TIME language

This Is the Speech That Made Winston Churchill’s Career

Winston Churchill
Gamma-Keystone / Getty Images British Prime Minister Winston Churchill gives the speech on the BBC that he just delivered at the House of Commons : "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat..."

"I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat," he said

A full 75 years after the “Blood, Toil, Tears, Sweat” speech was delivered by Winston Churchill — on May 13, 1940 — it remains one of the most famous of his prolific career. Which is only appropriate, as it was the speech that set the course for his historic leadership of Britain during World War II.

Here’s what happened: Until mere days before the speech was delivered, Churchill wasn’t Prime Minister. He was First Lord of the Admiralty and, in fact, a “longtime political enemy” of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, per TIME’s account in 1940.

The previous month, British forces had responded to a Nazi incursion in Norway with all confidence of success. “Instead, all the pushing—and a lot of punching, hammering, rushing and blasting—had been done by the Germans. It was the British who went out backwards, faster than they had come in,” TIME reported two weeks later. Chamberlain, called to account for the failure, merely reassured his country that, though the military operation had been a total failure, at least the retreat had been successful. His statements that it hadn’t been a total disaster were met with derision; many called for him to resign if he could not promise stronger action.

Though Chamberlain begged his parliamentary colleagues to remain unified in the face of the enemy, his case had little heft in light of recent events. When Churchill spoke, he also asked for unity—but he admitted that Norway was a failure, and galvanized support with his candor and confidence. The Labour party refused to join a national coalition government unless Churchill was in charge of it.

Churchill took office as Prime Minister on May 10, 1940. On the 13th, he delivered that famous speech, as TIME reported:

As soon as he had made up his Cabinet he appeared before the House and, mincing no words, told it what was in store for Britain: “If you ask what is our policy, it is to wage war by sea, land and air with all our might,” said Winston Churchill. “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” The House gave him a 381-to-0 vote of confidence and Neville Chamberlain smiled a tight-lipped smile.

His words established a new British attitude toward the growing conflict—and a reputation that would keep him in the Prime Minister’s office through the end of the war in Europe.

Indeed, the speech was so effective that, in 2003, TIME named included it on a list of 80 days that changed the world. “The opposition Labour Party would serve in a government of national unity only if it were led by Churchill, and on the evening of May 10, as German troops massed against France, he accepted office from King George VI,” wrote TIME’s Michael Elliott. “Three days later, Churchill promised Britain only ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat.’ What he gave his country, above all, was leadership.”

Read the full 1940 story here, in the TIME Vault: Warlord for Peacemaker

TIME movies

The True Story That Inspired One of the Biggest Films of the 1940s

Family Feud
RKO Pictures / Getty Images American actors Myrna Loy (left) and Teresa Wright with Fredric March in a still from the film, 'The Best Years of Our Lives,' directed by William Wyler.

The hit movie was inspired by a story in TIME

On the 70th anniversary of V-E Day, the thought of the end of World War II in Europe is likely to bring up images of packed public squares, celebrating soldiers and spontaneous kisses. But for thousands of soldiers returning from the battlefields of World War II, the reality was much different. Victory in combat was followed by lingering questions about how to adjust to a home front that was literally and figuratively miles away from the realities of war. In 1946, producer Samuel Goldwyn, Sr. took inspiration from a true story to create a blockbuster film on the topic. The movie is still surprisingly relevant today and, in fact, was inspired by an article in TIME.

Though Goldwyn is best known as the G in MGM, he had nothing to do with the company—it resulted from the acquisition of his production company, Goldwyn Pictures, in 1924. Rather, he was an independent producer on the make, transforming himself from Szmuel Gelbfisz, a Polish immigrant with an explosive temper, into one of Hollywood’s most influential producers. He is credited with 139 films, including Stella Dallas, Wuthering Heights and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. During his lifetime, he was immensely successful: Part of his legendary art collection, including pieces by Picasso and Matisse, will be sold at Sotheby’s this year.

And the movie inspired by a real-life group of soldiers was one of his biggest successes of all. In 1946, he was best known for The Best Years of Our Lives, a film that was the biggest of its day—and that explored the decidedly modern issue of how veterans readjust to life after war.

Goldwyn struck on the idea for the film when he read an Aug. 7, 1944, TIME feature called “The Way Home.” The piece followed a group of Marines packed onto a train they called the “Home Again Special,” which was tasked with returning them to their hometowns after 27 months of bloody battle at places like Guadalcanal. The train’s riders wonder what will greet them as they return home—ticker-tape parades? Tearful reunions? But the reality is something much different:

The men were up early, shining their shoes, polishing their buttons. As the train pulled into Baltimore at 6:30 a.m. there was a shout: “Bring on the brass band.” There was no band nor any people, and the homecoming marines got off and walked through the silent station.

