World War II’s end happened over time.
Germany unconditionally surrendered to the Allies on May 7, 1945 (it was announced the next day, May 8, on what would be known as Victory in Europe Day — or V-E Day), but Italy had been liberated from fascism almost two weeks earlier, on April 25. And the last Axis combatant, Japan, did not surrender until September 2.
Those dramatic final months 70 years ago created the victors and losers of the postwar order, and set the agenda for how the entire war would be remembered.
They brought into the public realm problems and situations that still touch our lives today: fears over weapons of mass destruction, public awareness of the Holocaust and the impetus it gave to the creation of a Jewish state, and the tension between upholding state security and protecting civil liberties, in times of peace as well as times of war.
The images of death and devastation that emerged from that spring and summer of 1945 can still shock us today. The mushroom clouds and vaporized people of the atomic bombs unleashed by the United States on Japan; the emaciated survivors of German concentration camps, who look out at us in photos and film reels from behind their barbed wire cages; the body of the executed fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, strung up like a ham in a public square in Milan, as revenge for more than 20 years of his tyranny.
This second total war of the 20th century, which engaged the armies of dozens of nations, also left us with an equal number of stories of resilience and strength: crowds in rags, cheering the American troops who liberated their cities; partisans from across Europe risking their lives to end fascist regimes and their foreign occupations; women showing their courage and muscle as factory workers, intelligence officers, nurses and soldiers.
If World War I changed the perception and experience of war through the large-scale application of so many new military technologies, then World War II brought a new level of attention to war’s victims. The vast number of noncombatant deaths (38 million to 55 million as opposed to 25 million military deaths), and the abuses and atrocities suffered by millions of men, women and children, placed civilians at the center of legal and other discussions at war’s end.
The 1949 Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, which amended the 1864, 1906 and 1929 treaties and is still in force today, came out of this climate.
In some ways, humanitarian aid organizations faced their biggest tests as the war ended. They assisted millions upon millions of refugees, military personnel and civilians freed from every sort of camp, and many other people who needed to get home, sometimes from halfway around the globe — or no longer had a home to go to.
Some of the major players were creatures of this transitional period, such as the U.N. Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, active from 1943 to1947. It repatriated about 6 million — 6 million! — displaced persons between May and December 1945 alone.
Other main actors had longer histories and are still active today. The International Red Cross operated during and immediately after the war on five continents, helping prisoners of war, victims of famine, refugees and many others.
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s activities ranged from the rescue and resettlement of Jews in flight from Nazi persecution, to caring for Holocaust survivors, to giving funds for Jewish families to locate and reclaim children who had been placed with Christian families during the war.
World War II’s end was also complicated because it was actually many wars in one — not only in terms of its geographically distant battle theaters, but because it included small wars waged inside bigger ones.
The Resistance movements in Europe, which took place within the larger Allied-Axis conflict, were sometimes civil wars as well as national liberation campaigns against foreign occupiers. French, Italian and other partisans sought to expel German National Socialists from their countries but also fought against homegrown collaborators.
Resistance movements were a source of hope and national pride for populations in 1945, and their symbolic and political importance as anti-fascist struggles continues on today.
In many other ways, too, the war did not end with the cessation of armed struggle in September 1945. Its unfinished business lingered on through legal proceedings meant to punish those who ended up on the wrong side of history, through episodes of rough justice, including revenge killings and shaving the heads of women accused of collaboration with Nazis and Fascists, and through the babies born to women from their encounters, consensual or through rape, with men who had long vanished.
There were also the internments that dragged out: Japanese-Americans who had been labeled as “enemy aliens” after the United States entered the war, for example, and POWs from many countries who waited in camps around the globe to be repatriated, even years after the declaration of peace.
“What have we done for destiny to be so cruel to us?” wrote an Italian woman to her Italian soldier fiancé, who in December 1945 was still in a British POW camp in India. “My youth has been spent waiting for your return, and yours has been spent in prison. …You have been gone for so many Christmases!”
The complexities of this dense period of transition were often later forgotten, whether because people wished to put the past behind them or because of the demands of a new political era.
And the euphoric April 1945 meeting of Russian and American forces in a soon to be defeated Germany, which capped four years of the U.S.-Soviet alliance, soon gave way to steely Cold War standoffs.
What remained was the casting of the war as a struggle between democracy and forces that wished to enslave humanity. We are still living with the new world order created 70 years ago, in World War II’s ashes.