World War II would affect millions from 1939 to 1945 and millions more ever since. The United States actually got off rather easy, no attacks on the home country and the lowest amount of casualties. But the rest of the major powers couldn’t say the same. The Soviet Union lost twenty million people with huge damage, especially a ruined Stalingrad. France had to put up with four years of German occupation. Poland and other nations nearly had their Jewish populations wiped out. Japan had to endure the horror of the first atomic bomb. The biggest damage may well have been Germany itself as their cities lay in ruins and they would become a divided nation.
70 years later and it’s still stunning to look back on the horrors of this conflict and the cost it inflicted on so many. It was also a photographer’s dream as even as major cities celebrated the war’s end, far too many had to put up with the effects of its damage. That includes a ruined Berlin and various unique ways the Allies “celebrated” their victory. Some pictures are famous but others are less known yet have a power to strike you majorly. It’s a reminder of the worst conflict in human history and a shame to one nation in particular. Here are 15 powerful images from the end of World War II and why it should always be remembered.
15 The Doctor’s Last View
Until the day he died, Harry Truman defended the use of the atomic bomb. As he argued, not using the bomb would have meant an invasion of Japan and Truman said there was no way he could live with all the casualties that would cost. He knew the damage caused by the bomb but felt it was worth it in the end. It did force Japan’s surrender yet it also kick-started a dangerous new era. The Soviets would work fast to get their own bomb and that would begin the arms race that created the Cold War. To this day, the fears of a nuke going off are terrifying to so many.
The damage at the time was very harsh. The Allies were prepared for the destructive part of the bomb but working with radiation was still an unknown field. Thus, they didn’t fully understand the real damage of the bomb would be its fallout affecting thousands of survivors. This picture showcases a doctor from a local Nagasaki hospital as he looks over what was his home. Leaning on a staff to take in the horror, it’s a powerful shot. The man would pass on from radiation sickness to show the too human cost of this event.
14 Ike And The Camps
There had been reports of course but the Allies weren’t sure to believe it. It wasn’t just the idea it could be propaganda or some unknown factor. It was the simple fact that many could not accept the idea that a 20th century civilization could do something as horrific as the Holocaust. That Germany would actually attempt to wipe an entire people off the face of the Earth was just terrifying and astounding it could have happened without anyone knowing of it. When the camps were discovered, hardened soldiers wept at the sight of inmates little more than skeletons and the gas chambers on display.
Dwight D. Eisenhower was a veteran general but even he was driven to sickness when he toured a camp. He wasn’t alone as George Patton, one of the toughest men alive, vomited at the sight of the mass graves. This photo has Ike taking in the conditions and obviously affected. He issued the order that the German citizens of nearby camps would work on clean-up duty, declaring they had to know what was really going on. Indeed, this would affect Eisenhower when he later ran for President to try and ensure such an atrocity didn’t happen again.
13 A Nation’s Dishonor
To many in the U.S. military, an invasion of Japan was the nightmare scenario. They knew the Japanese troops would be dug in and the mentality would be “death before dishonor.” That’s not to mention the civilians who would either be used as canon fodder or fighting themselves. The conservative estimates were deaths on both sides in the hundreds of thousands and thus dropping the bomb saved countless lives. While his generals objected, Emperor Hirohito knew the only option was to offer surrender. This photo shows a village square after the news is announced. Dozens are on their knees, either praying or weeping while others mill about in disbelief. It was just a shocking turn for the nation, to be brought down so low and know it was over. They could have taken fighting until there was nothing left but in so many ways, surrendering to save lives was a dishonor for Japan that took a longer time to recover from than the bombs.
12 The Leftovers
Even before the war began, the Nazi war machine was building up. Hitler had been planning this for years and prepared for a massive strike within a certain time frame. He was smart to keep much of it hidden so when Germany launched its attacks, the European nations were astounded at how much machinery and technology they had. Indeed, the Nazis made a lot of advances in sciences to the point that both the U.S. and USSR were recruiting members after the war to aid in the space programs. While checking out a mine near Tarthun in 1945, an American team was stunned to stumble onto the tunnel to a massive underground factory. There, they discovered a jet of partly completed He-162 fighter jets (better known as Junkers) among various other vehicles in a huge factory. It was a jarring sight, the revelation the German still had a lot of firepower on their side but just lacked the manpower and resources to get them out and going against the Allies. It also showed how it would take years after the war to find and wipe out every bastion of the German war machine.