Home. The final run began…

At Philadelphia, there was just a string of taxicabs, at Jersey City, just the ferry to Manhattan. The marines silently looked at the New York skyline. Lieut. Camille Tamucci, the tough guy in charge, who had been dreaming of mounds of spaghetti, began brooding about his stomach. “It’s all tied in knots,” he said…

One marine shouted: “See you in the next war.” There was no answer. The marines shouldered their sea bags and walked away.

Goldwyn had a son in the Army when the piece appeared. Moved by the piece and its portrayal of the uncertainties that would face soldiers returning from the war, his wife Frances urged her husband to consider making a movie about how veterans readjust to post-war life. “Every family in America is part of this story,” he mused, commissioning a writer to turn the idea from article into film. He eventually spent an estimated $2.1 million (about $19 million in today’s dollars) to make the film, enlisting the likes of Myrna Loy and Hoagie Carmichael for a moving story of trauma and triumph.

The movie offers a surprisingly nuanced take on the challenges faced by returning vets. Its director, William Wyler, had combat experience of his own. He convinced Goldwyn to take a chance on Harold Russell, an untested actor whom Wyler spotted in an Army film about veterans who lost limbs in combat. In real life, Russell was equipped with two metal hooks he used in place of both hands, which were blown up in an explosives accident. On film, he can be seen using the hooks to play piano, embrace his girlfriend and perform everyday tasks. When Russell’s character returns from war, the battle has only just begun—he must struggle to accept life with a physical handicap and his misgivings about the woman who loves him anyway.

“He is no actor and no one pretends that he is, but his performance is more affecting than any professional’s could be,” TIME wrote in its review of the film. “Unlike most sure-fire movies, it was put together with good taste, honesty, wit—and even a strong suggestion of guts.”

Goldwyn saved some of the triumph for himself—The Best Years of Our Lives was a box-office hit. The film sold an estimated 55 million tickets in the United States and another 20 million in the United Kingdom, making it the most successful box office draw since Gone With the Wind. It also took home eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor.

But Russell, who came to represent the complicated toll that combat can take on veterans, was the real winner that night. He took home not one, but two Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor and a special award “for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance.” He is one of only two non-professional actors ever to bring home an Oscar.

TIME World War II

See Photos of Jubilant V-E Day Celebrations in New York City

At the news that the war in Europe was over, revelers swarmed city streets to celebrate

When news came on May 7, 1945, that the Nazis had surrendered and the war in Europe was over, cities across the globe played host to raucous celebrations.

The original V-E Day, or Victory in Europe Day—which is commemorated on May 7 in Great Britain and Commonwealth territories and on May 8 in the U.S.—was particularly colorful in New York City. And though the photographs LIFE captured are in black and white, they pulse with the energy of revelry. LIFE described the mood in Manhattan:

The nation could feel proud of itself for the way it acted when the big news came on Monday, May 7. There was a little cheering, a little drinking and a few prayers. There was a great sense of relief and of a dedication to the job ahead. Only in New York was there a real hullabaloo. There wild street celebrations were whitened by snowstorms of paper cascading from buildings in Times Square, Wall Street and Rockefeller Center. Ships on the rivers let go with their sirens. Workers in the garment center threw bales of rayons, silks and woolens into the streets to drape passing cars with bright-colored cloth. Then the workers swarmed out of their shops, singing and dancing, drinking whisky out of bottles, wading in their own weird confetti.

The war, of course, would continue in the Pacific until the surrender of Japan that August, following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But for one day, at least, revelers would celebrate this critical milestone.

Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.

TIME World War II

How Eisenhower’s Granddaughters Learned About WWII

The former Commander in chief of the All
Al Muto—AFP/Getty Images Dwight David "Ike" Eisenhower poses happily on October 14,1956 in the White House gardens on his 66th birthday for a family portrait with (from left) his wife, First Lady Mamie Eisenhower, daughter-in-law, Mrs. John Eisenhower and the Eisenhower grandchildren Mary Jean, 10 months old, Susan Ann, 4, David, 8, and Barbara Ann, 7.

70 years after V-E Day, Mary Jean and Susan Eisenhower remember their grandfather

Correction appended, May 9.

Plenty of Americans have grown up hearing their grandfathers’ World War II stories. But, for Mary Jean and Susan Eisenhower, those stories could have—and actually have—filled many books.

That’s because their grandfather was Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during the war and later President of the United States. Not that he told many war stories to his granddaughters when they were young, though Susan does remember him showing her a large photograph of the invasion of Normandy in his Gettysburg College office when she was 8 or 9 years old.

Mainly, Mary Jean and Susan learned about Eisenhower’s war experience through books—especially his own. They both read At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends when it came out in 1967 (Mary Jean was only in about the fifth grade), and they learned many of his WWII stories in its pages.

Both women went on to work in professions related to their grandfather’s legacy; Mary Jean at People to People, an organization he founded, and Susan in national security, an arena where “many of the issues that are front and center [today] are impacted by decisions he made during his presidency,” she says. Their work gave them a deeper familiarity with his experiences during the war and beyond.

