Saturday, May 9, 2015

VE Day: Europe's Grandest Finale

The Buffalo:


Seventy years ago today our fathers and grandfathers were summoned to release Europe and the Mediterranean basin from the bondage of world tyranny, which they dutifully obliged by consummating humanity’s victory over the forces of oppression and political iniquity. It was a victory sown through the blood and sweat of a generation of man that God had particularly selected for its capacity to withstand the worst that the forces of evil and immorality could throw at it. This was the ‘Greatest Generation’s’ finest hour and solidified their place in history as humanity’s most humble and dedicated servants. Unfortunately this anniversary might be the last time our sincerest gratitude can be collectively extended to the survivors who made that victory possible and helped rebuild the edifice that established the Western World. Their story must never be forgotten and the free world must now venerate the date of May 8 for eternity as the day that triumphantly consummated the fruits of their long and strenuous labors and restored the hopes and dreams of every generation that followed.  
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Nine days before the end of the war in Europe German dictator Adolf Hitler took his own life deep inside his bunker underneath the Reich Chancellery in Berlin. This final act of defiance from the war’s most menacing culprit signaled the end of Nazism throughout Europe. The brunt cause of the long six-year war was now completely extinguished and it would be only a matter of time before its remaining lethal components were finally doused and dismantled for good. The feeling in the allied camp was that the end would not be long now that the Wehrmacht High Command was fully unshackled from the fuehrer’s imperious grasp. Only Goebbels and a few diehard Nazi leaders remained to carry on the fight from the bunker but it was plain to see that their days were numbered. Indeed the overwhelming hope at General Eisenhower’s SHAEF headquarters in Rheims was that Hitler’s handpicked successor, Admiral Karl Doenitz would quickly realize the futility of further resistance and dictate the order for all German troops throughout Europe to lay down their arms and accept their final defeat.
German POW's trapped in the Ruhr pocket


When the Western Allies finally pushed across the Rhine in the last week of March they moved with astonishing speed all across the German heartland. In fact the American advance was so rapid that it swiftly overran Germany’s Army Group B and began corralling more than 350,000 Wehrmacht troops into captivity in the Ruhr pocket during the first week of April. This overwhelming haul of German POWs spelled the death knell for all Wehrmacht troops on the Western Front. Even though it would take another three weeks to completely snuff out all resistance in the Ruhr pocket, these troops were effectively isolated and contained for the duration of the war and would play absolutely no part in the further defense of the Reich. Because they were the largest and most heavily armed concentration of German troops remaining in the west their instant elimination gave the rest of the American and British Armies plenty of room to maneuver and run roughshod all across Germany from west to east and north to south. 


Roughly three weeks after Eisenhower’s eight Allied armies went pouring into central Germany more than two million Soviet Red Army troops hopped across the Oder and began their swift and overpowering descent into Berlin. Other than the half a million troops covering the Nazi capital, Germany’s remaining forces were methodically constricted into a narrow corridor running north to south from Saxony to Bohemia and Eastern Bavaria, and onto the foothills of the Alps. However Germany’s Eastern Front, or more precisely those troops still engaged against the Soviets, were still putting up fierce resistance in Bohemia and Moravia and in Eastern Austria and Slovenia. In addition, there were more than a dozen isolated German strongholds and outposts still holding out in Brittany, the Channel coast, Holland, East Prussia, Danzig, Silesia, the Courland Peninsula and in Norway. All of these areas were very much on the minds of the Allied high command as they prepared to confront the first post-Hitler, German government.
Final Allied positions in Europe in first week of May


May 1, 1945: The news of Hitler’s death was not universally mourned in Germany. Most Germans had convincingly turned on their fuehrer and were almost relieved that his timely death would now certainly draw the long war to a close. For those in the uniform of the once mighty Wehrmacht, the fuehrer’s death intimated that their long, grueling, combat tour of duty would soon be coming to an end. Suddenly discharged from their oath to the fuehrer,  thousands of German officers began surrendering their units in droves or as was the case on the Eastern Front, simply turning heal from their Red Army opponents and fleeing back to the American and British lines in the west. With Hitler’s death came a sudden stampede of collective and individual unit surrenders throughout the German Army; a virtual exodus of beaten, exhausted and disheartened German formations and stragglers from hundreds of overrun and annihilated units streaming toward the American and British lines like they were being liberated from a monstrous, terrible scourge.
Gen. Hans Krebs


