WATERTOWN — It’s difficult imagining the emotions that Europeans felt when the conflict finally ended for them in World War II.
People living in the Allied nations called it Victory in Europe Day (May 8). For them, the war ceased — and they stood on the winning side. Given the malevolent forces they fought against, this was obviously the best outcome.
Halting the spread of Nazism and fascism saved the continent from these perverse ideologies, and succeeding generations have richly benefited from the enormous sacrifices they made. While nothing could replace the losses they suffered, they could take some comfort in knowing they preserved liberty and democracy for all Europeans.
But for those ruled by the Axis powers, principally Germans and Italians, the defeat was total. Like people in Allied nations, they lost numerous loved ones and property.
Unlike their fellow Europeans, though, they also lost the war. The surrender of their governments and defeat of their militaries must have been profoundly humiliating.
The nearly six years of armed conflict devastated many parts of Europe. Even after 75 years, it’s jarring to read statistics chronicling the loss of life in individual countries. The utter senselessness of war becomes apparent when poring over these numbers.
According to information on the website for the National WWII Museum, the United Kingdom lost about 450,700 people (military and civilian) while France lost 567,600. Germany lost between 6.6 million and 8.8 million while Italy lost 457,000.
Yugoslavia lost 1 million people, Poland 5.6 million, Romania 833,000, Hungary 580,000, Greece between 300,000 and 800,000, Finland 97,000, Czechoslovakia 345,000, Belgium 86,100, Austria 384,700, Estonia 51,000, Lithuania 353,000 and Latvia 227,000.
The most staggering number of casualties was from the Soviet Union: An estimated 24 million of its citizens died, less than half from the military.
Of course, the murder of more than 6 million Jewish people in the Holocaust justifiably dominates the discussion of World War II deaths. The scale of this atrocity continues to haunt us after all these decades.
Americans shared the relief felt by Europeans that this part of the war had finally concluded. People here remaining on the homefront didn’t witness the destruction that their counterparts across the Atlantic Ocean endured.
But the total loss of life for Americans in World War II was brutal. The United States suffered 418,500 deaths in more than three and a half years of conflict in the European and Pacific theaters.
Reflecting on this time always makes me think of my maternal and paternal grandparents. They must have been in anguish trying to follow the news of the war while living so far away.
Having been born in the 1920s, both my parents lived through this period. So for me, World War II loomed large while growing up.
As a teenager in the 1940s, my mother took a job in a radio manufacturing firm. Her father operated a lumber company and made a decent living fulfilling government contracts.
My father and three of his siblings joined the war effort. My dad and his brother Bud were sent to Europe as members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. His sister, Marietta, took a job at the University of Chicago conducting research as part of the Manhattan Project.
Ed, the eldest of my dad’s siblings, ended up with a task that he resented for the rest of his life. He was a marksman and competed regularly in rifle events as a youth.
He was so skilled with firearms, in fact, that the Army made him a shooting instructor. He never forgave the military for keeping him stateside while his two younger brothers found themselves in the middle of the war.
My family was very fortunate that my dad and uncle survived their experiences in Europe. Like many other veterans, they returned home to start families and embark on careers.
For years, I took for granted the fact that they both came home alive. Most U.S. families had a member serving in the armed forces, and far too many of them lost loved ones.
Those who lived through this period clung to an idea that exacted a horrific toll. They deserved to feel some measure of joy on VE Day, tempered as it was by the realization of what they lost.
It’s humbling to consider their victory was made possible only by accepting such devastation. The tragedy is that war, at times, is necessary and inevitable. It remains our goal to make sure it is always the last resort.
Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to email@example.com.