Still, they continued to learn new things about their grandfather’s life throughout their adulthoods. When Mary Jean was in her 30s, she learned about a note that had been found in his trashcan the month after the invasion of Normandy that he’d written to take responsibility in case D-Day failed, saying, “If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.” (He apparently carried similar notes during every major invasion he ordered.) “It turned my heart as soon as I saw it,” Mary Jean says.

When Germany officially surrendered on V-E Day, 70 years ago Friday, Eisenhower’s tone was not celebratory—the Pacific battle was not yet won, after all. “The strong overwhelming feeling apparently [held] by everyone at headquarters, starting with the Supreme Allied Commander, was one of exhaustion and a profound sense of sadness,” Susan says. She was moved when she read the statement her grandfather sent to George Marshall and President Truman, which simply said that the mission was accomplished.

“If you see pictures of granddad that day,” Mary Jean says, “and then see him 10 years later as president, 10 years older, he actually looks 20 years younger than he did on the day of surrender. Even thinking of this puts a lump in my throat, to think of what he went through.”

A new exhibit at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans—where the Eisenhowers participated in a panel on Thursday—called “Road to Berlin” highlights stories from the European theater in large part though personal effects, many from soldiers who died. Susan says this way of humanizing the war is “the greatest form of storytelling.” But when the women were children, their grandfather’s own personal effects from the war weren’t necessarily objects they were awed by, at least not much more than any other grandchild is awed by their grandparents’ household items.

They were aware, however, of the wartime connection the President known as “Ike” had to many of the men around him, including a chauffeur, Sgt. Leonard Dry (who had taken him to meet the 101st Airborne Division before the Normandy landings and airdrop) and his valet, Sgt. John Moaney (who was with him from the North African campaign until the end of both their lives). “We were very conscious of the fact that all these people went way back,” Susan says.

The women were taught to compartmentalize their views of their grandfather between the personal and the public. In fact, Mary Jean says she got to know four versions of Eisenhower over the years: “The military one, the presidential one, the knee-slapping one and the People to People one,” with the knee-slapping iteration being the warm man who made her count up coins in a piggy bank. In grade school when lessons about him came up, Susan says this compartmentalized mindset was especially important: “There was a period right after his presidency where his presidency was really misunderstood and getting torn down. He wouldn’t get up and brag and he didn’t draw attention to himself.”

As for Mary Jean, those lessons may have been a bit easier to brush off. “I have to confess I slept through most of my history classes,” she says. “I’d see the war pictures go up on the movie screen and it was like the sand man started beating me to death.”

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly described Sgt. Moaney’s role for Eisenhower. He was his valet.

TIME conflict

Read an Eyewitness Account of the German Surrender in World War II

Staff Sgt. Arthur Moore of Buffalo, N.Y., who was wounded in Belgium, stands on 42nd Street near Grand Central Station in New York Monday, May 7, 1945 as New Yorkers celebrate news of VE Day, victory over Nazi Germany.
AP Photo Staff Sgt. Arthur Moore of Buffalo, N.Y., who was wounded in Belgium, stands on 42nd Street near Grand Central Station in New York Monday, May 7, 1945 as New Yorkers celebrate news of VE Day, victory over Nazi Germany.

Read an excerpt from the book 'World War II: Unforgettable Stories and Photographs by Correspondents of the Associated Press'

During World War II, hundreds of photographers and reporters were dispersed around the world on behalf of the Associated Press. In 1945, when the war ended, the agency published Reporting to Remember, an anthology of first-hand accounts of what they saw, alongside great photographs like the one shown here. For the 70th anniversary of V-E Day — May 8, 1945 — Rosetta Books is republishing those accounts as the e-book World War II: Unforgettable Stories and Photographs by Correspondents of the Associated Press.

The following essay, In a Schoolhouse at Rheims, Four Copies Were Signed, by Relman Morin, who died in 1973, is an excerpt from that book.

Shortly after midnight, the clouds crept down on Rheims from the north, blotting out the stars and the pale yellow curve of the moon. The cathedral spire, a dark dagger against the sky, melted into blackness and then disappeared. A river of shadows flowed silently through the empty, sleeping streets. It crossed the city and poured over the walls of a solid, massive building on the outskirts, a building that bore the legend, “Ecole Professionelle.” It was a schoolhouse.

In the courtyard, a window suddenly opened on the ground floor. A yellow block of light slanted to earth, silhouetting the figures of some people standing beside the wall. Instantly, they crowded forward, toward the window. Two men appeared there. One of them said, “Here’s sandwiches and some cokes.”

“What’s happening in there?”

“Can’t tell,” said the man in the window. “It was supposed to have been at 10 o’clock.”

“It’s after 12 now.”

“Well, there hasn’t been a peep out of anybody.”

A soldier appeared beside the two men in the window. “You’ll have to close this window,” he said. “Those were my orders.”

Darkness rushed back into the space where the light had been.