Although Hitler’s death brought an instant sigh of relief to the Allied camp there was no premature rush to jubilation. Most eyes were still locked on the developments in Berlin where Goebbels and Bormann were still locked away and directing the fuehrer’s post-suicidal, last stand. But the beleaguered and depleted German garrison in Berlin had already reached the end of its tether. After suffering through two weeks of relentless pounding from Soviet guns and allied bombers and expending nearly all of its ammo and reserve forces, Berlin’s military command was prepared to sue for peace. So they summoned Gen. Hans Krebs, Hitler’s handpicked Chief of the Army General Staff to negotiate the formal surrender of the Nazi capital to the Soviet Red Army. Early in the morning of May 1, Krebs met with Soviet General Vasily Chuikov, commander of the 8th Guards Army and celebrated hero of the Battle of Stalingrad. Chuikov, speaking on behalf of his commander Marshal Georgi Zhukov, demanded nothing less than unconditional surrender. However, because Krebs was integrally tied to the post-Hitler government he was compelled to obey the commands of Josef Goebbels, the avid Nazi and new German chancellor who in no uncertain terms, curtly refused to approve an unconditional surrender. 
  

When the commander of the Berlin garrison, Gen. Helmuth Weidling was informed of Kreb’s failed mission he immediately sanctioned a breakout attempt of all the German forces trapped inside the city. Weidling sent orders to all the remaining German units that the concerted breakout would commence after sundown with lead units aiming for the remaining bridges spanning the Havel River, west of the city center. But before Weidling went on the offensive word came forth from the fuehrerbunker that Goebbels was dead, along with his wife and six children in a bizarre murder-suicide plot. This conclusively removed the one impediment to an unconditional surrender wherein Weidling promptly tapered his plan to allow the more depleted units to accept the Soviet terms of surrender. Throughout the night and into the next morning thousands of German garrison troops began fighting their way to the Havel River as Soviet forces pushed into the Reichstag and Hitler’s chancellery. Only a handful of German soldiers made it across the river but those that did would eventually reach the American lines on the Elbe River in the next few days. 


May 2, 1945: Berlin’s tragic fate came to a climactic conclusion on Wednesday, May 2 when Soviet troops unfurled the communist red banner atop the burnt out remains of the German Reichstag. Other Soviet forces had already reached the entrance to the fuehrerbunker in the garden of the Reich Chancellery where they discovered the semi-charred remains of Goebbels and his wife Magda, along with their six children. Inside the bunker were the bodies of several other high-ranking German generals including Krebs and Wilhelm Burgdorf, the Nazi flunky who induced Field Marshal Erwin Rommel to choose suicide as the punitive sentence for his nominal role in the anti-Nazi resistance movement and their failed plot to assassinate Hitler during the previous summer. With Krebs suddenly out of the equation Weidling took it upon himself to revisit the terms of the Soviet offer and promptly surrendered the Berlin garrison to Gen. Chuikov with no strings attached. Berlin’s capitulation brought the first telltale signs that the war in Europe had indeed reached its final, mere trivial phase.
German POWs sharing the autobahn with US troops


The gist of that prophetic appraisal was brought home with vivid clarity when the Wehrmacht’s Italian contingent commenced the first mass surrender of a German field army in the post-Hitler era. Based on prior agreements resolved after weeks of painstaking negotiations between SS Gen. Karl Wolffe and representatives of British Field Marshal Harold Alexander, more than 300,000 Wehrmacht troops laid down their arms and went voluntarily into captivity after being trapped between the Po River and the Alps. The war in Italy was finally over and Italian civilians took to the streets to celebrate their long overdue emancipation from the Nazi yoke. But not all Italians were in the mood for such gala festivities. Communist and other anti-Fascist partisan bands, armed with a virtual hit-list of former pro-Nazi civil servants and police officials, descended all across Northern Italy to exact immediate and ruthless reprisals against their former antagonists. Many began linking up with the burgeoning Yugoslavian partisan army, which had surged across the Karst Plateau and the Julian Alps and descended on the former Hapsburg Mediterranean outpost of Trieste.


Trieste quickly became the first test of the postwar political struggle between democracy and communism. Suddenly encircled by Yugoslav partisans, the holdout German garrison in Trieste refused to surrender to Tito’s unconventional militia and demanded a more chivalric dialogue with their British contemporaries whose armies were still advancing into the area. Fierce fighting between the Germans and partisans erupted inside the city as conventional forces from New Zealand maneuvered to block all the escape routes. No official demarcation line had been set to restrict Tito’s advance into northeastern Italy and so the British 8th Army was forced to play mediator whenever the partisans ventured into British allocated territory. But this arrangement barely ever worked in the Nazi’s favor. In Trieste it was agreed that the German garrison would officially surrender to the New Zealanders, yet they were promptly turned over to the partisans anyways and would suffer a quite ruthless, victor’s justice at the hands of their unforgiving, former quarries.


