Victory in Europe: a symposium

The Second World War was the most devastating conflict in human history. At least 60 million lives were lost in the war, the equivalent of one person dying every three seconds for six years. Among the recorded dead are some 40,000 Australians.

The war began in Europe in September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. When France fell in June 1940 the British Commonwealth stood alone against Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s fascist Italy. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously warned that the whole world was poised to “sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age”.

Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 and Japan, already fighting in China since the early 1930s, attacked the United States in December. The conflict became a truly global one, fought across Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific, as well as in the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans.

By 1945 Mussolini was dead, much of Western Europe had been liberated from Nazi occupation, and British and American forces were preparing to cross the Rhine into Germany. In the east the Red Army was poised to take Berlin. Hitler committed suicide in his bunker, and in May Germany finally surrendered. Fighting in the Pacific would continue until August, but on 8 May the Western Allies, including Australia, celebrated their defeat over fascism with Victory in Europe Day.

This symposium will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe. Join Associate Professor Peter Monteath (POW: Australian prisoners of war in Hitler’s Reich), Professor Mark Edele (Soviet veterans of the Second World War), and author Peter Rees (Lancaster men: the Aussie heroes of Bomber Command) as they discuss some of the key aspects that led to the defeat of Nazi Germany.


11.20 am, Friday 8 May, BAE Systems Theatre - free


Director of the Australian War Memorial Dr Brendan Nelson

Nazi Germany and the end of the war in Europe

Associate Professor Peter Monteath (Flinders University, Adelaide)

The Second World War is unimaginable without Hitler and Nazi Germany. It was Hitler’s Germany that drove Europe to war in September 1939, just a generation after Germany had suffered a catastrophic defeat in “the war to end all wars”. How was it, then, that within such a short time Germany had both the capacity and the will to wage a war that was longer and bloodier than the Great War? What did Hitler and his regime hope to achieve, and why, finally, did their political and military ambitions lead to their utter destruction in May 1945?

Associate Professor Peter Monteath teaches history in the School of International Studies at Flinders University, Adelaide. A graduate of the University of Queensland (BA Hons), the University of Siegen in the Federal Republic of Germany (MA), and Griffith University (PhD), he is also a Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. His research interests have ranged across several areas of European and Australian history, but with a particular emphasis on the political and cultural dimensions of war. His most recent books are POW: Australian prisoners of war in Hitler’s Reich (PanMacmillan, 2011) and Interned: Torrens Island 1914–1915 (Wakefield, 2014).

Why and how the Soviet Union won the Second World War: history and memory

Professor Mark Edele (University of Western Australia, Perth)

In Europe, the Second World War was won by the Red Army. It was at the German Eastern Front where most German soldiers were killed or captured and most of the war machinery destroyed. It was here that the Wehrmacht’s back was broken. Soviet and now Russian historians (and politicians) are rightly proud of this achievement. In the commemoration of this victory, however, the darker sides of the Soviets’ Second World War are increasingly lost. Meanwhile, elsewhere in Europe, a very different war is remembered: a war where Stalin’s regime was perpetrator rather than victim.

Professor Mark Edele is Professor of History at the University of Western Australia and the Australian Research Council Future Fellow (2015–19). He was trained as a historian at the universities of Erlangen, Tübingen, and Chicago. He is the author of Soviet veterans of the Second World War (OUP, 2008) and Stalinist society (OUP, 2011), as well as one of the editors of Totalitarian dictatorship: new histories (Routledge, 2013). He has also contributed to many journals, including War and peace, barbarism and civilization in modern Europe and its empires (special issue of the Australian Journal of Politics and History, 2012), Displaced persons: from the Soviet Union to Australia in the wake of the Second World War (a forthcoming special issue of History Australia, 2015), and The limits of demobilisation: global perspectives on the aftermath of the Great War (special issue of the Journal of Contemporary History, 2015). He has worked on various aspects of the German–Soviet war and is one of the contributors to the forthcoming Cambridge history of the Second World War (to be launched on VE Day 2015). His essays have appeared in Slavic Review, Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, International Labor and Working Class History, Russian History/Histoire Russe, REGION: Regional Studies of Russia, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia, Acta Slavica Iaponica, Antropologicheskii Forum, the Australian Journal of Politics and History, Comparativ. Zeitschrift für Globalgeschichte und vergleichende Gesellschaftsforschung, and Kritika. His latest essay, “Take (no) prisoners: the Red Army and German POWs, 1941–1943”, will be published in 2016 in the Journal of Modern History. He is currently working on two books: one a study of Soviet deserters and the other a history of displacement from the Soviet Union to Australia.

The Blue Orchids and Bomber Command’s other battle

Peter Rees (author, Canberra)

More than 125,000 airmen flew with Bomber Command against Nazi Germany in the Second World War, and around 10,000 of these came from Australia. Because of their uniforms they were known as “Blue Orchids”. In total, 55,573 men from Bomber Command – more than 40 per cent – were killed, including 3,486 Australians. In the dark days of 1940 British Prime Minister Winston Churchill saw Bomber Command as the best way to continue the struggle against the enemy, but in the immediate aftermath of victory in 1945 the deeds of Bomber Command were underplayed in light of the awful destructiveness that area bombing had wrought. Many RAAF Bomber Command veterans have long felt that their contribution to winning the war was not given its due weight as a result. This presentation will examine these issues.

Peter Rees is a journalist and author who has worked as federal political correspondent for The Sun News-Pictorial, The West Australian, and The Sunday Telegraph. He has published various books for Allen & Unwin, including The boy from Boree Creek: the Tim Fischer story (2001), The other Anzacs: the extraordinary story of our World War I nurses (2008 and 2009, republished in 2014 as Anzac girls), Desert boys: Australians at war from Beersheba to Tobruk and El Alamein (2011 and 2012), Lancaster men: the Aussie heroes of Bomber Command (2013), and Bearing witness: the remarkable life of Charles Bean, Australia’s greatest war correspondent (2015).

Cologne, Germany c.1945, March. German soldiers surrendering outside Cologne Cathedral to the first American patrol. Civilians who were sheltering beneath the Cathedral gave themselves up. Cologne had been the target of severe air attacks by both the RAF and US Army Air Force. SUK13955