The endless moments passed. Finally the black-out driving lights of an automobile appeared in the driveway of the schoolhouse. Closely behind, came another car. And then, in rapid succession, staff cars pulled up in front of the main entrance and officers entered the building.

The correspondents, still waiting in the courtyard, came closer. They could feel the air of sudden excitement.

At 2:15, Brigadier Gen. Frank Allen, of SHAEF Public Relations, stepped into the correspondents’ press room. His voice was tense, almost strange. He said, “Gentlemen, this looks like IT. Follow me, please, in double file.”

They marched down the hall, up the stairs, and entered the War Room. The photographers were in prearranged positions.

The room was brilliantly lighted, so planned in order to obtain a full photographic record of the event. The walls were covered with Nile green beaverboard. Attached to the beaverboard, were battle maps showing the disposition of forces on all fronts, a “thermometer” set against a Swastika background which had registered the mounting millions of German prisoners taken, and the charts and diagrams of air operations, supply deliveries, and communications systems.

There was also a chart that tabulated Allied casualties.

Down the center of the room ran a long, L-shaped table, with a shiny black top. Thirteen chairs were placed beside it, three on one of the long sides, eight on the opposite side, and two at the end.

At 2:29, the first Allied representatives entered the room. They were Gen. Carl A. Spaatz, commander of the United States Strategic Air Forces, Major-Gen. Ivan Suslaparoff, head of the Russian mission to France, Lieut. Ivan Cherniaeff, his interpreter, Admiral Sir Harold Burrough, British commander of Allied Naval Forces, Lieut.-Gen. Sir F. E. Morgan, SHAEF Deputy Chief of Staff, Major-Gen. Francois Sevez, of France, Col. Ivan Zenkovitch, of Russia, British Air Marshal Sir J. M. Robb, and Major-Gen. H. R. Bull, assistant Chief of Staff, G-3, SHAEF.

Five minutes later, Lieut.-Gen. Walter Bedell Smith, Chief of Staff, strode into the room. Signs of fatigue, small lines of weariness, showed in his face, but his eyes were keen and sharp as ever. He looked over the seating arrangements. Then, unconsciously, his eyes swept over the maps and charts on the wall. They stopped on one of the maps, and a grim, small smile touched the corners of his mouth. The map showed what would have been the next operation.

He then turned toward the door and gave a signal. Somehow, although no word was spoken, you knew that he had ordered the Germans to enter. The silence was stifling in the room. Nobody spoke, and hardly anyone moved. Then the door opened again. The Germans stood there. They were Col. General Justaf Jodl, chief of the Wehrmacht, Gen.-Admiral Hans-Georg Friedeburg, commander of the German Navy, and Major G. S. Wilhelm Oxenius, an aide.

Jodl wore the uniform of a Wehrmacht officer, grey-green, with silver trim. The Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross was on his breast. His pimply face was stiff, frozen, inscrutable.

Friedeburg looked more relaxed. He was unsmiling, but there was an air of ease, or resignation perhaps, in his face. His blue navy uniform was semi-dress. A row of the highest German decorations glowed above his left breast pocket.

Oxenius seemed merely ill at ease, like a schoolboy confronting the Board of Education. He kept glancing at Jodl and he did whatever Jodl did. The three Germans were shown their three chairs. They stood at attention, facing the Allied officers on the other side. Both groups bowed, and then all sat down.

“There are four copies to be signed.” Gen. Smith’s voice was cold, colorless, matter-of-fact. He spoke without haste. Neither tone nor cadence hinted at his feelings. At the same moment, Major-Gen. K. W. D. Strong, of Supreme Headquarters Intelligence, who had escorted the Germans into the room, placed the documents in front of the Germans, and interpreted. His voice was low but distinct.

There was a moment of silence, and in that moment, the scene seemed to freeze. It had the character of a picture, somehow, a queer unreality. Here was the end of nearly five years of war, of blood and death, of high excitement and fear and great discomfort, of explosions and bullets whining and the wailing of air raid sirens. Here, brought into this room, was the end of all that. Your mind refused to take it in. Hence, this was a dream, this room with the Nile green walls and the charts, the black table, and the uniformed men seated around it. The words, “There are four copies to be signed,” meant nothing unless you forced the meaning to come, ramming it into your brain with a hard, conscious effort.

Gen. Smith was speaking again. He looked straight at Jodl with hard, unwavering eyes. He said these were the documents stipulating formal surrender. He asked them if they were ready to sign. Gen. Strong translated.

Jodl assented with a curt nod. He did not speak.

And then the documents were being passed across to the Germans, and they were signing them. They were signing away the Germany Army and the Luftwaffe and the submarines. Their pens scratched and the State that was to have lasted a thousand years died.

As each was signed, it was passed across the table to the Allied officers, American, British, French and Russian. The signing was over. Suddenly, Jodl rose, pushing back his chair. With a jerky, marionette-like motion he turned toward Gen. Smith. He requested permission to speak. He looked downward at the table, like a man thinking as he spoke:

“General! With this signature, the German people and the German armed forces are delivered, for better or worse, into the victor’s hands. In this war which has lasted more than five years, both have achieved and suffered more than perhaps any other people in the world. In this hour, I can only express the hope that the victor will treat them with generosity.”

