, May 8, 2015

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.

Read the entire essay at CNN