I'm not student of history so apologize for lack of correct year but I had heard this on a documentary. It was early as the early 40s that Roosevelt, Churchill, met to form the Atlantic Charter, and decided they would accept nothing but unconditional surrender.

The documentary talked about the war at Stalingrad that Hitler or his aides were thinking about communicating to the Russians of possible surrender but realized that was impossible because of the meeting that Roosevelt had. Now I am no sympathizer nor skin and agree that hindsight that was the best option. But I'm not sure it was really fair to do so that early without knowledge of camps.

Many people argue that Churchill just hated Germany and it kind of makes sense. What are some of the facts that lead to the decision?

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    I think this question is mixing up "unconditional surrender" with the problem of "a separate peace". The Allies feared that some Allied nations would make their own peace with Germany leaving Germany free to concentrate on the remaining the Allies. Had Germany made peace with the Soviets in 1942 they would have been able to devote their entire military and economy (most of which was fighting the Soviets) against the US-UK alliance.
    – Schwern
    Jan 28, 2017 at 5:59
  • Good point. The last thing the United States wanted was two fascists taking over the world.
    – K. Gibson
    Feb 1, 2017 at 23:36
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    @K.Gibson Yeah, because Francophile Southeast Asia was such a panacea. roll eyes Feb 17, 2017 at 4:20
  • The detailed history behind the idea of unconditional surrender is discussed in this article "The Origin of the Formula: "UNCONDITIONAL SURRENDER" IN WORLD WAR II" by Michael Balfour. It is freely available through JStor. Oct 28 at 18:56

8 Answers 8


This was not an "old fashioned" war between "gentlemen." The enemies on the other side were truly evil. I won't go into gory details about e.g. Germany's "Holocaust" that followed "Kristallnacht" in 1938 or Japan's "Rape of Nanking" in 1937. The "night of broken glass" and the rampaging of China's capital were known early on, even though the "camps" didn't take their final form until 1942.

Nor was World War II being waged for the sake of (relatively minor) "border adjustments" such as Alsace-Lorraine in the 1871 Franco Prussian war. Basically the terms of the war was "them or us."

By May, 1941 Germany had conquered or subjugated most of Continental Europe, west of Russia, and wanted European Russia and the Middle East to "round off" her empire. Japan envisioned an Asian "co-Prosperity Sphere" that would include China, India, and Southeast Asia. China and the Soviet Union would be "wiped off the map" as we know it today (perhaps large, sparsely populated, land-locked Mongolian style "rump" states would be allowed to exist in the middle of the vast reaches of north and central Asia). Italy would get small pieces of France and the Balkans (e.g Albania), plus North Africa. Britain would be stripped of her African, Middle Eastern, and Indian colonies. If allowed to remain independent, she would be subjected to a process that we now know as "Finlandization."

In his 1942 State of the Union Address, President Roosevelt noted:

"... the gargantuan aspirations of Hitler and his Nazis...provided for ultimate domination, not of any one section of the world, but of the whole earth and all the oceans on it. When Hitler organized his Berlin-Rome-Tokyo alliance, all [their] plans of conquest became a single plan...

Hitler and his Italian and Japanese chessmen... would wreck the power of the British Commonwealth and Russia and China and the Netherlands—and then combine all their forces to achieve their ultimate goal, the conquest of the United States."

The Axis envisioned a world divided between a German dominated Europe, a Japanese dominated Asia, and the English speaking countries. America would be flanked on both sides by hostile groupings, each with comparable power, and initially be the "odd man out" in a three-cornered fight. Her main saving grace would be the possibility of choosing the lesser of two evils if and when the Germans and Japanese turned on each other.

The Allies could not safely stop until Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were deconstructed as such, and set upon the course of democracy enjoyed by most of the rest of the western world. That's why "unconditional surrender" was necessary.