The sound of his voice died away. There was no response.

He was not a sympathetic figure. The harshness and iron of the Prussians was marked in every curve of his body and in every unyielding line of his face. Here was the personification of blood and iron. Men like this had loosed the rivers of blood and made the nights hideous with screaming. From the War Room, the Germans were taken down the hall to Gen. Eisenhower’s office.

Eisenhower was standing, waiting, behind his desk. Beside him was a lean, dark-haired man with a long face and a poet’s eyes, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, Deputy Supreme Commander.

Jodl entered first, then Friedeburg and finally Oxenius. Again there was a moment of heavy silence.

Then Eisenhower spoke. His voice was cold and stern. The steely character came into his blue eyes. In a few, clipped sentences, he asked the men before him if they understood the terms of the surrender. They said they did. He asked if they were prepared to carry out these terms. Another brief assent. They stood, unmoving, for an instant and then, sensing that nothing more would be said, they bowed, stiffly, turned and left the room.

That was the surrender at Rheims, at 2:47 in the morning of Monday, May 7, 1945.

World War II: Unforgettable Stories and Photographs by Correspondents of the Associated Press Book Cover
AP Photo

The book World War II: Unforgettable Stories and Photographs by Correspondents of the Associated Press will be released on May 8, 2015.

TIME People

Why Freud Chose Nazi Germany Over America

Freud Behind His Desk
Authenticated News / Getty Images Portrait of Sigmund Freud (1856 - 1939) in his study in Vienna, in the 1930s.

May 6, 1856: Sigmund Freud is born

His aversion to America was by no means unconscious: given the choice between safe passage to the United States and increasing oppression at the hands of the Nazis, Sigmund Freud chose to stick with the Nazis.

The father of psychoanalysis — born on this day, May 6, in 1856 — was in his early 80s and “tortured by advanced cancer of the jaw,” per TIME, when he turned down the invitation to the U.S. from a worried nephew who was a publicist in Manhattan.

But Freud was no longer safe in Vienna after the Nazi occupation, since the Gestapo was not only targeting Jews in general but psychoanalysts in particular; their fixation on the id’s uncivilized impulses seemed to the Nazis to undermine the dignity of the Volk. In 1933, mobs of Nazi sympathizers had burned Freud’s books, chanting, per The Atlantic, “Against the soul-destroying overestimation of the sex life ─ and on behalf of the nobility of the human soul, we offer the flames the writings of Sigmund Freud.”

After they took Vienna in 1938, the Nazis seized Freud’s money, property, and publishing house, by TIME’s account. Still, he preferred to shelter in place rather than seek asylum among the money-obsessed savages he believed comprised the American populace.

“America is gigantic,” he’s reported to have said, “but a gigantic mistake.”

It took the intervention of one of his star patients, Princess Marie Bonaparte, Napoleon’s great-granddaughter, to uproot him — and for London instead of New York. Bonaparte paid what amounted to ransom to secure Freud’s exit visas, and, according to the Daily Mail, “brokered a deal that enabled him to salvage his library, large sculpture collection, and celebrated couch.”

Freud was ultimately happy with the move, according to TIME, which describes his exile as an idyllic period, despite his near-constant pain:

In a comfortable London house near Regent’s Park, filled with his Greek and Egyptian treasures, Freud answers letters, continues his writing, even treats a few old patients. Every Sunday evening he settles down in the parlor, coddles his five young grandchildren, enjoys a lively card game called tarot with his sons. Always at his call is his nine-year-old chow dog, Lun. During his 16 years of suffering [from cancer], throughout his 15 operations, he has never uttered a word of complaint. Patient and resigned, secure in his fame, he spins out his last thoughts, and basks in the sun.

His wry sense of humor seems never to have abandoned him, either. According to the New York Times, the Nazis had allowed him to leave Austria on the condition that he sign a statement swearing that they had treated him well. He signed, but added a tongue-in-cheek comment offering more praise for German fascism than he’d ever mustered for American democracy: “I can most highly recommend the Gestapo to everyone.”

Read a 1939 cover story about Freud, here in the TIME Vault: Intellectual Provocateur

TIME conflict

What Was on the Minds of the Big Three at Potsdam

Politics. Personalities. USA. pic: 1945. President Harry S. Truman, centre pictured with Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin at the Potsdam Conference. Harry S.Truman (1884-1972) became the 33rd President of the United States 1945-1953. He helped instigate
Popperfoto / Getty Images President Harry S, Truman, centre pictured with Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin at the Potsdam Conference

It wasn't the looming Cold War. It was the way World War I had ended. Call that the power of analogies from history

History News Network

This post is in partnership with the History News Network, the website that puts the news into historical perspective. The article below was originally published at HNN.

