What is the Liberation Route Europe?
The Liberation Route Europe is a transnational remembrance trail, which connects the regions, sites and stories of the Liberation of Europe from Nazi occupation at the end of World War II. Liberation began on 10 July 1943 and ended on 8 May 1945, with the surrender of Nazi Germany to the Allies.
The closing stages of the war World War II saw the defeat of Nazi Germany in one of the largest and most daring operations ever witnessed. The Liberation consisted of three campaigns, one from the west, one from the south and one from the east, which converged on and defeated Nazi Germany. The collective paths they took are known today as the Liberation Route Europe.
With the 75th anniversary of the Liberation of Europe being marked in 2019–2020, Rough Guides is releasing a new, comprehensive and inspirational guidebook: Travel the Liberation Route Europe, which brings the events of the period to life through the locations that shaped it and in-depth historical coverage. A continuously growing, international remembrance trail, the Liberation Route Europe (LRE) is an organisation that connects important milestones from modern European history, forming a link between the main regions impacted in 1944–1945. Read on for a taster of this special book and to discover more about this significant historical trail.
Read more about specific countries here:
The Liberation of Europe
The Liberation of Europe was liberation from Nazi Germany – arguably the most hateful and destructive regime of the 20th century. World War II began in 1939 and ended six years later in 1945. The Liberation was the last phase of the war, when occupied Europe was freed from Nazi rule.
The army from the west was principally an alliance between the USA, Great Britain, Canada and France. The army coming from the east was that of Soviet Russia, officially the Red Army. Together, all the armies of the Liberation are known as the Allies. En route to Germany, these two armies freed the countries that Germany had occupied in 1939–40: France, the Low Countries (Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands), Poland and Czechoslovakia.
World War II was the last great global war and has long functioned as the conflict by which all other wars are judged. It is a conflict often represented as an archetypal struggle between good and evil, and while wicked and heroic acts were committed by men and women on both sides, the Liberation of western Europe was essentially a triumph of morality and justice. The campaign was driven by a desire to restore liberty to the nations of occupied Europe that had been stripped of their rights.
Between 1940 and 1943 Nazi Germany controlled much of western Europe. The Liberation was contrived by individuals who, for all their faults, agreed that the Nazi regime could not be permitted to continue. They viewed Germany’s racial policies, suppression of opposition and militarized occupation of its neighbouring states with contempt. Nazism’s expansionist aims, in particular, prompted an international crisis of titan proportions. Unable to ignore Germany’s ruthless invasions across Europe – and despite many politicians favouring a policy of appeasement towards Hitler – an international coalition of nation-states banded together to stand up to discrimination and destruction.
The Liberation is an enduring lesson in collaboration and cooperation. The purpose of the Liberation Route Europe – and the sites along it that provide living memorials to World War II and the Liberation – is to keep memory alive so that the stories, experiences and lessons of the war do not fade.
The Nazi occupation
The Nazis tyrannized, enslaved and murdered millions of people across Europe and beyond. Hitler had come to power through a combination of violence and extreme nationalism. Inspired by Italy’s fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, and with the help of Nazi Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels, Hitler established a leadership cult and by the end of 1934 he was not only Chancellor and head of his party, but also head of state and supreme commander of the armed forces – simply summarised in the title “der Führer” (the leader).
Hitler’s first significant military action occurred in 1936 when he ordered troops into the Rhineland, a buffer zone between France and Germany that had been demilitarized since the end of World War I. The feeble response of the western democracies encouraged him to go further. In 1938, the Germans annexed Austria – Hitler’s birthplace. Hitler then turned to the Sudetenland, a territory of Czechoslovakia with a large German-speaking population, occupying the rest of the country in March 1939.
It was only after the invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 that Britain and France declared war on Germany.
