75 years after the Nazis surrendered, all sides agree: War is hell

As veterans and survivors of World World II mark the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, they speak with one voice about the suffering they experienced—and inflicted.

By Lynne Olson
Published 7 May 2020, 12:59 BST
Equipment and supplies litter the island of Iwo Jima, scene of one of the bloodiest battles ...

Equipment and supplies litter the island of Iwo Jima, scene of one of the bloodiest battles of the war in the Pacific. After five days of fierce fighting, U.S. marines raised the American flag atop Mount Suribachi (background). But the fighting would rage for another three weeks, driving even battle-hardened warriors to their limit. Said one veteran: “I came across marines sitting on the ground, hands to their faces, sobbing their hearts out.”

Photograph by Universal History Archive/Getty Images
This story will appear in the June 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine – available June 3.

Seventy-five years ago, the most far-flung, destructive, and lethal war in history approached its end. World War II lived up to its name: It was a true global conflict that pitted the Allied powers—Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, China, and their smaller allies—against Germany, Japan, Italy, and a few other Axis nations. Some 70 million men and women served in the armed forces, taking part in the greatest military mobilisation in history. Civilians, however, did most of the suffering and dying. Of the estimated 66 million people who perished, nearly 70 percent—some 46 million—were civilians, including six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust. Tens of millions more were uprooted from their homes and countries, many of them living in displaced persons camps for years to come.

The war’s after-effects were as staggering as its scale. It laid the groundwork for the world we’ve known for more than seven decades, from the dawn of the nuclear age to the creation of Israel to the emergence of the United States and Soviet Union as the world’s duelling superpowers. It also sparked the formation of international alliances such as the United Nations and NATO, all designed to prevent such a cataclysm from happening again.

An American soldier comes ashore on Omaha Beach during the Allied invasion of German-occupied France on ...

An American soldier comes ashore on Omaha Beach during the Allied invasion of German-occupied France on D-Day, June 6, 1944. With some 7,000 ships carrying nearly 160,000 troops, the largest seaborne invasion in history set the stage for the liberation of Europe.

Photograph by Robert Capa, International Center of Photography, Magnum Photos

Yet, with the passage of time, public awareness of the war and its almost unfathomable consequences has faded, becoming as dim as the sepia tones of an old photograph. At the same time, firsthand witnesses are dwindling in number. 

But thanks to the willingness of some of the last survivors to share their stories, we’ve been given a valuable gift: a chance to bring the war into sharp focus again by viewing it through their eyes. With no access to the internet or other forms of today’s instant communications, most of these men and women knew little of the world beyond their communities before the war. By wrenching them out of their familiar settings, it exposed them to an overwhelming array of new experiences and tested them in previously unimaginable ways. Many found the challenges exhilarating.

That was true for 18-year-old Betty Webb, who was recruited to join Britain’s top secret code-breaking operation at Bletchley Park. Webb was one of countless women whose work was crucial to their countries’ war efforts and who, in the process, found a sense of self-worth and independence they’d never known before.

Harry T. Stewart, Jr., the 20-year-old grandson of a man born into slavery, proved himself as well. A New Yorker who had never driven a car before the war, Stewart became a fighter pilot in the famed all-black unit known as the Tuskegee Airmen, flying 43 combat missions and winning a Distinguished Flying Cross.

These triumphs are inspiring and should be celebrated. Yet what dominates the survivors’ stories are the tragedies experienced by so many of them, Allied and Axis alike. Their accounts are testament to the sheer hell of World War II—the brutality, suffering, and terror experienced, and inflicted, by both sides. Particularly haunting is the testimony of Victor Gregg, a British soldier captured by the Germans. His prison was destroyed in the Allied fire bombing of Dresden in February 1945. Gregg, who witnessed the fiery deaths of German civilians there—some 25,000 perished—was left with an abiding sense of guilt and shame. “These were women and children,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. We were supposed to be the good guys.” His story, like the others, should remain indelibly imprinted on our minds. 

Lynne Olson is the author of Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood That Helped Turn the Tide of War. This is her first story for National Geographic.
The Last Voices of World War II will appear in the June issue of National Geographic Magazine, on sale June 3.  
A fallen Soviet soldier still grips a hand grenade while another takes aim at German invaders ...

A fallen Soviet soldier still grips a hand grenade while another takes aim at German invaders during the Battle of Stalingrad. The battle—one of the largest and longest in history—went on for 200 days, reducing the city (since renamed Volgograd) to rubble. Both sides suffered staggering losses,but Soviet forces ultimately prevailed, destroying the entire German Sixth Army and turning the tide of war in Europe.

Photograph by Roger-Viollet/Getty Images

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