Germans traversing downed bridge into American lines
May 3, 1945: With the Nazi capital firmly in the Allies’ hands and the yoke of Nazi authority rapidly shrinking, the white flags of surrender were raised in nearly every city and town the Western Allies ventured into. But as the Americans pushed ever deeper into the eastern fringes of Hitler’s Third Reich and Soviet forces surged into the North German plain, geopolitical inducements began to trump the hitherto operational aspects of the Allied high command’s military decision-making. Very quickly the predetermined demarcation lines delineating Soviet and Western Allied spheres were being reached all throughout Germany, Austria and the former Czechoslovakia. Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army had already pushed into Bohemia and was receiving frantic requests from the Czech resistance movement to come to the aid of their besieged comrades in Prague. Even though Patton was in a favorable position to render aid to the Czech cause, the aggressive American general was well beyond his official limit of advance and had to turn a blind eye to the Czech’s pleas. As a result the German SS forces inside the city would soon turn the Czech capital into a dreadful bloodbath.


In Northern Germany another contentious geopolitical decision arose when the Red Army began approaching the province of Schleswig-Holstein. By now the abject differences between the Soviet and western camps had begun to fester in the Allied high command and their political masters were keenly concerned with limiting the spread of communism in the postwar political settlement. Winston Churchill saw the Soviet advance toward Schleswig-Holstein as a viable threat to the postwar political makeup of Denmark and was determined to halt the spread of communism before it found root in Scandinavia. Accordingly, he urged Field Marshal Montgomery to press his advance to the Lubeck-Kiel Canal in order to cut off the Soviet entrance to the Jutland Peninsula. British forces thus began to bypass some of the more notable German strongholds up north such as Kiel and Flensburg, where the post-Hitler German government had taken up quarters, so that the Soviet threat to Jutland could be quashed. 


Eisenhower also had a pressing concern to alleviate the threat of a Nazi Redoubt from taking hold in the mountains of southern Bavaria and Austria. Although this plausible threat was still very much an idle rumor in the Allied intelligence branch, the mass movement of German military and political assets to the far southern regions of the Reich had credibly suggested that some type of Nazi stronghold was indeed being prepared in the Alpine region. American and Free French forces that had just entered Austria were now actively engaged in ferreting out Nazi officials and sympathizers in the mountainous, pro-Nazi stronghold. Units of the 101st Airborne Division were the first allied soldiers to set forth in Hitler’s mountain retreat ‘the Eagle’s Nest’, high above the Obersalzburg in the village of Berchtesgaden.


May 4, 1945: The first notable signal that the post-Hitler government was indeed contemplating a formal end to hostilities came on Friday, May 4 when Admiral Karl Doenitz issued a stand down order for all German U-boats to cease operations and return to port. This fortuitous announcement was swiftly followed by the first high-level German visit to the Western Allied camp. Naval representatives from the Flensburg government entered Monty’s headquarters on Luneburg Heath to conduct formal surrender proceedings for all German forces in North Germany, Holland and Denmark. This would be the first of several formal negotiations between the military high command of Germany and the Western Allies. However, the agreement signed between Monty and his German counterpart Admiral Hans Georg von Friedeburg was not the major capitulation that the Allies truly desired. It soon became obvious to the leaders at SHAEF that the Flensburg government was merely stalling for time to allow the great bulk of the German war machine to surrender in the west rather than resign them to Soviet captivity. 
Col.-Gen. Johannes Blaskowitz


The Netherlands was the last Western European state to be forcefully liberated by the Western Allies. As such its persecuted and war-weary population stood on the brink of mass starvation due to a calculated effort by their Nazi occupiers to hoard the nation’s dwindling food reserves for their trapped and isolated armies. So before the ink was dry on the formal German surrender documents the Western Allies were compelled to begin a major military-humanitarian airlift to the Dutch nation in order to stave off the endemic starvation and disease that had swiftly overtaken the population. At first the remaining German forces in Holland, many of them diehard SS troops and security detachments, contrived to intercept the numerous aid packages dropped from the passing Allied aircraft. But this activity was swiftly halted when a more comprehensive truce was signed between Col.Gen. Johannes Blaskowitz, the German ground force commander in Holland, and Canadian Gen. Charles Foulkes, in the presence of political representatives from the Dutch royal family. 


