to come, on the same day, Tuesday, 08 May 1945, the Sétif massacre occurred, when a victory parade turned ugly. French police attempted to seize anti-colonial banners held by the crowd of about 5,000 Muslim marchers in Sétif and the scuffle turned into a firefight. (Similar events occurred in Guelma and Kherrata.) In the ensuing days, both sides took reprisals on the other. Thousands died (how many thousands is still in dispute).

The French held out in Algeria and Indochina even has the British surrendered control of India, the Jewel in the Crown, in 1947. Colonial conflicts and the consequent de-colonialization struggles became a proxy battleground of the Cold War, played out in the lives of impoverished peoples in Africa, Asia, and South America. Struggles for national liberation were transmuted into ideological conflicts in which Russia and China supplied arms to those who would self-identify as communists, and the US and Europe supplied arms to those who would identify as anti-communists. It is arguable that the legacy of this struggle has shaped the contemporary world more profoundly that the apocalyptic proportions of the Second World War, which, considered only in terms of open armed conflict, endured for less than six years.

The end of a catastrophic conventional war, in which regular armies numbering in the millions of soldiers, airmen, and sailors met in pitched battle on the ground, in the air, and on the sea, ending in definitive defeat and unconditional surrender for the Axis powers, marked the beginning of protracted, seemingly interminable unconventional conflicts between small numbers of irregular combatants who rarely met in battle, and whose wars almost never ended in definitive defeat or surrender. Thus the end of the Second World War was as much of a turning point as the war itself.

It remains an open question at the present time if our planet will ever return to the WWII paradigm of armed conflict, in which the planet entire is convulsed by a short, sharp, and definitive war (and, if so, if anyone would survive), or if the development of civilization has permanently rendered such conflicts antiquated. War, like civilization, may not disappear, but it does evolve, and the existential viability of war (if one can speak of such) is predicated upon the possibility of the essential nature of warfare changing.

It is possible that we have witnessed such a change with the change in armed conflict that followed the end of the Second World War. However, a further change in the essential nature of the civilizations engaging in warfare would drive further changes in the essential nature of war. This could take the form of returning to an earlier paradigm of armed conflict, or issuing in unprecedented forms of armed conflict. As I pointed out some years ago, civilization and war are locked in a co-evolutionary relationship.

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