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Have We Learned Anything from World War II?

Tomorrow is V-E Day, "Victory in Europe Day." On this date, we remember the unconditional surrender of all military forces of Hitler's Third Reich to Allied forces on May 8, 1945.

Few people realize that there actually were two signings, one on May 7, 1945, by the German chief of the Operations Staff of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht Alfred Jodl in Reims, France, and the other by German Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel on May 8 in Berlin. (See photo. The latter signing was at the insistence of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. The Russians celebrate the occasion on May 9 and call it "Victory Day.") Both German signatories were later tried and executed for war crimes at Nuremberg.

In President Harry Truman's radio address announcing the end of the war in Europe, he warned the American people,

Let us not forget . . . the sorrow and the heartache, which today abide in the homes of so many of our neighbors--neighbors whose most priceless possession has been rendered as a sacrifice to redeem our liberty.

Although the war was over in Europe, the war still raged in the Pacific as American troops island hopped ever closer to Japan, paying a terrible price as the Japanese fought to the death in countless suicidal bonzai and kamikazi attacks.

As we reflect today on the end of that war, we also should reflect on how that war began and ask if we have learned anything from that war. As we do so, we must surely see how history seems to be about to repeat itself seventy-seven years later.

Technically, the war began with Germany's invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. In reality, the seeds for the war were sown years earlier when Adolf Hitler, in violation of the Versailles Treaty, began the rearmament and militarization of Germany. When he found that he got away with that transgression, he demanded--and received--consecutive concessions of weak Western leaders.

May 14 1936: Hitler took over Austria in the Anschluss.

November 25, 1936: The Germans and the Japanese signed the Anti-Comintern Pact, ostensibly to protect themselves from international communism. A year later, Italy joined the pact to create the Rome-Belin-Tokyo Axis.

September 30, 1938: The Allies allowed Hitler to take the Sudentenland of Czechoslovakia.

March 15, 1939: Hitler invaded and took the rest of Czechoslovakia.

September 1, 1939: Hitler invaded Poland and by the end of the month had control of it.

April 9, 1940: Hitler invaded Denmark and Norway.

May 10, 1940: Hitler invaded the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France.

July 10, 1940: Hitler began the Battle of Britain. In the Brits he had finally confronted a nation that would not buckle under to his force.

April 6, 1941: Hitler invaded Yugoslavia and Greece.

June 22, 1941: Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, violating the Nazi-Soviet Pact less than two years after signing it.

December 11, 1941: Germany declared war on the United States.

The modern parallels should be self-evident as we watch daily events unfolding in Ukraine. That invasion by Russia did not happen suddenly. It has been brewing since the seeds were sown for it in 1994, when, under pressure from the West, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan signed the Budapest Memoradum of Security Assurances, by which Russia, Britain, China, France, and the United States guaranteed to defend them if they surrendered their nuclear weapons.

In February 2014, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin began efforts to regain the Crimea for Russia. Since then, he stirred up trouble in eastern Ukraine in efforts to regain the Donbas region for Russia. And then, eight years to the month after attacking the Crimea, his forces invaded Ukraine. He has since the invasion began repeatedly threatened Ukraine and the Western Allies as well as non-NATO countries of Europe with the use of nuclear weapons. How long will it be before he, like Hitler, begins to attack other nations?

Western nations have done relatively little to stop Putin out of fear they might further antagonize him and escalate the conflict. Meanwhile, Ukrainians--not only military forces but also innocent civilians--continue to die for their country. Like Britain in World War II, they are determined not to surrender their country to the aggressor. And Putin's forces, like the Nazis in World War II, commit unspeakable atrocities. Mass graves. Prisoners of war and civilians, hands tied behind them, shot in the back of the head. Hospitals, schools, and civilian residential areas indiscriminately targeted with bombs and rockets.

And Western leaders do little more than visit the war-torn capital of Ukraine for photo opportunities with President Zelenski to show the people back home that they are "concerned" about the situation.

It took Hitler five years and seven months after he first marched into Austria before he declared war on the United States. How long will it be before Putin does something similar?

The lessons of history teach us at least these three truths:

  1. Treaties mean nothing to dictators.

  2. Appeasement never stops dictators; their appetite for more conquests and more power is insatiable.

  3. The only language dictators understand and respond to is overwhelming force.

Have we learned anything from World War II? Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it. Are we about to see history repeat itself?

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