Yuen Foong Khong’s Analogies at War argued that the way policymakers remember the past influences how they establish their positions about problems they see in the present. In this case, Khong argued, the historical analogy that a policymaker saw in the American position in Vietnam in 1965 proved to be the single most important factor in establishing his recommendation to President Johnson. In brief, if a policymaker saw echoes of the appeasement of Munich, then he suggested a large American commitment; if he saw the war in Korea, he argued for a limited commitment and lowered expectations for victory; if he saw Dien Bien Phu, he tended to argue against any increase in American dedication to Southeast Asia.

I was interested to see what historical analogies the men of 1945 brought with them when they gathered at Potsdam to discuss the end of the Second World War in Europe. The two existing histories of the conference, published in 1960 and 1975, were both products of the Cold War. They tried to parse the words of the leaders of 1945 in a quest to analyze the jockeying between the western allies (Britain and the United States) and the Soviet Union for position.

To be sure, some of that jockeying happened at Potsdam, but when they left Germany in early August, the leaders of the great powers did not believe that a future of competition necessarily lay ahead. Although they were fully aware of the policy disagreements among them, they did not speak in terms of a Cold War. Most Americans left Potsdam as afraid of conflict with an imperial Britain as with the Soviets.

I therefore wanted to see Potsdam as the men of 1945 did. Not knowing the future, they naturally looked to the past as a guide, as did American policymakers twenty years later. Many of the men of 1945, moreover, had a quite active interest in history. Harry Truman’s diaries and notes are filled with references to the past and Winston Churchill had already written a number of historical studies. He would soon win the Nobel Prize for his history/memoir of the Second World War.

A number of historical analogies presented themselves and, as in 1965, each suggested a different way forward. A small number of conferees, led by British Foreign Minister Sir Anthony Eden and American Ambassador to the Soviet Union Averill Harriman, thought in terms of Munich. They saw Russian behavior between the Yalta and Potsdam conferences as aggressive and acquisitive. They hoped to use Potsdam to solidify a joint Anglo-American bloc to counter Soviet expansionism.

A far more common historical analogy, and the one that dominated the proceedings at Potsdam, was the Paris Peace Conference. All of the conferees were haunted by the failures of 1919. Several of them, most notably British economist John Maynard Keynes and the new American Secretary of State James Byrnes, had been in Paris in 1919 and were horrified by what they had seen. Above all, Harry Truman told the delegates on the first day of the Potsdam conference, we must avoid the mistakes of Versailles.

The Versailles analogy carried different meanings for different people. To the Soviets and the British especially, it meant keeping the rest of the world away. Unlike the Paris Peace Conference, which convened with 27 nations and four non-state actors*, Potsdam represented the wishes of the Big Three only. Stalin noted wryly that two world wars had started over the interests of small states, and Great Britain was equally happy to keep its imperial subjects as far from Potsdam as possible.

More importantly, the conference agenda dealt with subjects that would have been intimately familiar to the men of 1919. With the exception of the very brief mention of the atomic bomb then being tested in the desert of New Mexico, every subject discussed at Potsdam had been also discussed in Paris a generation earlier. These subjects included the proper place of Germany in the postwar world; the issue of German reparations; the borders of the new states in eastern Europe; the problem of resettling refugees (although this problem was many times larger in 1945 than in 1919); and the proper way to reshape East Asia.

The desire to fix the problems of 1919, far more than any incipient fear of a Cold War that had not yet happened, determined what came out of Potsdam. Instead of drawing lines on a map to fix the borders of Eastern Europe, the Big Three of 1945 moved people. To be more precise, the Soviets moved people and the Anglo-Americans either acquiesced or turned their heads and chose not to see what their Russian allies were doing. Instead of a schedule of reparations (the issue that, more than any other, had doomed Versailles), the Big Three agreed to divide Germany and enforce separate reparations policies in their respective zones. They also decided on a full occupation of Germany and a strict avoidance of colonial claims.

All delegates left Potsdam as satisfied as a compromise peace could make them. Some were more optimistic than others about how long great power amity would or could last. But they had the solved the problems of 1945 as they then understood them: Germany would pose no more threat to European security; Eastern Europe’s political and ethnic borders would better overlap, albeit at a staggering human cost; and the United States would maintain a commitment to the future of Europe. In making these decisions, the Big Three of Potsdam looked not forward to Cold War but back to the mistakes of the Big Three that had preceded them in Paris a generation earlier.

*They included Ireland (not yet a state), the Arab delegation under Emir Faisal, the Zionists, and Vietnam.

Michael Neiberg teaches at the US Army War College. His published work specializes in the First and Second World Wars, notably the American and French experiences. His most recent book on the First World War is “Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I” (Harvard University Press, 2011). His latest book is “Potsdam: The End of World War II and the Remaking of Europe” (Basic Books, 2015).

