As fires were lit, electric lights blazed, and weeping, dancing, embracing survivors thronged the streets of European and North American cities, the great blackout that was World War II ended.
But in the bleak, grey dawn came the reckoning: 60 million dead, 46 million uprooted from their homes, millions more sick and starving and the majority of Europeans faced with rebuilding their lives on the ashes of a world that no longer existed.
"There were those who died cheering, because that effort of happiness was more than their bodies could endure," wrote war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, who heard of the surrender at Dachau concentration camp among the remains of some of Europe's six million slain Jews.
For those who lived to see the end of the war, the most immediate cause to celebrate was the demise of Adolf Hitler's Third Reich. For months it had headed toward defeat, leaving few in doubt that Germany would lose the war.
"The siege of Berlin ensured suffocation," says British historian Norman Davies. "The suicide of the Fuhrer on the 30th of April prevented all chance of recovery; the general surrender of 8/9 May marked the last twitch. The Nuremberg Tribunal of 1946 may be likened to a coroner's court," he said in his book, Europe.
"The Second World War ... was really several wars in one," says Columbia University historian Mark Mazower in his book Dark Continent: Europe's Twentieth Century. Apart from its military campaigns, "it was also a war between races, religions and ethnic groups - a bloody reopening of accounts by extreme nationalists wishing to revise the Versailles settlement (after World War I) by force."
The war in some regions was a class conflict, too, settling the scores of the poor and landless against wealthy owners and destitute peasant farmers against urbanites. And it provoked civil war between pro-fascist and resistance forces that were split on ideological grounds.
Such cataclysmic violence would take on a life of its own, played out for years to come.Among the first victims of the post-war era were refugees, displaced throughout Europe through expulsion, forced migration and fear.
"There was a tremendous movement of 11 million ethnic Germans from other countries where they had been living to Germany," says Christiane Harzig, an expert in migration history now working on a research project at the University of Winnipeg. "To those in Germany, they appeared at first as a great burden."
Hundreds of thousands of Jewish survivors, meanwhile, headed for North America and the Middle East, some taking years to gain permission to emigrate. Those who returned to Poland and Slovakia faced new pogroms in which many were killed. Others were interned in "displaced persons" camps by the occupying powers, awaiting travel to British-ruled Palestine.
At summit meetings in Yalta and Potsdam, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin set out the price of his support for the Alliance, which cost Russia 25 million lives. The partition of Europe began in an orgy of ethnic cleansing, with Poles forced into vacated German regions, and Russians into Poland. As communist regimes took power across Eastern Europe, Germans and others fled west, many dying of starvation or in communist labour camps.
As the tide of human misery swept the continent, the international community created a new human rights doctrine. "The Geneva Convention (on refugees) was written as a response to this huge problem," says Harzig. "It has been used as a standard ever since."
The convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights together gave refugees the right to seek asylum from persecution, and prohibited their forced return to countries where they were endangered.
The brutality of World War II drove most countries to embrace the idea of a new world community, through the United Nations, founded as a successor to the failed League of Nations, but this time with the enthusiastic backing of the United States. A body of humanitarian law evolved, in an attempt to ensure that such genocide, atrocities and slaughter would never happen again.
But the war's effect on Europe was like that of a virus, sapping the strength of its foundations.
"The main issue is that World War II marked the end of Europe as the political centre of power in the world," says history professor Derek Penslar of the University of Toronto. "It changed the whole meaning of Europe, including its boundaries. Western Europe was now 'free Europe,' Central Europe meant 'under communist control,' and East Europe meant 'communist.'"
And, says Davies, "There is a strong sense of futility about Europe in the second half of the 20th century. The vast sacrifices of the war did not generate security: the continent was divided into rival political and military blocs whose energies were squandered for nearly 50 years."
As Soviet forces consolidated their gains, the Cold War spread across the still-smoking ruins of post-war Europe: "An iron curtain has descended across the continent," lamented British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. "This is certainly not the liberated Europe we fought to build ... nor is it one which contains the essentials of permanent peace."
Russia's victory was a pyrrhic one. In Leningrad, where carrion rats ruled the alleys and starved inhabitants dropped dead in the streets, Oxford professor Isaiah Berlin visited the poet Anna Akhmatova, who told him that the city was "nothing but a vast cemetery, the graveyard of her friends; it was like the aftermath of a forest fire - the few charred trees made the desolation still more desolate."
The war gave Stalin an excuse to revive the Great Terror, savagely repressing any suspected opponents who might take advantage of Moscow's weakness, to foment rebellion....
While North America built on its successes after World War II, the Middle East was plunged into crisis.
As the colonial powers withdrew from Iraq, Syria and Egypt, the pressure for Jewish settlement in Palestine increased after the Holocaust. In 1947, the Palestinians rejected a U.N. plan to partition Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean, and Jewish settlers then declared the State of Israel a year later.
For the devastated Jewish population of Europe, it was a victory: "It allowed the continuity of Jewish civilization, and without Israel's creation it's difficult to see how that would have happened," says Penslar, director of U of T's Jewish Studies program.
For Arab Palestinians, however, it was a disaster that culminated in loss of land, warfare and more than half a century of strife. As a result, a new polarization occurred in the Middle East, and Israel became the target of mounting resentment.
The U.S., taking over from Britain as the major Western power in the Mideast, was also embattled.
"Driven by a desire to keep vast oil reserves in hands friendly to the United States," says Sheldon Richman of the Washington-based Cato Institute, America "compiled a record of tragedy in the Middle East ... (including) alliances with Iraq to counter Iran, then with Iran and Syria to counter Iraq, illustrating a theme that has played for the last 45 years."
Asia's war legacy was no less bitter.
"World War II has never really finished in Asia," explains Paul Evans, acting director of the University of British Columbia's Liu Institute for Global Issues. " Russia and Japan, for instance, have never signed a peace treaty. And the technical issues point to something bigger and more dangerous."
In Hitler's Bunker
A Boy Soldier's Eyewitness Account of the Fuhrer's Last Days
by Armin D. Lehmann with Tim Carroll
The Lyons Press, 2005.
In 1945, during the last days of the Allied seige of Berlin a 16-year-old solider named Armin Lehmann -- a loyal member of the Hitler Youth -- was elevated to the role of courier for the German High Command's bunker complex. And thus, Lehmann, who survived the war and its aftermath, witnessed the last days of Adolph Hitler and his notorious Reich.
This account of those final days, is drawn from Lehmann's memoir -- Hitler's Last Courier -- and researched by British journalist Tim Carroll.
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