Friday, May 8, 2009

Unconditional Surrender: May 8, 1945

It’s the anniversary of “Victory in Europe,” the day after the remnants of Hitler’s army in the person of Grand Admiral Doenitz signed an unconditional surrender to the Allies.

A defined enemy. A defined victory. Concepts that now seem lost to the ages.

The day has little cultural resonance, as the generations who witnessed this singular moment in history are slowing going into the west.

But one of the day’s witnesses is back in current conversation: Winston Churchill. In response to a question from ABC Senior White House Correspondent Jake Tapper, President Obama cited a statement attributed to Churchill, “we don’t torture.” Tapper has followed that up with a very full post looking at conflicting indications of what Churchill’s actual torture policy was.

Churchill scholar Richard Langworth: "While it’s nice to hear the President invoke Sir Winston, the quotation is unattributed and almost certainly incorrect. While Churchill did express such sentiments with regard to prison inmates, he said no such thing about prisoners of war, enemy combatants or terrorists, who were in fact tortured by British interrogators during World War II.”

On the other hand, Carlo D’Este, author of Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1894-1945, writes that while "Churchill was ruthless in prosecuting the Second World War with strategic bombing of German cities...there is nothing in his behaviour or character to suggest that he would have condoned water boarding or other means of torture."

So we don’t know the precise means. But we know the precise end result. The Germans capitulated, and the fighting stopped. There is so little parallel to our world today. We are still fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it feels like it will never end.

Churchill’s impromptu speech on the balcony:

“God bless you all. This is your victory! It is the victory of the cause of freedom in every land. In all our long history we have never seen a greater day than this. Everyone, man or woman, has done their best. Everyone has tried. 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. God bless you.”