TIME remembrance

Reflections on the Liberation of Bergen-Belsen, 70 Years Later

Belsen Notice
Hulton Archive / Getty Images A British soldier reads a billboard posted at the entrance of the Belsen concentration camp, Belsen, Germany

A report from the Imperial War Museum's seminar on the anniversary of the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen camp in April 1945

History Today




This post is in partnership with History Today. The article below was originally published at HistoryToday.com.

At the Imperial War Museum in London, academics and survivors assemble on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of 60,000 inmates and the discovery of 13,000 corpses at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Lower Saxony in 1945. The anniversary is marked, too, by a proliferation of articles online discussing the anniversary and its place in the British collective memory. ‘In British memory’, writes Rainer Schulze,

‘Belsen has become an imagined site, largely disconnected from the real place Bergen-Belsen. There’s no doubt that this imagined site still exists in the British memory landscape, ready to be brought to the fore when it becomes useful.’

That the names of the Nazi concentration camps should have a semantic weight extending far beyond a geographical location is clear. As the literary critic James Wood has pointed out, the novelist WG Sebald evoked the constant presence of perhaps the most famous camp of all without even writing its name in his 2001 novel Austerlitz. Since its liberation on 15th April, 1945, Belsen has been subject to direct and indirect representation. William Golding considered his most famous novel, Lord of the Flies (1954), a Belsen parable in the same vein as George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The Nigerian poet Chinua Achebe used Belsen symbolically (if not accurately) in his poem ‘Vultures‘; both works have appeared on the school syllabus in England and Wales.

Belsen, much of the current discourse seems to hold, occupies an elevated place in British collective memory because of its perceived ‘Britishness’. It was the first Nazi camp to be liberated, by the British 11th Armoured Division in 1945, and provided the public with the first visual evidence of Nazi war crimes, images not easily forgotten. At the Imperial War Museum’s seminar (the third to be held since Belsen’s liberation; the last was in 1995) new academic perspectives on Belsen are delivered to a room that includes survivors and their relatives. Dan Stone, author of The Liberation of the Camps (Yale University Press, 2015) suggests that, since the 1990s, there has been a generally held assumption that British collective memory has ‘got Belsen wrong'; that the British public has misunderstood Belsen’s place within the camp system. Belsen was not a ‘death camp'; pre-1944 it was primarily an exchange camp, where prominent Jews were held for exchange with German prisoners of war; it only became a death camp in the final few weeks, after the Soviet offensive in the East prompted the ‘death marches’ west, one of which was described by Elie Wiesel in his memoir Night. Yet, argues Stone, the case against ‘Belsen as a death camp’ is reliant upon top down history. From the perspective of the perpetrators, Belsen was embedded in a strategic system and identified as holding a specific purpose; from the perspective of the victims who arrived after 1944 it was ‘just another camp’. Distinctions between types of camp – faced with the notorious overcrowding and neglect at Belsen – would have proved impossible. ‘Scholarly precision’, says Stone, can ‘mask the true experience of the Holocaust’.

Scholarly precision is one obstacle; absence of testimony is another. Anna Hajkova speaks about the absence of testimonies by Jews who happened to be gay. Homophobia, she says, is rife in testimonies recorded by survivors as late as the 1980s and 1990s. ‘Prejudice determines what is in the archives – but thinking about the gaps can help’. The Imperial War Museum has no shortage of documentary material from the camp’s British liberators; yet the Holocaust is missing a queer history. Such a thing, of course, is near impossible to recover; Hajkova makes a compelling case for identifying the gaps, drawing attention to where they fall and listening to their silence.

In her talk on Soldier’s Perspectives, Myfanwy Lloyd presents testimonies recorded by members of the Oxfordshire Yeomanry which foreground the effect of the camp’s discovery on the liberating soldiers. One account, by Ronald Payne, describes how there was ‘very little chatter’ among the British soldiers after Belsen’s liberation, a detail that calls to mind an anecdote relayed by WG Sebald in his 1995 novel The Rings of Saturn (subtitled, in the original German, ‘An English Pilgrimage’). Discussing representations of Belsen at the seminar, Robert Eaglestone highlights Sebald’s work as an example of what he considers the ‘third phase’ of the camp’s literary representations in which literature shows both an educated awareness and a direct approach when dealing with the subject (missing from the symbolic works produced by Golding, Achebe and others in the 1950s, 60s and 70s). Sebald’s narrator (often considered to be the author himself) recalls reading an article from the Eastern Daily Press on the death, at 77, of a Major George Wyndham Le Strange, who served in the anti-tank regiment that liberated Belsen in April 1945. Sebald includes the clipping, and a photographic image of bodies scattered among trees in the liberated camp, within the text. The clipping, titled ‘Housekeeper Rewarded For Strange Dinners’ relays a story told by Mrs. Florence Barnes that she was employed by Le Strange in 1955 as his housekeeper and cook, on the condition that she dine with him every day ‘in complete silence’. On his death, Le Strange left his estate, worth several million pounds, to his silent housekeeper.