After the signing of the German surrender in North Germany practically all German resistance to the British, Canadian and American armies ceased inside the Reich. Holdout German units, diehard SS formations and rogue guerrilla groups still peppered the advancing armies with sporadic gunfire but for the most part every cohesive German formation the Western Allies encountered were greeted with raised arms and white flags. But this was not to be for those serving in the Red Army and to a lesser extent, the Free French formations active in the southwestern corner of the Reich. West of Berlin and all throughout the former Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia, German rear-guard units were still desperately trying to fend off the Russian onslaught in front of the major river crossings leading into the Western Allied zones. The Germans had also gotten wise to the vindictive behavior of Free French forces and were putting up especially fierce resistance to them on the German-Swiss border. German forces were also still active fighting in the Alpine passes of Eastern Austria and Slovenia, as Soviet forces and their newfound allies from Romania and Yugoslavia directed their fury on Austria’s civilian population.


May 5, 1945: At last Germany’s major wartime leaders descended upon Eisenhower’s headquarters at Rheims, France to commence official surrender negotiations to encompass all German forces throughout Europe. This was the most satisfying military reward the Western Allied high command had anxiously anticipated for nearly six grueling years and they were adamant in their resolve to prevent the enemy from stealing the show. Eisenhower especially had very little desire to discuss anything with his German cohorts except for their unconditional surrender so he left much of the formalities and the diplomatic niceties to his key staff personnel and abruptly took leave until the enemy relented. He could not help but to feel a tinge of personal gratification in having been chosen by friends and enemies alike to oversee the closing ceremony of the most destructive war in human history. And he was more than aware of the seething resentment building up inside the Soviet camp for being formally passed over from attending the most celebrated event in the Twentieth Century.


But there was to be no official agreement on that first day of negotiations and the war kept right on going, especially on the so-called Eastern Front where Soviet forces had just commenced the last offensive in Europe. This encompassed the last operational unit of the Wehrmacht in WWII, Army Group Center, commanded by the brutal Nazi Field Marshal Ferdinand Schoerner. The Soviet-Prague offensive was the culminating operation of the Red Army’s spring campaigning season; a concerted series of successive military operations that was to unhinge the German defenses on the Berlin, Prague and Vienna axes. Prague was the last remaining Nazi-occupied capital in Europe and its defenders were probably the last formidable concentration of German troops left on the Eastern Front. But today’s Soviet offensive would also signal the start of the Prague Uprising; the day when the occupied finally rose up to confront the occupiers after seven long years of Nazi autocracy.
Scene in Prague at the start of the uprising


At six o’clock in the morning Czech patriots began a wholesale insurrection against Nazi authorities and garrison troops inside the capital of Prague. German administration and communications centers were attacked throughout the city and resistance forces swiftly gained the upper hand as the two burgeoning battles initially stunned the German defenders. But a confusing set of military mishaps, missed communications and questionable commands served to stymie the Czech momentum and allowed the Germans to remain entrenched in the city for the time being. In the meantime there would be no help forthcoming from Patton’s army bivouacked 30 miles to the west; only the twice-turncoat Russian Liberation Army, an anti-communist, expatriate invention of the Nazi SS would come to the aid of the badly outgunned, Czech guerrilla force. Sadly the Czech partisans seemed more interested in exacting vengeance on the thousands of German civilians bustling to board the exit trains for Germany rather than organizing a concerted fight against their oppressors.


May 6, 1945: As Prague descended into chaos and the remnants of Germany’s northern and southern armies continued to move into the American and British zones of occupation, the eyes of Europe were transfixed on Rheims where the German and Allied commands entered their second day of negotiations. Germany’s post-Hitler government in Flensburg, possibly as a response to curry favor with the Allied negotiators and to give their fleeting authority legitimacy, began a major house-cleaning in the infant Doenitz government to rid the major Nazi war criminals from their privileged seats of power. Himmler’s dreaded SS organization was formally disbanded since no one would lay claim to succeed him. The Hitler Youth organization would soon follow suit along with all the other party functionaries that worshipped the Nazi fuehrer principle. Doenitz then authorized a ceasefire order to all the various garrison commanders in all the scattered outposts across Europe to negotiate at their own discretion. This led to the surrender of Germany’s Breslau garrison after an eighty-day siege and a temporary ceasefire around Danzig, where thousands of German refugees were still scrambling to flee the war zone across the perilous Baltic Sea.


Far to the south of Flensburg Germany’s first notable, high-ranking Nazi official was turning himself in to American forces in the central Austrian town of Radstadt. The recently defrocked, Nazi number two official, Reichsminister Hermann Goring voluntarily surrendered to units of the US 36th Infantry Division after being rescued from SS custody by Wehrmacht officials following his arrest on Hitler’s orders. Goring’s immediate arrest by American authorities, although largely ceremonial nevertheless was a harbinger of things to come for Germany’s next-ranking echelon of high Nazi officials; which looked toward Goring’s treatment as a comparable indication of their own fate. This set off a final panic among the party elite, who began scrambling to hide their identities by mingling in with the horde of German war refugees fleeing the Russians. Thousands chose suicide, partly out of deference to their fallen fuehrer but more likely out of fear that their wartime records would soon betray them.


