Today is the seventieth anniversary of Victory in Europe Day or VE Day. And thereon hangs a couple of seventy year long tales.
It was clear by the beginning of 1945 that the Nazis were finished and at the beginning of February Hitler’s three major adversaries, Winston Churchill of Great Britain, Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union and Franklin Roosevelt met at Yalta, in the Crimea, which has been in the news a lot for the last year or so.
The men who may have been, for good or ill, the world’s last great men, agreed that Germany would have to surrender unconditionally; that Germany, and Berlin, would be split into four parts with the fourth part going to France; and that after the war the Soviets would join something called the United Nations. It was also generally agreed that the Soviets would drive on Berlin from the east and take the German capitol while the Americans, Brits and French squeezed the German Army from the west and south.
Supreme Allied Commander, and later President, Dwight Eisenhower liked the plan. His most ferocious general, George Smith Patton, Jr., and Churchill and British commander Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery did not. Patton, Churchill and Montgomery thought we were going to have to fight the Soviets sooner or later and that sooner was better than later. Eisenhower prevailed and three Soviet Army Groups set about capturing all of Eastern Germany.
The Soviets began shelling Berlin on April 20. That day Adolf Hitler ordered the evacuation of all German Generals from the city and the conscription of more than 100,000 police, elderly war veterans and boys whose parents had been so foolish as to enroll them in the Hitler youth, into the forces defending the city. The battle hardened Russians ate the conscripts alive. By April 23, the Russians were fighting in the eastern suburbs. The city was completely surrounded on April 27. Hitler killed himself on April 30.
His successor, a man named Karl Dönitz signed the first of two German surrenders in Reims, France on May 7. Germany’s supreme military commander, Wilhelm Keitel, formally surrendered in Berlin on May 8 and the European theater of World War II was finally over.
The Japanese surrendered 118 days later. And the Hollister Riot began to simmer exactly 1 year, ten months and two days after that. Many of the participants in the unruly Hollister celebration, and in two, similar celebrations in Riverside, California in the following year, were veterans of the biggest and worst war. Police called them “outlaws” and “one percenters.” They called themselves outlaws and one percenters. The term “OMG” was coined in Riverside a year after Hollister.
Improbable though it may seem, the idea of being a motorcycle outlaw persisted, spread and became more appealing with the passage of time. Eventually the idea even spread to Russia and today the preeminent motorcycle club in what was once the Soviet Union is the Night Wolves.
They are Russian nationalists who ride American Harleys. They dress in leathers and working men’s clothes like bikers everywhere. They are most commonly compared in the world’s press to the Hells Angels. They have taken pains to describe themselves as a “law abiding” motorcycle club like the Iron Order. A couple of years ago they held a press conference to announce that they were not the Bandidos or the Mongols. They seem to be an unofficial extension of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
George W. Bush liked to pose with the leaders of Rolling Thunder every Memorial Day. Putin actually rides with the Night Wolves – albeit slowly on a Harley trike. Putin has given the Night Wolves more than a million dollars in official government grants, When the Russians invaded parts of the Ukraine the Night Wolves invaded the Ukraine, too. The Night Wolves represent an interesting and unexpected development in the evolution of the “motorcycle outlaw” meme.
The Night Wolves even suggest where the Iron Order Motorcycle Club might be headed. In Russia they call Night Wolves president Alexander “The Surgeon” Zaldostanov (photo above) “the fighter of the invisible front.”
Oh No! Bikers!
But most of the world still thinks the Night Wolves are the biker menace and that has been at the heart of an ongoing news story in Europe since April 10 when the Russian club announced it was riding to Berlin to celebrate VE Day and the sacrifices made by their grandfathers.
For weeks, packs of Night Wolves tried to escape the Russian border and were forbidden to enter the European Union. They were travelling with visas issued by Italy and under the rules of the European Union when one Union member issues you a visa they all have to let you in. But, an exception was made for the Russian club.
Poland’s Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz called the Night Wolves proposed ride through her country a “provocation.” The Soviet domination of Eastern Europe is a fresher memory than the Nazi domination of Eastern Europe and many Eastern Europeans look at the Night Wolves and see communists – although one thing the Night Wolves probably are not are communists. The Night Wolves are also closely associated with the Russian Orthodox church and their strongest supporter in Poland in the last month has been a Polish motorcycle club called the Katyn Rally. That club is most famous for organizing rides into Russia in memory of the deaths of thousands of Polish soldiers at the hands of the Soviet secret police. “It’s about biker solidarity,” Katyn Rally’s founder, a man named Wiktor Węgrzyn, said.
What most seemed to scare Europe about the Night Wolves ride to Berlin was that they were bikers. The argument used against them wasn’t that they reminded people of the Soviets but that they reminded people of the Hollister Riot.
A Slovak politician explained that they shouldn’t be allowed to ride through his country because, “We have no guarantees that during their stay in Slovakia the Russian gang will not be violating public order and the laws of Slovakia. Slovakia’s international reputation is at stake. Therefore, should Russian nationalists enter our territory on American motorcycles, our security forces will meet them at one border and accompany them to the other one.”
A German explained that the problem was that the Night Wolves look like bikers. “We do not want peace envoys in such a menacing form,” he said.
Two days ago, an administrative court in Berlin ruled that the Night Wolves were “not a threat to public order or domestic security” and Germany had to let them in.
This morning the Night Wolves that made it all the way to Berlin laid a bouquet of red carnations at the spot where Wilhelm Keitel signed Germany’s unconditional surrender seven decades ago.
There were no reported rapes, riots, drag races or burnout contests.