If Sebald’s work does indeed belong to a developed, direct and educated sphere of literary responses to Belsen, as Eaglestone suggests, it’s worth considering its place within the novel. To Sebald’s narrator Belsen is a collective memory, and a simple walk around the Sussex coast is enough to trigger it. It appears in the text overtly and factually but its meaning, or symbolic literary value is ambiguous and unclear: ‘To this day I do not know what to make of such stories’, he concludes.

Belsen: Seventy Years On was held at Imperial War Museum in partnership with Royal Holloway University of London, the University of Sheffield and the University of Warwick.

Rhys Griffiths is editorial assistant at History Today.

TIME Third Reich

The Nazi Suicides: Beyond Hitler and Braun, a Regime in Defeat

With Allied forces closing in, top Nazi officials chose death over defeat

Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun famously committed suicide on April 30, 1945, as it became clear that the defeat of the Nazi regime was imminent. He took his life by gunshot and she by cyanide. But the chancellor and his wife of less than two days were not the only members of the inner Nazi circle to end their own lives as the war in Europe drew to a close.

LIFE’s Margaret Bourke-White was in Germany when German forces surrendered, and her camera found disturbing scenes in Leipzig, where city officials and their family members chose death over defeat. LIFE described the impetus behind their actions:

In the last days of the war the overwhelming realization of utter defeat was too much for many Germans. Stripped of the bayonets and bombast which had given them power, they could not face a reckoning with either their conquerors or their consciences. These found the quickest and surest escape in what Germans call selbstmord, self-murder.

In a nutshell, LIFE wrote, “Germans stopped killing others and began killing themselves.”

TIME People

How the World Learned of Hitler’s Death

May 7, 1945
Cover Credit: BORIS ARTZYBASHEFF The May 7, 1945, cover of TIME

"If he were indeed dead, the hope of most of mankind had been realized," TIME observed. "For seldom had so many millions of people hoped so implacably for the death of one man."

It wasn’t immediately clear what had happened on April 30, 1945. This much the world knew: Adolf Hitler was gone, one way or another.

The week after, TIME ran a list of his “many deaths,” the theories of his survival or defeat. Some said he had actually been killed the year before. Some said he was on his way to Japan. One captured Nazi actually got it right, telling the world that Hitler, along with his wife, had committed suicide. By that July, TIME had an account, from his one-time chauffeur, of how the bodies had been removed from the underground bunker and burned; the cause of death was a bullet to the head, the chauffeur said. However, the Russian authorities who were conducting the investigation insisted that there had still been no concrete evidence of his death, that Hitler might still be alive out there somewhere. Decades later, in 1968, a book published by a former Soviet intelligence officer attested that the Russians had found the body and done an autopsy, confirming his identity with dental records and showing that the real cause of death was cyanide.

But, back in 1945, as May began and the end of war in Europe was finally certain, as Allied troops liberated the suffering remnants of the people who had been the dictator’s targets, as his followers cast about for someone to blame — back then, in many ways, the details of what had happened didn’t really matter. It was enough to know that it was over.

In honor of that end, that week was the occasion for TIME’s iconic crossed-out Hitler cover — the first instance of a motif that has been repeated for other historic villains, like Osama bin Laden — and a meditation on his life, how he came to power and what the world would be like now that he was out of it:

…Adolf Hitler had been buried, dead or alive, in the rubble of his collapsing Third Reich. Whether or not he had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage (as reported from Stockholm), or had “fallen in his command post at the Reich chancellery” (as reported by the Hamburg radio, which said that he had been succeeded as Führer by Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz), or was a prisoner of Gestapo Chief Heinrich Himmler, Adolf Hitler as a political force had been expunged. If he were indeed dead, the hope of most of mankind had been realized. For seldom had so many millions of people hoped so implacably for the death of one man.

If they had been as malign as he in their vengefulness, they might better have hoped that he would live on yet a little while. For no death they could devise for him could be as cruel as must have been Hitler’s eleventh-hour thoughts on the completeness of his failure. His total war against non-German mankind was ending in total defeat. Around him, the Third Reich, which was to last 1,000 years, sank to embers as the flames fused over its gutted cities. The historic crash of what had been Europe’s most formidable state was audible in the shrieks of dying men and the point-blank artillery fire against its buckling buildings.

All that was certain to remain after 1,000 years was the all but incredible story of the demonic little man who rose through the grating of a gutter to make himself absolute master of most of Europe and to change the history of the world more decisively than any other 20th-century man but Lenin. Seldom in human history, never in modern times, had a man so insignificantly monstrous become the absolute head of a great nation. It was impossible to dismiss him as a mountebank, a paper hanger. The suffering and desolation that he wrought was beyond human power or fortitude to compute. The bodies of his victims were heaped across Europe from Stalingrad to London. The ruin in terms of human lives was forever incalculable. It had required a coalition of the whole world to destroy the power his political inspiration had contrived.

Read the full story, here in the TIME Vault: The Betrayer

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