8 May 1945 was declared “Victory in Europe Day,” after the remaining leaders of Nazi Germany signed documents accepting their unconditional surrender on 7 May. American and British forces had crossed into Germany in March and had liberated Concentration Camps in western Germany in April, while Soviet forces already occupied portions of eastern Germany. Adolf Hitler, who had commanded his quickly-vanishing forces from within his underground bunker in Berlin, committed suicide on 30 April, leaving his country and its war effort to Admiral Karl Doenitz, a fanatical Nazi and head of the Kriegsmarine (German Navy). Doenitz, no fool, along with the few remaining senior leaders of the Third Reich, accepted surrender overtures from the Allies, and signed the instrument of surrender on 7 May, effectively handing themselves, their forces, and all of Germany over to the Allied powers.
Almost 12,000,000 Americans served in the armed forces of the United States, and just over 400,000 of them were killed while in uniform. Almost 700,000 were wounded. For some context, the population of the United States was around 130,000,000 at the outbreak of war, just under 39% of the population today. Thus, if we fought WW2 today, and suffered casualties at the same rate, some 1,000,000 Americans would die in battle; almost another 2 million would be wounded, and over 30,000,000 would have served in our military forces. In adjusted dollars, the United States spent some $4 trillion fighting World War 2, and in the 1945, the last year of the war, U.S. spending on the war was about 40% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which is around twice the share the federal spending comes in at today.
It’s little wonder that Americans – and really, people around the world – celebrated the war’s end with such vigor and excitement. Ask your students to talk with their grandparents, if they are old enough, or maybe even great-grandparents, if alive, for perspective on how it felt then. And consider, too, that the little old man or woman you see stooped over at the store, or driving slowing in front of you, may well have been one of those joyous faces in those crowds, celebrating the end of the most destructive war in human history, and hoping for a chance for peace.
Here is a folder with a selection of newspaper headlines from around the United States and world, celebrating the end of almost six years of war in Europe.