11 Elbe Day
War makes for strange bedfellows, as the old saying goes. The U.S. and Great Britain knew full well Joseph Stalin was a madman just as bad (if not worse) than Hitler. But they also knew they needed the Russian war machine to combat Germany and that Stalin hated Hitler more than anyone else. So while they didn’t get along too well, they put on a show of being close allies in order to defeat the Axis. The Soviets were determined to reach Berlin first, wanting revenge for the millions killed by the Germans while the U.S. wanted to get the job done.
It built up to April 25th, 1945 as Soviet and American troops met by the Elbe River. It signified they had basically cut Germany in half, the two sides having a good time meeting and posing for photos. Any hope Germany had was gone as their Allies continued their advance. While the U.S. and Soviets would become enemies soon, this showcased the alliance that brought the Axis down.
10 Overflowing Camps
What goes around comes around. It should be no surprise that the treatment of allied prisoners of war by the Nazis wasn’t that great. Most camps were horrible affairs with abuse, bad food, harsh conditions and more. Let’s just say there’s a good reason Hogan’s Heroes is cited as total fiction and utterly laughable in a way. Many German commanders seemed to enjoy using their camps as their private kingdoms to mistreat prisoners a lot. As the tide turned, some commanders were ordered to execute their prisoners rather than set them free. However, most were wise enough to know doing so would just be a death sentence and others refusing to cross that line. Thus, as more and more German units surrendered, Allied camps were soon pushed to the breaking point.
This pic showcases that, a camp yard packed shoulder to shoulder with captured troops who are clearly not having a good time. It was still up in the air what would happen to them afterward with arguments how culpable they were in the Nazi atrocities. As this pic shows, the German should have been a little more careful how they treated prisoners before they got the same.
9 The Battle Of Nations
The Battle of Nations was created in 1913 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Leipzig. That massive conflict was the alliance of nations that defeated Napoleon, forcing him to return to France. The imposing tower is nearly three hundred feet tall, mostly concrete with terrific views of the city. Whenever Hitler visited Leipzig, he used the tower for meetings and enjoyed comparing himself to those German heroes. When the Allies advanced on Berlin, Leipzig was a major stop and it was a hard-fought conflict. At one point, 150 SS fanatics dug in inside the tower and intended to hold out as long as they could. In the end, the Allies forced their surrender with heavy artillery. This amazing photo shows a U.S. soldier taking in the damage with the statues around him seeing to look down in disdain as if hating this intruder here. It was one of the last holdouts of the German army and linking it to a major historical moment for the nation just makes this pic more haunting.
8 The Captured
As the war wound down, it was obvious Germany was going to lose. Some held out hope but the Allied strength was far too much. It took a few days for the world of V-E Day to get around, especially to units in remote areas so there were still pockets of resistance here and there. But that wasn’t enough to stop the Allied advance and the Nazis realized it was done. This pic showcases a band of German soldiers in the forest forced to surrender. What’s notable is the U.S. soldier taking them in is part of the ground-breaking African-American units who were making headway in the war (the armed services wouldn’t be desegregated until 1948). The idea of the soldiers of “the Master Race” being led to captivity by a black man is just a delicious irony. If anything, it sums up the fall of Germany, their elite soldiers taken in by one of the ‘inferiors” they despised and how the world was changing.
7 Soviet Domination
To the Germans, the knowledge of the Soviets coming at them was terrifying. The USSR had never gotten over Germany’s sneak attack on them in 1941 and the brutal combat that followed. Indeed, Russia lost nearly twenty million people, soldiers and civilians, to the German war machine. That included the bloody battle of Stalingrad that lasted two years and rendered the town a near ruin. So when the tide turned on Germany, the Soviets led the way with a brutal ferocity that could outdo anything the Nazis could throw at them. That was proven when they stormed into an already bombed out Berlin, the Soviet troops lashing out at any German civilian unfortunate enough to be in their way. The atrocities under Stalin are well known as the man was possible worse than Hitler and the rest of the Allies were content to just let Russia take the brunt of the assault.
This led to this photo of a Soviet soldier raising the hammer and sickle flag over the captured Reichstag. It marked the domination of the USSR but also a precursor to how Berlin would become divided for decades and a warning of the power of the Soviet Union at its height.
6 Hiroshima Horror
When Harry Truman became Vice-President, he was mostly a political strawman with little real power and no inside knowledge of the Allied war plans. Truman was as shocked as everyone else when Franklin Roosevelt suddenly died in April of 1945, making Truman the 33rd President of the United State. Truman knew he had a big job ahead but was taken aback when he was let in on the existence of the atomic bomb and its power. With Germany defeated, the Japanese were holding out and making it clear they would not give up easily. Weighing the lives of possibly hundreds of thousands of American troops and twice as many Japanese civilians, Truman decided there was one course of action.
