The new Masterpiece drama World on Fire opens at the very beginning of World War II, with Germany invading Poland, while the film Windermere Children is set in the aftermath of the war, as child survivors of the Holocaust try to recover from their trauma on an estate in England. This April marks 75 years since some major milestones in the end of World War II, a brief moment in Europe that marked the end of the war years and the beginning of a new postwar era in which countries and people recovered from the horrors that preceded it.
April, 1945, opened with the German army in retreat on both the eastern and the western front. Soviet forces had repulsed the last major German offensive of the war and were closing in on Germany. They had taken most of Poland and were advancing into Germany, while farther south they had captured Vienna on April 13. Allied troops in the West had crossed the Rhine River into Germany on March 22, and spent the next weeks capturing most of western Germany. On April 25, American and Soviet troops met at the Elbe River, the first meeting of both Allied offensives, only some 80 miles south of the capital city of Berlin.
Allied forces were also advancing into northern Italy and were already in southern Italy. On the same day the Soviet and American forces met in Germany, Benito Mussolini—who had been removed from power in 1943 but rescued by Nazi paratroopers and installed as the head of a German puppet state in northern Italy—fled Milan with his mistress. On his way north to Switzerland, he was recognized by Italian communist partisans and seized on April 27. The next day, in the small village of Giulino di Mezzegra on Lake Como, he and his mistress were shot, their bodies later hanged upside down in a public plaza. One of the major antagonists of World War II was dead. German forces in Italy surrendered the following day, April 29.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had been re-elected to an unprecedented fourth term as President of the United States in November 1944, had already died earlier that month. Having traveled to the Crimean Peninsula for the Yalta Conference with the other major Allied leaders, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, in February, he retired to a favorite retreat in the state of Georgia to recuperate at the end of March. On April 12, he died of a brain hemorrhage.
A third leader—the principal antagonist of the war—would die just before April ended. Soviet troops had been attacking Berlin since mid-April, and had almost won the battle for the city by the end of the month. On April 29, Adolf Hitler married his mistress Eva Braun in the bunker in which he was sheltering. The following day, April 30, he killed himself by gunshot, while Braun committed suicide by cyanide. Perhaps to avoid the ignominious fate of Mussolini, both bodies were burned.
The same day, the Soviets captured the symbolically important Reichstag in Berlin. The Berlin garrison surrendered on May 2, and total surrender in Europe became effective May 8, with one German Army group resisting in Prague until May 11. The war in Europe was over.
April, 1945 saw not only the death of three era-defining leaders—and Churchill would soon lose his leadership of the United Kingdom, resigning as Prime Minister on May 23 before a new election in July—and the final offensives of the war in Europe, it also held a glimpse of the new, postwar international order that would eventually come into place. On April 25—the same day American and Soviet troops met at the Elbe and Mussolini fled Milan—50 Allied nations gathered in San Francisco for the United Nations Conference on International Organization. By the end of June, they had created and signed the United Nations Charter, the foundational treaty of the United Nations.
The opening promise of the charter reads, “We the peoples of the United Nations determined: to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind…”