World War II showed that war must be avoided at all costs and democracies must resist aggression, says Stanford historian

On the 75th anniversary of World War II ending in Europe, Stanford historian James Sheehan discusses the challenges that persisted and the legacies that remained at the end of the war.

World War II provided two contradictory lessons: war must be avoided at all costs and democracies must resist aggression, says Stanford historian James J. Sheehan.

James Sheehan (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

On the 75th anniversary of “Victory in Europe Day” – the day when people from across the world celebrated the acceptance of Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender to the Allied forces of the United States, the United Kingdom, France and the Soviet Union on May 8, 1945 – Sheehan discusses the difficult challenges ahead, despite war in Europe being over.

Sheehan is the Dickason Professor in the Humanities and Professor of History emeritus in the School of Humanities and Sciences. He is the author of Where Have All the Soldiers Gone? The Transformation of Modern Europe, a history of war and peace in 20th-century Europe.


Are there any elements to VE Day that you think have been largely forgotten, overlooked or misunderstood?

It is important to realize what actually occurred on May 8, 1945. Most wars end when one side either surrenders or agrees to a cease-fire. That is what happened on Nov. 11, 1918, when the representatives of the German government agreed to an armistice and then, seven months later, signed a peace treaty. On May 8, 1945, there was no German state recognized by its enemies. In three different places, the commanders of the German armed forces surrendered unconditionally. Civil and military authority in what had been the German state was assumed by the allies. Germany was divided among them. Although peace treaties were signed with Germany’s allies in 1947, a final treaty that recognized Germany as a fully sovereign state did not take place until 1991. One of the ironies of the postwar settlement is that, despite the absence of a formal peace treaty, it turned out to be so durable.


You have studied how, for centuries, war defined Europe’s narrative and affected every aspect of political, social and cultural life. How did World War II change Europe’s relationship to war?

In many ways, Europeans’ view of war was transformed by the First World War, which demonstrated the full destructive potential of modern combat. Pacificism, which had always been a fringe movement, now became much more widespread. Unfortunately, there were still those, like Adolf Hitler, who saw war as a necessary means of expanding their state and reorganizing their societies. Without Hitler, and the resources of Europe’s most powerful state, a second European war would not have happened. In 1939, when the war began in Europe, there was very little popular enthusiasm, even in Germany. People knew what modern war could mean, although few imagined just how devastating it would be.


How did World War II transform views on pacifism and militarism?

The war provided two contradictory lessons: the first was that war was to be avoided at all costs, the second was that democracies had to be ready to resist aggression. The second lesson led most western European states, including Germany, to rearm and join the Atlantic alliance. Gradually, as the European system evolved into a stalemate between the United States and the Soviet Union, each armed with nuclear weapons, the first lesson prevailed. By the 1970s, many Europeans feared a war between the two global superpowers, but few believed that war among the European states could ever happen again.


As the world remembers 75 years since VE Day, what legacies remain today?

On May 8, 1945, the Allied forces of the United States, the United Kingdom, France and the Soviet Union officially accepted the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. “Victory in Europe Day,” commonly known as “VE Day,” was celebrated across Europe, America and other parts of the world. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

VE Day has a different meaning in each of the countries involved in the war. For Americans, it recalls a moment of triumph, a time to remember the accomplishments and sacrifices that made victory possible. The Second World War has a moral clarity for Americans that is not shared by the other participants, in large part because the U.S. was the only one to emerge from the war with greater wealth and power. Britain remembers the resolve personified by [Prime Minister Winston] Churchill, but the cost of the war was great and the immediate postwar years were dreary. For the British, the legacy of 1945 is less potent than that of 1918. For them, Nov. 11, not May 8, is the most important day of national commemoration. In France, the war left a complicated legacy. After the French armies were defeated in a matter of weeks in 1940, France was allied with Germany. French president Charles de Gaulle managed to transform this dismal record into a legacy of resistance and regeneration, but the truth of France’s wartime role keeps intruding on this legend. For Germans, the war ended in the midst of enormous destruction and death. Only as Germany (especially in the western half) began to recover could May 1945 seem like a new beginning rather than a catastrophic end. May 8, 1945, is especially important for Russians, whose suffering was greatest and whose contribution to the German defeat was the most significant. This is why Putin planned to have a great celebration in Moscow this year that was designed to remind Russians of what they had done and what they could do again.


What would you say to your current students about VE Day?

May 8, 1945, began the longest period of peace in European history. We should not take the absence of war for granted, nor should we lose sight of the policies that made a peaceful Europe possible and the vigilance that is still necessary to preserve it. The establishment of peace, the British historian Michael Howard wrote, “is a task which has to be tackled afresh every day of our lives … no formula, no organization and no political or social revolution can ever free mankind from this inexorable duty.” The Second World war reminds us how essential this task remains.