During World War II, Europe was the scene of multiple theaters of engagement. Some historians have argued that it was actually a series of separate wars. First, the campaign of Summer 1940, which resulted in 250,000 French casualties and their capitulation to Germany, was one war. The invasion of the Soviet Union a year later was another. The European powers fought in their colonies in North Africa in 1940-1943, and the Battle of the Atlantic was the longest campaign of World War II. The air war over Europe alone killed more Americans than amphibious operations in the Pacific.
By the time of the Normandy invasion, codenamed Overlord, the Allies had regained their strength, and outperformed the Axis on every metric – manpower, vehicles, training, aircraft, logistics, supplies, medicine, and more – but still sustained 60,000 casualties a month. In the East, Operation Bagration reduced Army Group Center and threatened to collapse the Nazi defenses to their border. Far more devastating than Overlord, Bagration is little known in the West today, but significantly contributed to the destruction of the Third Reich.
With the Allied armies on its doorstep, the fact that the German Wehrmacht rarely collapsed is remarkable. Fighting for their lives and their families, surrender and relief was simply not an option. Under the weight of combined operations, the Germans fell back until they no longer had any room to maneuver. Both the Western Allies and the Russians wanted to invade Berlin, but the Western planners realized it would be so costly for little gain. Stalin wanted the prize, however, so he ordered the assault. After a vicious battle on the Seelow Heights, the Soviets battled street-by-street until they took Berlin on May 2, 1945.
Hitler had committed suicide on April 30; a rump Nazi state ruled until surrender on May 8. Millions of Europeans were displaced, and tens of thousands were no longer welcome in their former homes. Poland, especially, committed pogroms, killing returning Jews who had survived concentration camps just to be murdered when they returned. Displaced persons camps for these stateless refugees lasted throughout the decade.
War Crimes Trials for the Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust and other atrocities were held in Nuremberg. The Soviets sent their show trials judge who presided over the executions of Communist Party officials and Red Army generals in the 1930s. But the United States had another idea; an actual trial, with the defendants able to present evidence. Hermann Goering, the highest ranking surviving Nazi, was clear of drug addiction and unexpectedly lucid. He challenged the court’s authority and defended his participation in the Nazi Party. When convicted, he took smuggled poison, avoiding the hangman’s noose. Many others were hanged, but with the emerging Cold War, by the 1950s many Nazi officers were released from prison, their crimes pardoned.
The war over, the rebuilding began. The United States’ Marshall Plan afforded funds, but with expected anticommunist government affiliation in the new Cold War. The Soviets, devastated themselves, left their satellite states to rebuild as best they could. The seeds of economic recovery were sown in each nation’s ability to rebuild quickly and efficiently. Quickly, a new Cold War between the former “Big Three” Allied nations was brewing, and it would soon manifest in Berlin itself, when the Soviets attempted to blockade it in 1948-1949.