On August 6th, 1945, the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. In one instant, the town was nearly vaporized off the face of the Earth. Two days later, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki and the Japanese had no choice but to give up. The sight of the wiped out city is chilling and even though it saved many lives, one has to wonder if it was worth the price in terms of horrible aftermath.
5 Lowered Standards
Say what you will about Joseph Stalin (like how he was a murderous cold-blooded psychopath responsible for millions of the deaths of his own people) but the man had a flair for the dramatic. It wasn’t enough for Stalin to show off the Soviet might in combat, he had to do it constantly at home as well. It was he who instigated the “May Day” parades, the annual event where the Soviet troops marched through Moscow to proudly proclaim their might. With the annual event in 1945 coinciding with the end of the war, Stalin went all out. He had troops show off captured German vehicles in terrible shape to illustrate the Nazi defeat as well as rescued Soviet POWs. The big move was a long line of soldiers holding up Nazi standards. At a signal, they proceeded to lower them to the ground then marched forward, rubbing the flags in the dirt like brooms. The crowds loved it, signifying the end of the Nazi regime and one can’t blame Stalin for wanting to make a show of their defeat.
4 The Colorful Ruin
Color photography was just coming into being in the 1940s and still quite rare. Black and white was just cheaper and much easier as color cameras tended to be rather bulky and hard to handle. Yet it was a given that for an event as important as the war, getting some color pics was vital. Thus, we have this stunning wide show of a fully colored ruined Berlin. It’s even more gripping than in black and white, showcasing the bombed out buildings and collapsed floors of the buildings and homes. Below, one can see the gates set up by Allied soldiers as German civilians clearly try to get back to see what is remaining of their homes and belongings. The sky seems far too nice for such a scene, the mostly blue skies with some clouds showcasing a lovely day that just makes the scene sadder. It showcases how, of all the people he hurt, Hitler might have given the worst damage to his own nation.
3 The Reichstag
Opened in 1894, the Reichstag was the meeting place for the German parliament, basically the equivalent to Capitol Hill in the United States. An imposing structure, it was a popular spot for visitors to see and recognized as the central place of not just Berlin but the entire nation. In 1933, it was heavily damaged by a fire blamed on Communists. Newly installed Chancellor Adolf Hitler thus used this to suspend rights and begin rounding up “suspects.” It’s not accepted that the Nazis themselves set the fire as part of Hitler’s takeover plans.
With Hitler in control, the Parliament moved to the Kroll Opera House the few times it actually met. When Berlin was the target of massive bombings in the war, the Reichstag sustained even heavier damage. The Red Army made it a major target for its symbolism and this showcases how the building was practically read to fall in on itself, its domed ceiling a skeletal structure. It was abandoned for years with even talk of tearing it down but it was decided to restore it for historical value. It became a site for Germany’s reunification in 1990 and today is one of the most visited spots in Germany, remarkable given how badly it suffered.
2 The Gaping Gate
Built in 1791, the Brandenburg Gate has been one of the icons of Berlin. Ironically created as a symbol of peace by King Frederick William II, the Gate is well known for its bold columns, large top and the statue of a chariot pulled by four horses with a goddess on top. For decades, only the royal family was allowed to pass under the central column but by the 20th century, that had faded as it was a prime tourist spot for the country. When the Nazis rose to power, they used the Gate as a symbol of Germany’s might with massive rallies by it. During the fall of Berlin, the Gate was a major target and sustained damage from tank shells yet amazingly was able to keep standing. This showcases Soviet troops with the smoking gate in the background, still mostly intact, including its statues.
After the war, both East and West Berlin worked together to repair the Gate as a symbol of good will. It was totally restored in 2002 and today, Germany intends to remember this as the product of peace it was intended for.
1 The Rhine And The Ruins
While it begins in Switzerland, the Rhine is most closely associated with Germany (fun trivia: The German pavilion at Epcot Center in Disney World was to have a Rhine boat ride). It’s been a key icon of the nation ever since it was part of the Roman Empire and forms a border between Germany and France that’s long been a source of conflict. It was also a symbol of Germany’s pride and might and so was both a target and obstacle for an Allied invasion. Indeed, an attempt to capture key bridges in Operation Market Garden became a major Allied failure.
But the Germans couldn’t hold out forever as the Allies were able to capture some key bridges before they could be destroyed. That set the stage for brutal battles, especially by Cologne, the largest city on the Rhine. This pic showcases the devastation, the city a bombed out ruin. Several of the bridges are destroyed, a cathedral still standing but marked by damage. It took years for Cologne to recover and a startling showcase for the beauty of nature marked by man’s horrors.
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