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  • Writer's pictureBill Stauffer

Gratitude Friday 3/8/24 – VE Day

Seventy-nine years ago today, conflict in Europe ended. For younger people who may not know, it was called VE (Victory in Europe) Day in contrast to the end of the entire conflict, which was termed VJ (Victory over Japan) Day. All this of course occurred long before my own birth, but I grew up around people who had served. To this day, our world has been largely shaped by those events long ago. It remains the largest coordinated process in world history. It was a war against fascism and oppression. A win for humanity paid for at a profound cost in human life and economic resources.


I just finished reading Eight Days in May: The Final Collapse of the Third Reich translated from German, by author Volker Ullrich, described by reviewers as not only an “indispensable account of the Nazi endgame, but also a historic work that brilliantly examines the costs of mass delusion to the German people.” It was not light reading, but accounts for the death throes of perhaps the most evil and repressive government in modern history. It described the final moments of Nazi Germany in the eight days after Hitler killed himself in a bunker and the end of conflict in Europe. As the veil was lifted and allied forces assumed control over the devastated country, it seemed like no one they encountered in Germany had supported the government and everyone claimed no knowledge of its atrocities. German leaders and citizens alike claimed they had no knowledge or that they were only following orders.


One may wonder why I read these kinds of books. It is simply because we have a lot to learn from history. What happened in the past is not really past and can always happen again. Fascism and oppression can and does take over governments in our era. We would be well served in understanding how an entire nation can delude itself and follow an oppressive and deranged leader. A full reading of the rise of Hitler during the economic downturn on the 30s following WWI and how he fueled his rise to power with human hate. Tinder we unfortunately are in no short supply in our own page of history at this juncture.


On this day in 1945, war in Europe ended. In the preceding days, German military forces rushed to the west to surrender to allied forces as they were afraid of the Russians. Germany had raped and pillaged its way into Russia as they had invaded. They had every reason to fear that that they would reap the very seeds of destruction they had sown just a few short years before in Operation Barbarossa. Accounts of Russian forces document how they encountered affluence beyond their comprehension and took much of what they found back home as the spoils of war. 


In May of 1945, the United States has military and economic power unrivaled by any nation in human history. We had more military and economic capacity than all the other nations of the world combined. If we had wanted to take over Europe and then the rest of the world, nothing could have stopped us. Of course, we know now that is not what we did. We fed our former enemies and helped rebuild their economies while holding those responsible for the atrocities responsible for what they had done in the Nuremberg Trials. We used our unmatched power to support freedom as this is a central facet of our own national identity. This was one of our finest hours as a nation.


One thing we should never do is assume that we are in any way superior to other people in human history. That in some way, Germans were more vulnerable to fascism than we are. Research on authority has shown us otherwise. The Milgram experiments at Yale in the early 1960s and the Stanford Prison Experiment in the early 1970s show us that most of us have the potential to do horrific things to other humans under certain conditions. This is perhaps our most important lesson. One of the things I am most pleased about in respect to my writings, I have connected with some of our most important thinkers on these issues, including Dr Philip Zimbardo whose life was changed by the Stanford Prison Experiment. He was the principal researcher and found that quite quickly, average kids were doing terrible things to other average kids. He continued the research longer than it should have gone on and later wrote about how all nearly all of us are susceptible to doing things outside of our moral code and hurting others in his book, the Lucifer Effect.


Really deep stuff for a Gratitude Friday post, but one of the points that Dr Zimbardo makes through his lifelong devotion to understanding how humans are capable and even under certain circumstances prone to commit atrocities is that we must engage our better selves to keep the dark side at bay. Something I know well in my own work on my own addiction recovery. As one of my mentors’ notes, we have to help others, so we do not hurt them.


The picture above is of VE Day and our people who engaging their better selves fought against fascism and oppression. They saved the world. They largely did not fall into the trap of becoming the very thing that they opposed by taking over the lands and people as most nations have done over the course of human history. I am grateful to this generation and the things that they did to hold up our better qualities. They are almost all gone now, but their lessons to us remain.  May we heed them.  

What are you grateful for today?   

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