A Really Bad Idea: Ignoring the Lessons of V-E Day

"A hundred years ago, Europe was the power center of the world. Yet V-E day marked more than the end of German militarism; it also announced the eclipse of Europe by America and Russia."

Imagine the Nazi swastika flying over New York, London and Moscow. Jews are a forbidden memory, freedom of thought has vanished, and the world is a vast ant colony ruled by an ubermenchen 1 percent blessed with "superior" Aryan genes.

Did V-E Day -- the surrender of Nazi Germany on May 8, 1945 -- matter? It mattered enough to millions of Americans, Britons, Russians and others, who died to make that day happen.  

But on this 70th anniversary of V-E Day, as the World War II generation fades away (my father-in-law), so the war itself seems to have faded into nothing more than Hollywood action movies and repetitious cable TV documentaries.

This isn't right. V-E Day does matter, and we would be foolish to ignore its lessons.

First and foremost, the defeat of Nazi Germany reminds us that some things are worth fighting for. True, this has become a cliché; God knows that Hitler, Chamberlain and Munich have been needlessly invoked so often that the Fuhrer might still be goose-stepping across Europe.

Americans also have reason to be tired and weary of war. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan; when has America fought a "good war" since 1945? When the only good war we can think of was saving Saudi Arabia from Saddam Hussein in 1991, then it's easy to understand why Americans are disillusioned.

Wars are not good, least of all to those who fight them. But sometimes a war is good because the alternative is worse. To say the world is a better place because America invaded Iraq is debatable. To say the world is a better place because we defeated Hitler is not.

We live in an era of moral microscopes. A video gone viral of a few stupid American soldiers at Abu Ghraib can do more damage than an army of Taliban. But even more, we live in a world where many people believe that there is no military action that America and the West can do that is ethically right, either because Western motives are suspect or because of guilt over colonialism.

By those standards, Hitler would not have been defeated. The Western Allies -- not to mention the Soviets -- committed many brutal acts. German and Japanese cities were mercilessly firebombed. Japanese-Americans were interned in prison camps. Allied policy wasn't "let's be the good guys" but rather "let's do whatever it takes to get this war over with."

Iran isn't Nazi Germany, and Putin isn't Hitler. Nonetheless, if we could transport American politics back 70 years, it is easy to imagine some people insisting that we should go easy on Germany because it was treated harshly at Versailles. It is not hard to imagine Rand Paul or some Tea Partiers protesting Lend-Lease aid to Britain in 1940, leaving the English standing alone against Hitler. Or Code Pink and MoveOn.org demanding that America cease provoking Imperial Japan by supplying aid to China, or lift the oil embargo imposed after Japan occupied French Indochina.

However, there is another lesson of V-E Day, and that is the danger of relying on force.

The German Empire began in 1871 with the first -- but not the last -- defeat of France. For the next 75 years, Europe and America kept a nervous eye on the prosperous, hyper-efficient nation built around a hyper-efficient army.

Yet by 1945, Berlin was occupied by Russian peasant-soldiers. Despite its Tiger tanks and Stukas, its brilliant generals and obedient troops, Germany had been defeated, occupied and dismembered as thoroughly as any nation in history.

What went wrong? Like the 21st Century United States and its Predator drones, the Germans were enamored with military technology. The Germans were obsessed with battlefield performance. Logistics, intelligence and especially diplomacy be damned; what counted was wiping out the enemy army in a Cannae-like battle of encirclement and annihilation. Napoleon and Grant would have approved, and to a large extent, the strategy works; eliminate the enemy army, and you're well on your way to winning the war.

But what the Germans forgot is that diplomacy is important, too. It's not easy to make enemies of most of the industrialized world, but German strategy and diplomacy failed so miserably that the Third Reich was at war with America, Britain and Russia at the same time. A big army and high-tech weapons couldn't save Nazi Germany from its blunders.

There is one more lesson of V-E Day. A hundred years ago, Europe was the power center of the world. Yet V-E day marked more than the end of German militarism; it also announced the eclipse of Europe by America and Russia.

And so the lesson is one that America--and China--should heed. All power is fleeting.

For more reading on why German's obsession with battlefield performance at the expense of everything else led to its defeat, see Geoffrey Megargee's Inside Hitler's High Command.

Michael Peck is a writer in Oregon who had contributed to a number of publications. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

Image: Creative Commons 3.0.