This May 8, we celebrate V-E Day, Victory in Europe Day, marking the Third Reich’s unconditional surrender to Allied forces. Though this day commemorates a triumph over one of the evilest regimes in history, we owe it to the people of Eastern Europe to remember that the end of Hitler’s Germany didn’t bring the end of their sorrows: The West was freed from Nazi tyranny, but the East faced another half-century of communist slavery under the Soviet boot.
Soviet leader Joseph Stalin started the war as Adolf Hitler’s willing partner in war crime. Less than two weeks before the first shots of WWII were fired, Hitler and Stalin signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact, agreeing not to declare war on each other and to carve up Poland together.
By this pact, the Soviet communists greenlit the most destructive conflict in history, not just by joining Hitler’s invasion of Poland, but by enabling his aggression to the West. Knowing that Soviet troops wouldn’t invade from the east due to the freshly-inked non-aggression treaty gave Hitler a free hand to point his armies to the Western Front, where they rapidly steamrolled Belgium, the Netherlands, and France, countries that were only liberated years later at great cost in brave men’s blood. The only reason Stalin eventually joined the war against Hitler is because he was forced to do so when the fuhrer backstabbed him, invading the Soviet Union in 1941.
During and after the war, the Soviets looted priceless works of art from Poland as the Nazis did, squeezed hundreds of millions of dollars from several Eastern European countries, and started massive campaigns of ethnic cleansing in conquered territories. Soviet “liberating” troops engaged in wide-scale rape and looting of populations who had suffered for years of Nazi war crimes. (When a Yugoslav official, whose country had lost roughly a million lives to Nazi atrocities, told Stalin about Soviet soldiers who had raped Yugoslav women, Stalin responded: “Can’t you understand if a soldier who has crossed thousands of kilometres through blood and fire and death has fun with a woman or takes some trifle?”)
To further cement Soviet control over what would become known as the Iron Curtain, Stalin imposed on Eastern Europe communist dictators whose brutality makes Attila the Hun look like Mother Theresa. Sadistic madmen whose names are little-known in the Western world, like Romania’s Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej and Albania’s Enver Hoxha, came to power riding the coattails of Soviet tanks and instituted Stalinist dictatorships.
Think of Enver Hoxha, for example, as an Eastern European Kim Jong-Un. This erratic Albanian communist determined which names parents would be allowed to give their babies, tortured people for saying truths he didn’t want to hear, shut down all churches and mosques, and locked up musicians who played Mozart. His tyranny turned Albania into “the third poorest country in the world, with the GNP of a small town and an average income of 15 USD a month” by the time of his death in 1985.
Such tyrants ruled Eastern Europe until the fall of communism in the ‘80s and ‘90s, subjecting their victim populations to terror and poverty. Growing up in a Romanian family, I heard many horror stories about my family’s life in the Romania of Dej and his successor, Nicolae Ceausescu, including my relatives having to wait in line for hours just to get a loaf of bread or, if they were lucky, some chicken feet. (Which, if you’ve never had the pleasure of “enjoying,” are not particularly filling or savory). A Romanian joke at the time went: “In American butcher shops, the sign outside says the owner’s name, and inside you can find meat. In Romanian butcher shops, the sign outside says ‘meat’ and inside you can find only the manager.”
This was the reality of life for tens of millions of people who lived in Soviet-imposed communism for decades: long waiting in bread lines, poverty, and the fear of being shot or imprisoned for complaining about your horrible life — that is, when you weren’t being shot or imprisoned on the arbitrary whim of a dictator even if you didn’t dare to speak out.
In one of his most famous war speeches, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said: “If we can stand up to [Hitler], all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.” The Western Allies freed half of Europe from Nazi domination, and Western Europe enjoyed Churchill’s beautiful vision of postwar freedom. But this freedom was denied to millions of people who were trapped behind the Iron Curtain, who, instead of “broad, sunlit uplands” faced the darkness of prison camps. This V-E Day, we must honor their memories and remember their suffering.