May 7, 1945: The formal surrender of the German Armed Forces was signed at SHAEF headquarters on Monday May 7, 1945. The actual wording of the document stipulated the minute after midnight, on the morning of the 8th of May as the official time of conclusion to the war in Europe. Col.-Gen. Alfred Jodl, the Chief of Operations of the Wehrmacht High Command signed on behalf of Nazi Germany, as did Ike’s Chief of Staff Gen. Walther Bedell Smith on behalf of the Western Allies. Gen. Ivan Susloparov, the Soviet liaison to SHAEF signed for the Red Army high command but then shuffled off immediately to Berlin to repeat the same ritual at the official Soviet-sanctioned ceremony scheduled for tomorrow. Eisenhower chose to delay the announcement of the German surrender to accommodate the Soviet’s parallel ceremony in Berlin but the news leaked out and quickly filtered all across Europe.
Jodl signing the instrument of surrender


But there was very little fanfare among the frontline soldiers along the indiscernible Western Front. American GI’s and their British ‘Tommy’ cousins were more concerned about their long overdue discharge from their grueling military service and had little reason to celebrate in a land so thoroughly devoid of peace and contentment. Germany was quickly becoming overrun with millions of despondent war refugees and recently liberated yet emaciated labor camp survivors suddenly freed from the shackles of captivity. The war was coming to its long awaited climax not with the expected gasp of collective exhilaration but rather with the broken and stunned silence of two hundred million people who had witnessed way too much slaughter for far too long. The great war in Europe which had begun with such sheer emotion and nationalistic pride was destined to end with a whimper because of the utter exhaustion felt by all. Yet for hundreds of thousands of Soviet and German troops still fighting in Courland and East Prussia, Bohemia and Moravia and throughout the Julian Alps, the war would still go on.


During the evening of May 7, Soviet forces officially entered Prague to join in the fight for the Czech capital. Bitter fighting raged throughout the city as four, five and six separate warring factions vied for a strategic advantage amid the rubble. In Eastern Austria fervent Nazi SS shock troops made suicidal charges into Soviet columns to clog the traffic in the crowded mountain passes. None of these combatants paid a smidgen of attention to the significance of the ceasefire agreement which would go into effect at one minute after midnight. It was plain to see by all the combatants, although not wholly understood by the troops in the west, but the sheer morbidity of the Nazi-Soviet conflict was destined to go on considerably longer than the now finished fight in the west. Indeed all American forces were ordered to stand down shortly after the news broke about the German surrender at Rheims. But in the east the Soviets had not passed down any instructions to their field commanders that even intimated a sudden end to hostilities was imminent. The end might’ve been surely in sight but practically no one knew which time that would be.
Official German surrender document


VE Day: WWII formally came to an end in Europe at the agreed upon time of one minute after midnight, in the early morning of Tuesday, May 8, 1945. It officially ended at one minute past eleven o’clock PM on the evening of May 8 because the ceasefire order issued by the German military at that time would be the last standing order delivered from a belligerent state in the war. The Soviets enjoyed putting their own didactic spin on the long drawn-out proceedings and never wavered to accentuate their own disproportionate sacrifice to the Allied cause. Thus they insisted that their surrender ceremony represent the distinctive grand finale to the six year conflagration. Although some intensely fierce fighting remained after the 11:01 deadline, most of Europe and the western world finally let out a universal sigh of relief on that Tuesday evening, in knowing that Europe’s most hostile belligerent had finally called it quits. In a few days all the guns in Europe would fall silent and the long recovery would begin in earnest before the last combat troops left the field.
NY Times Headlines, May 8, 1945
  

When news of the German capitulation finally left the continent, America and the British Isles launched into raucous celebration. Hundreds of thousands of jubilant civilians rushed into the streets of every major American, British and Canadian city to share in the elation with their fellow countrymen. The mass celebrations would be one of the greatest displays of collective gratitude and nationalistic pride and patriotism the English-speaking world had ever witnessed. But the gala festivities were still short-lived as both Washington and London swiftly turned their attention to the Pacific, where a dreaded invasion of the Japanese Home Islands was widely expected to be a long and bloody affair. Yet millions of British Empire citizens and North American civilians could take heart in knowing that at least half of the boys still fighting overseas were sure to be home quite shortly. But even that momentary pause was soon extended when six million Western Allied troops in Europe were gradually transformed from soldiers to policemen and compelled to police the still volatile continent until the most eminent danger had passed. 


