Today, May 8, is the 70th anniversary Nazi Germany’s defeat in Europe. Though it would be many months before Japan would surrender to the United States and end World War II, triumph in Europe made Allied triumph a near certainty. V-E Day undoubtedly marks one of the most momentous events in the history of human civilization.
In the gloomy year of 1940—when Great Britain was fighting the German war machine virtually alone—Prime Minister Winston Churchill made a chilling declaration about what was at stake. On June 18, on the floor of the House of Commons, Churchill delivered his “Finest Hour” speech laying out exactly why the British Empire would have to fight to the bitter end if need be.
Churchill said stirringly:
Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire… if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.
Churchill gave a number of renowned speeches during the so-called Battle of Britain in which the island nation was subjected to almost daily bombings. His words were meant to stir the beleaguered British people to fight against what he believed to be a great evil. But on top of that, Churchill was a far-seeing statesman and realized the British Empire could not permanently stand alone against the might of German occupied and unified Europe. He constantly and continually made appeals to the United States, pleading for the New World to come to the rescue of the Old.
When Japan attacked the United States in 1941 and Germany subsequently joined their Axis ally in declaring war, Churchill finally caught his big break. As powerful as Germany had been it could not hold up under the withering onslaught of the resurgent Soviet Army on the Eastern front, and the unparalleled industrial might of the United States in the West.
When the Third Reich had been utterly defeated, the official surrender took just five minutes. Col. Gen. Gustav Jodl, Chief of the Wermacht and Chief of Staff to Fuehrer Karl Doenitz who were acting as the German leadership after the death of Adolf Hitler, surrendered to American Gen. Dwight Eisenhower in the same location France capitulated to Germany five years earlier.
Churchill said to the British people from the balcony of the Ministry of Health in London on that momentous day in 1945:
God bless you all. This is your victory! It is a victory for the cause of freedom in every land. In all our long history we have never seen a greater day than this… Neither the long years, nor the dangers, nor the fierce attacks of the enemy, have in any way weakened the independent resolve of the British nation…
Forty years later, President Ronald Reagan recognized this anniversary as a profound moment in which free people had triumphed over tyranny.
Reagan said to a Special Session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France on May 8, 1985, “We mark today the anniversary of the liberation of Europe from tyrants who had seized this continent and plunged it into a terrible war. Forty years ago today, the guns were stilled and peace began, a peace that has become the longest of this century.”
Reagan understood that in marking the triumph over Nazi Germany he could strike a rhetorical blow against oppressive regimes and strengthen people yearning for freedom in his own day. In a subtle but distinct swipe at the Soviet Union and communist regimes around the world, he said: “…if you doubt your will and your spirit and your strength to stand for something, think of those people 40 years ago who wept in the rubble, who laughed in the streets, who paraded across Europe, who cheered Churchill with love and devotion, who sang the ‘Marseillaise’ down the boulevards. Spirit like that does not disappear; it cannot perish; it will not go.”
Reagan continued, “I would like to just conclude with one line, if I could, and say we’ve seen evidence here of your faith in democracy, in the ability of some to speak up freely as they preferred to speak. And yet I can’t help but remind all of us that some who take advantage of that right of democracy seem unaware that if the government that they would advocate became reality, no one would have that freedom to speak up again.”
Seventy years after Nazi Germany surrendered, the United States and the free world are faced with other kinds of evil that pose a grave threat to our civilization. We are faced with the same challenges that the passing World War II generation overcame after tremendous suffering. There is no arc of history leading mankind inevitably to a brighter future. If free people, especially in the United States, cannot or simply will not stand for their principles or fight for them if necessary, then we will indeed be plummeted in to a new “dark age” that Churchill warned about during the Second World War’s bleakest moments.