Honored guests, it is a privilege to stand before you today. The liberation of Europe and Asia was the largest global undertaking in human history. Fought on six continents, there was nothing like it before or since. World War II involved two wars, a military one over territory and Germany’s genocidal war against the Jews. These wars claimed an average of 27,600 lives every day, or one death every three seconds. In addition to this extraordinary loss of life, the future of freedom was at stake. We often refer to those who fought as the greatest generation, but the greatness required to defend freedom spanned generations. It took the talent, courage, and determination of individuals like Dwight Eisenhower, born in the late 19th century, as well as those born several decades later in the 20th.
When the war broke out, the American Army was not prepared. It ranked 17th among world armies, just behind Romania. It had a mere 190,000 soldiers. But, by the spring of 1945 when our soldiers were confronting the horror of the camps, our Army would number 8.3 million. Four hundred thousand paid the ultimate price.
Often criticized for not doing enough to save the Jews, Franklin Roosevelt made the decision that unconditional surrender would be a central aim of the Allies, even though this went against the advice of some of his advisors. Imagine if this had not been the case? If there had been a negotiated settlement? Without unconditional surrender, there would have been no de-Nazification program in Germany, no war crimes trials, and no planting of the roots of democracy. And, for the remaining Jews, Roma, and other persecuted minorities, what kind of freedoms and protections would they have been granted? Total victory and surrender were crucial.
We often think that the camps were liberated, the war ended, and life went on. But the war’s ending marked the beginning of great challenges for our military as well as the survivors. As both mourned their dead, they had to confront a host of new problems. Although joyous to be free, the survivors faced loneliness, homelessness, and uncertainty about their future. For the soldiers, VE Day was a moment of celebration, but their task was far from over. Army medical units struggled to care for camp inmates, many of whom continued to die. At Bergen Belsen alone 13,000 died after they were liberated. Military chaplains tried to bring comfort and restore spiritual health to the survivors. The Army had to cope with 11 million displaced persons scattered across a destroyed continent. Repatriating them and caring for those, such as the Jews who had no homes to return to, would be a logistically complex and immense undertaking. Our military also began the vital task of eliminating all remnants of Nazism from German society. This included requiring local Germans to enter the liberated camps and bury the dead; attempting to assess all adults for their degree of complicity; assuming control of the media, theaters, and publications; removing Nazi symbols; and launching a massive public information campaign designed to help the population understand what was called “the moral responsibility of all Germans for Nazi crimes.”
The American military also played a leading role in the pursuit of justice. True justice is not possible in the face of such unique crimes, but the effort to achieve some sense of accountability was important for Germany’s and Europe’s future. Various military tribunals would establish new legal precedents and assemble a body of documentation that would be the primary source of evidence, and eventually scholarship, on the event we now call the Holocaust.
So, today as we pay tribute to these veterans, we recognize that American soldiers played many roles. They were fighters and liberators; they were care-givers and re-settlers; they were rabbis and reverends; they were prosecutors and jurists; they were educators and governors. And, they played one more role of enormous and lasting significance. They were witnesses.
Delbert Cooper, with the 71st Infantry Division, was involved in the liberation of Gunskirchen, a subcamp of Mauthausen. After this shattering experience, he wrote a long letter to his wife, in which he said “I never want to see a sight again as we saw when we pulled in there. 1400 starving, diseased, stinking people. Some had been in camps for as long as eight years. So help me, I cannot see how they stood it. No longer were most of them people. They were nothing but things that were once human beings.”
Perhaps the most significant part of Cooper’s letter was his conclusion when he wrote, “Please do me a favor and type up this complete letter for me. Want to show it to people when I come home.”
As our first eyewitnesses to the Holocaust, the liberating soldiers were given a huge responsibility. Winning the war was not enough. Having seen firsthand the true potential of human depravity, having learned that the unthinkable was indeed thinkable, they now had the burden of sharing this knowledge with the world.
They share this responsibility with the survivors, with whom they have forged an unshakeable bond. We owe so much to the liberators—our freedom, our way of life, our peace and prosperity. We also owe them profound gratitude for promoting understanding and protecting truth. Their courage and then their witness was where the cause of remembrance began.