Unlike the people in Britain and America whose war had not ended, the citizens of Europe allowed themselves nary a brief celebration at the official German capitulation before hunkering down and experiencing one of the most chaotic and miserable eras in modern history. The immense damage and destruction from the war was so comprehensive and widespread that it would take years to rebuild its ancient infrastructure and civil services. The ethnic hatreds and class rivalries brought out from the incessant fighting would take decades to adequately mend and revive through the promise of clemency and reconciliation. On the day that Germany officially surrendered upwards of ten million war refugees, uprooted from all over Europe were suddenly liberated from captivity and cast into the wind with virtually no place to live and nowhere to go. It would take years to repatriate these people in their own homes or to their own homeland and a whole generation would pass before they were finally accepted among the people they chose to live beside.


The one postwar reality which the people of Europe were quick to recognize was that the traditional political power structure on the continent had instantly changed forever. Germany’s near absolute defeat would render her impotent for the foreseeable future and France’s mangled reputation would require decades to competently restore. Britain’s inspiring performance was swiftly overshadowed by her grossly inadequate financial state and the country’s wealth still to this day has not returned to its former glory years of empire and sea-going commerce and trade. Italy proved to be the war’s great pretender and resigned itself to second-class status in Europe probably for eternity. The larger countries of Eastern Europe validated their status as backward intransigents with little taste or competence for political persuasion and power. Only the United States and the Soviet Union survived the war with their reputations intact and each side of Europe went running to their respective camps to confirm their gratitude and respect.
Warsaw in ruins, months after the end of the war.


Postwar: May 9, 1945 officially inaugurated the postwar era in Europe. Unbeknownst at the time it also heralded the official start of the Cold War. Suddenly divested of its common enemy, the USA and the USSR diverged drastically both figuratively and literally in the months and years following the war. Their stark political differences caused immediate problems in the Allies' cooperative running of the postwar German state. These would lead to often raucous disagreements, which quickly materialized into bitter rivalry, then frequent animosity and later open hostility. But in the days following the German capitulation the relationship between Europe’s new political masters was still mildly warm and respectful. Their immediate interest was conjoined in a mutually beneficial rush to hunt down Nazi war criminals and establish the lines of governance which could make their collective occupation more transparent and efficient. Both sides clearly understood that there was still an immense amount of weaponry laying stationary throughout Europe and that one misconstrued maneuver or brazenly illogical challenge could fracture the fragile peace.
  

For the commanders and armies that entered the war through Western Europe and the Mediterranean their peace abruptly began on May 8, 1945, the second they added their signatures on the official surrender document tendered by SHAEF in Rheims, France. But for those armies which began the war in far off Eastern Europe they were compelled to wait another week before their peace was fully restored. The intense brutality of the fighting in the east and the vivid hatred displayed by nearly all the eastern combatants thoroughly betrayed the significance of the Soviet names added to the same document signed in Berlin one day later. That’s because the German armies still in the field had major reservations about voluntarily submitting to their thoroughly loathed, eastern rival. It would take a full week before the true implications of Germany’s defeat began to sink in with the final Wehrmacht troops in the field.
Soviet surrender ceremony overseen by Marshal Zhukov


One day after the ceremonial signing of the German surrender document the final Wehrmacht troops evacuated Prague and began a major push to force a passage through the Sudeten Mountains and the relative safety of the American lines. Thousands of irregular communist troops and Czech resistance fighters blocked their way and before long lead elements of the Red Army joined the fray. Very few of these German forces made it back to the fatherland. The turncoat Russian Liberation Army was duly thanked by the Czech resistance fighters in Prague by giving them a safe passageway to the west but their gratitude was not extended by the Red Army. Soviet forces quickly blocked their escape route and corralled the traitors into captivity only miles from the American lines. Most of them were ultimately murdered by Stalin’s secret police forces, including their commander Gen. Andrei Vlasov. 


The remnants of German Army Group Center fought on for several more days in the uplands of lower Silesia and Northern Bohemia. These troops could not help but continue their futile resistance since very few of them knew of their country’s capitulation. Their commander Field Marshal Schoerner abruptly bolted from the battlefield in his personal biplane while neglecting to tell his embattled underlings that the war was over. Individual unit surrenders among the army group began on the 9th and continued through till the last formation laid down their weapons on May 13th. Most German units called it quits the day after the Red Army’s surrender ceremony in Berlin although small unit holdouts continued to fight on in Eastern Austria, the Hel Peninsula and Pomerania right through the month. The isolated German outposts in France and the Channel Islands surrendered one by one in the week following the official surrender ceremony although German forces on the island of Alderney held out until the 16th.