The world at war
When the war finally started in earnest for Britain and France, it went wrong rapidly. On 10 May 1940 the Germans began their simultaneous invasion of France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg (despite the last three being neutral). It took the Wehrmacht just six weeks to defeat the Allied armies in France. Blitzkrieg, the German military tactic based on speed, surprise and co-ordinated attacks, was no less devastating in France than it had been in Poland. The Allied forces that had advanced into Belgium – mostly British and French, with Belgian and Polish support – were forced back and surrounded near the French port of Dunkirk. Many of the stranded troops – 338,000 of them – were picked up and successfully evacuated back to Britain. Paris fell on 14 June.
Britain, along with its Commonwealth and Empire forces, was now the only substantial military opposition to Nazi Germany. They received significant help from exiled servicemen of the occupied countries. All the occupied countries had resistance networks involved in both intelligence gathering and acts of sabotage.
On 27 September 1940 Germany, Italy and Japan signed the Tripartite Pact, a defensive military alliance which also outlined their shared intention of creating a “new order” in Europe and Asia. At this point the USA was still officially neutral, but providing Britain with huge amounts of vital resources. This was arranged under the Lend-Lease scheme, whereby US goods were supplied at heavily reduced rates with payment deferred. America was effectively fighting the war by proxy.
Meanwhile, the main theatre of war for the British was North Africa, where they were up against both the Germans and the Italians for control of the Suez Canal and access to oil in the Middle East. This was a long and arduous series of campaigns that lasted nearly three years. Two battles at El Alamein were major turning-points: the first, in July 1942, saw the British and Commonwealth Eighth Army halt the Axis advance in Egypt; the second, four months later, resulted in Axis forces being pushed back into Tunisia.
By tying down German troops in Africa, the British had helped take some pressure off the Russians, who since June 1941 had been fighting a desperate defensive war against the Germans. Despite the 1939 non-aggression treaty, Hitler had launched an all-out attack on the Soviet Union with an initial force of around three million soldiers, a campaign which used up huge amounts of German resources, a situation that became even more critical when Germany declared war on the USA following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Germany was an ally of Japan, but under no obligation to go to war. By doing so, the Wehrmacht was now pitted against the combined military might of Britain, America and Russia – a formidable opposition.
Shortly after America entered the war, Churchill and US President Franklin D. Roosevelt met at a conference in Washington in January 1942. It was here that they decided to coordinate Allied military strategy by forming the Combined Chiefs of Staff (CCS), and fight the war under joint command. Roosevelt also agreed to a “Germany First” policy that would prioritize the war in Europe and the defeat of Nazism ahead of the war in the Pacific.
The road to Liberation
The Liberation only became a feasible enterprise after three-and-a-half years of war – the conditions for success came together in the spring of 1945. After much preparation, the Liberation began on 10 July 1943, with the invasion of the island of Sicily. It ended on 8 May 1945 with the capitulation of Nazi Germany to the Allies.
The realization by the Allies that German defeat was a real possibility came with the Russian victories at Stalingrad (February 1943) and Kursk (August 1943). Both sides suffered huge numbers of casualties, but whereas Red Army losses could be replaced relatively easily, the Wehrmacht was beginning to run out of manpower and equipment. Stalin had been pressing for a large-scale Anglo-American assault in western Europe, the so-called Second Front, since 1942. The Americans were strongly in favour, but Churchill and General Alan Brooke (his chief military adviser) felt that acting too soon would be potentially disastrous. Victory was fully secured in North Africa in May 1943 following Operation Torch – the Allied invasion of Vichy-controlled Algeria and Morocco, and the first time British and American troops had worked together on a large scale.
What was to happen next had already been partly decided at the Casablanca Conference of January 1943, attended by Roosevelt, Churchill and their chiefs of staff. After much discussion, it was decided that nothing less than “unconditional surrender” by the Axis powers could end the war. Pressured by the Americans, the British agreed a provisional date for the invasion of occupied France, but insisted that the Allies first turn their attention to what Churchill thought of as the “soft underbelly of Europe” – an attack on Italy, beginning with Sicily. The stage was set for the Allies to mount their campaign for the liberation of Europe.
Top image: Parade celebrating the liberation of Paris, August 1944 © Everett Historical/Shutterstock