Germany’s last wartime holdout was a small security detachment assigned to guard the weather and radar station on Bear Island between Norway and Iceland. The enclave’s broken radio transmitter deprived them from knowing that the war had come to an end until they were discovered by Norwegian seal hunters later in September. The outpost surrendered to the fishermen on September 4, thus finally ending the war in Europe two days after the official Japanese surrender in the Pacific.
The postwar division of Germany


The war in Europe was the most costly war in human history. The total losses on all sides, both military and civilian are so colossal as to be virtually impossible to accurately approximate. Historians have mere estimates of the total carnage wrought by the combatants throughout Europe, the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Arctic and Atlantic oceans. Military losses are much easier to compute since most combatants had a fairly accurate number of the troops they went to war with and the survivors that persevered through the carnage. Most historians estimate the number of military losses between all combatants in Europe as exceeding 14 million. Civilian losses are much more difficult to tally but the various estimates put forth by UN and European humanitarian groups place the number somewhere between 25 and 30 million. Thus we can ascertain with near certainty that the number of Europeans and their military protectors that loss their life between September 1, 1939 and May 8, 1945, range somewhere between 40 and 50 million. That is why the date of May 8, 1945 will hold an especially reverent meaning in the hearts and minds of Europeans and their supportive global guardians for generations and generations to come. Yet it falls to us, the descendants and successors of those brave soldiers that fought and died on the battlefields of Europe to permanently etch in stone the memory of their brave sacrifice by holding high the date of May 8, 1945 as an international day of remembrance and veneration for having restored humanity’s honor during its darkest hour.                                                 

    

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Last Greek Tragedy Unfolding


Dr. Amon Stiels

Sometime within the next week the world will bear witness to the projected end-game in Europe’s attempt to salvage its collective financial clout via the enduring viability of the Eurozone or perhaps, its imminent death through monetary implosion. Teetering ominously along the precipice and with the institutional weight of the whole European Community lodged firmly on its flagging shoulders lies Greece, the country whose possible exit from the Eurozone could set off the domino effect which could bring the whole financial structure tumbling down. Greece’s growing insolvency and its continued intransigence in implementing the fiscal reforms needed to appease its exasperated creditors now threatens to unleash the second and possibly most critical global financial crisis in a decade. 

To read the news reports emanating from European media outlets one could reasonably assume that the continent’s political masters are already preparing for the inevitable by insulating themselves from blame for the expected Greek collapse. Europe’s finance ministers are now actively engaged in a collective smear campaign to vilify their Greek counterpart Yanis Varoufakis for his obstinacy in accepting the required but fiscally harsh austerity measures that would stabilize the country’s protracted meltdown. Yet Varoufakis seems undeterred in his resolve to reject Europe’s prescribed antidote and appears increasingly inclined to pull his nation out of the Eurozone rather than face the prospects of his political demise. 

At stake here is not just Varoufakis and his Syriza Party’s political future or even the solvency of the Greek government but it now seems increasingly likely that the whole of Europe’s prolonged economic recovery lies teetering on the brink of relapse, with profound implications for the whole global economy. Right now it is the continued inflexibility of Syriza and Varoufakis specifically, which stands in the way of a sustained agreement from taking place. But Europe’s indignation at Syriza’s defiance probably has more to do with their own distress at leaving their financial institutions susceptible to the blackmail of a hitherto nominal and palpably radical political group determined to dismantle the political unity of the European community. 

The outcome of the political standoff between the Eurozone finance ministers and Syriza will ultimately rest on which side blinks first. From a layman’s perspective it might seem like Greece needs the Eurozone more than the Eurozone needs Greece but there is a lot more at stake for the Eurozone’s future than there is for the Greeks, albeit for the next generation of Greece’s workforce. Greece’s current workforce stands little chance of coming out of this mess with their savings intact for that disenchanted group will inevitably bear the burden for their government’s past corruption and mismanagement. But Syriza cannot simply ignore that most relevant point just as it can’t expect the European’s to simply forgive all of Greece’s debts solely because a new government promises to be more fiscally savvy in managing the nation’s finances. 

Although the world’s capitalist financial institutions strongly back the Eurozone ministers and continue to discredit the new regime in Athens for their strongly leftist, political views and persistent foot-dragging to implement Europe’s increasingly draconian reform measures; the finance ministers should not be absolved of all of the blame for Greece’s mounting predicament. The Eurozone minister’s reluctance to police the increasingly predatory lending policies of their own private banking and investment houses is becoming increasingly perceived as a threat to the rest of Europe’s teetering state economies and a root cause of the backlash growing against the dominant financial institutions in Germany, France and Switzerland.

So far this backlash has ostensibly originated from the more leftist persuasion of Europe’s political spectrum, thus it has been habitually refuted by the banking houses as a mere political dispute between devout capitalists and lukewarm socialist and liberal groups desirous of a more regulated banking industry. But these predatory practices—critically revealed through the mechanisms of the financial derivatives market and cross currency swaps— have become increasingly cited by mainstream economists for their often deleterious effects on poor-performing economies and markets, and the subsequent benefits they produce for only the richest of investors at the expense of such large segments of society. Many economists point to the derivatives market as the root cause of the 1998 and 2008 world recessions.

So Greece has been able to capitalize somewhat on this particular backlash, specifically at Germany’s expense since that country’s private investment firms stand to profit the most from Greece’s continued adherence to the Eurozone’s mandated reform measures. However Greece’s financial problems are inherently entwined in a corporate culture that has impulsively shunned its tax burdens for decades and has led to a virtual exodus of Greek “black money” being stashed away in untraceable Swiss bank accounts. This and an increasingly toxic habit by successive Athens governments’ to run large budget deficits to fund their military have fostered an atmosphere of tax complacency that permeates all classes of Greek society. Sadly it is the lower classes of Greek society most affected by their government’s lax fiscal policies and the one’s being asked to fit the bill for the upper crust’s enigmatic investment priorities.
   
But as bad as the increased austerity measures might seem to the individual on the street the alternatives could prove to be equally devastating to Greece’s long term economic prospects. A return to the drachma, although it could bring instant relief to Greece’s flagging export industries because of the currency devaluation to the euro, nevertheless can only serve to further isolate the Greek economy from the foreign investment that it will surely need to strengthen its financial infrastructure and its two most important industries, shipbuilding and tourism. And although its leftist government might seemingly be drawn into Russia’s political orbit as a consequence of the decision to spurn the Eurozone’s relief efforts, the cost of that alteration inevitably stands little chance of working to Greece’s advantage.

Perhaps a limited pardon of some of Greece’s debts could be offered to stem the undue hardships the Eurozone’s austerity measures have wrought on the country’s working class but this is looking increasingly unlikely as the finance ministers dig in their heals on their latest ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ offer. The belief in Brussels is that any relaxation of Greece’s debt obligations will negatively impact Europe’s private banking industry and force the ministers to seek substantial bailouts for their more exposed institutions; a consequence that Germany especially seems least inclined to accept. Yet Berlin’s reservations come with a lot of credibility since Germany stands to lose the most when the rest of Europe’s debt delinquents come calling for similar deals.

European Germanophobia is nothing new to the continent and seems increasingly on the rise as Germany’s dominant position in the current crisis fosters more resentment from the European left. Thus you get rather ridiculous claims from Syriza and other radical socialist groups for Berlin to revisit their WWII reparations issue even though most of Germany’s wartime debt has been satisfactorily adjudicated by most European governments, including several that presided in Athens. Yet it speaks volumes about Syriza’s commitment to bargain in good faith when it has no interest in honoring the agreements of its predecessor governments just because their mishandling of the state’s coffers is the reason why Greece finds itself in the sorry state it is in today.

Whoever might be judged the culprit in the current morass it is clear that the west will only come to judge the real demon if the Eurozone goes into free-fall because of a Greek collapse. If Greece opts out of the Eurozone yet ultimately fails to reach solvency than it is only Syriza that will feel the blame for the country’s plight. Should Greece opt to remain within the Eurozone and still falters further on down the road then Syriza’s failure is shared equally in Greece and throughout Europe. But should the feared Grexit lead to a more protracted collapse within the Eurozone then there will be a monumental reckoning throughout the global financial industry with dire consequences specifically for the huge banking and investment houses in the western world.

There remains a peculiar air to the type of financial transactions that were allowed to go on unchecked from which Athens was enabled to so underhandedly hide its sovereign debts for so long. Unfortunately we will only get to the bottom of it if the whole Eurozone collapses and by then the ultimate scale of the financial implosion will incriminate more than just the private banking industry. Ministers and heads of state are sure to fall if the euro begins to free fall and Europe descends into their deepest depression since 1930. And if that scenario occurs there will be very little sympathy for the lowly Greek merchant on the streets of Athens.

As of today the Greeks had made a first installment payment to their IMF bailout but a more substantial bill to the Eurozone’s private sector is due by the middle of the month. Syriza may have taken an incremental step in appeasing their international creditors by nudging out the irascible Varoufakis from the negotiating table but it is still unclear how far the burgeoning political party is willing to go in order to secure a permanent settlement. But one thing is becoming clearly evident as Greek capital continues to wither away. Greece’s suspect banking industry is destined to be the first casualty in the ongoing dilemma and along with that calamitous reality will have befallen the wholesale liquidation of the Greek working class’ lifetime savings.