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    One wonders what would have ultimately become of Italy in this scenario had Germany and Japan succeeded. Neither seems like it would have allowed another super power to exist for long. I expect that once the UK and Russia where sub-dued, Germany would have betrayed Italy and turned it's ambitions to the south. Jan 28, 2017 at 20:30
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    The Holocaust was not know about in the early 40s..... Jan 29, 2017 at 16:25
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    @IanRingrose: Precursors to the Holocaust, the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 and Kristallnacht of 1938 were known, and were both well outside the boundaries of "civilized" behavior. I did say that the "camps" didn't their "final form" until 1942 (and this was suspected shortly thereafter).
    – Tom Au
    Jan 29, 2017 at 16:32
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    "The enemies on the other side were truly evil." well the enemy is by definition an evil person. And we (the other side) are by definition the good guys... We could go a step further by mentioning that the good guys are always the winners. Moralistic approach on history looks like these old religious approach of the universe. Science must evolve, and history must become a science.
    – JinSnow
    Jan 29, 2017 at 22:08
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    Also, prior to 1945 no country dropped nuclear bombs on cities of its opponent, killing tens of thousands civilians, leaving survivors to cope with various cancer types and their progeny with birth defects, and contaminating the ground for years to come. So, "evilness" of war somehow seems to progress along with human history. I think such coloration of historical facts serves no purpose (i.e. calling "them" evil, referring to a "war between gentlemen", etc) in the historical context and is more appropriate for novels and children books. Jan 30, 2017 at 13:46

Churchill went over this a bit in his autobiography of the war. The idea was Roosevelt's, and it harkens back to the US Civil War and the Battle of Ft. Donaldson. General U.S. Grant used the phrase when the Confederate commander asked for his "terms".

Sir: Yours of this date proposing Armistice, and appointment of Commissioners, to settle terms of Capitulation is just received. No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.

I propose to move immediately upon your works.

Union propaganda sized upon this, turning it into something close to a modern meme (picture it getting tens of thousands of retweets with this video attached). For example, it was said that "Unconditional Surrender" was actually what Grant's first two initials stood for.

The meme had so much staying power, that Roosevelt pushed for it as the official position of the allies at the Casablanca Conference. Stalin likely didn't care as much about the US press reaction as Roosevelt, but he wasn't exactly a soft man himself, so he didn't have any objections to it. Churchill would likely have found himself outvoted, if he'd cared to press the issue. He didn't.

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    I believe that, mentioned in Churchill's biography or not, the debacle that was the 1918 Armistice and subsequent treaty negotiations preyed on everyone's mind. Unconditional surrender would avoid al that, by not allowing the defeated governments to the table until invited by the victors. Jan 28, 2017 at 3:24
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    As much as Tom Au has game, this is the more correct answer. Feb 17, 2017 at 4:22

Another argument I have heard in relation to it was in relation to the stab in the back myth.

In 1918, Germany was on the brink of collapse: the economic blockade caused great sufferings, its allies were beginning to falter, and the USA was pouring more and more men on the field. The last Spring offensives, designed to deliver a decisive victory, had failed to do so.

So they accepted an armistice, retreated from France and interned the fleet at Scapa Flow, under British control. There was a negotiated peace, but the allied conditions were pretty harsh.

Now, some people (principally in the military) did not take it well1. After all, certainly the German Army had lost territory towards the allies and had suffered severe defeats, but there was still a German Army, there had been no "decisive battle" to take it out and Germany itself was still free of enemy forces. To them, signing the armistice was an error because they though that the war could still be won or, at least, a better treaty negotiated while the Army was still in France and Belgium.

This developed into the "stab in the back myth", that the Army had been betrayed by the civilian government2. It also allowed for the more militaristic faction to claim that Germany could have won the war and that Germany should try to recover the lost territories by military action.

Now, some claim3 that an objective of unconditional surrender was avoid a repeat of that: Germany defeat had to be absolute, to eliminate any possibility of anybody defending the German policies that led to the start of the war.

1And of course, it allowed those who had been in favor of starting the war a way to blame others from its result.

2The Nazis would later use it to single out Jewish and leftists as responsible for their defeat.

3See the Wikipedia page.

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    A correction on one of your points: the senior military took it just fine. They could look at the strategic and logistic situation and tell that, with the collapse of Austria-Hungary and the loss of the Balkans, they had no hope of lasting more than a month or two. It was the junior military that could only see that no enemy had ever set foot on German soil.
    – Mark
    Jan 29, 2017 at 1:58
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    @mark not entirely true. It has recently been argued that Ludendorff promulgated the stab in the back theory not long after the defeat and influenced the development of Naziism. His armies had never been decisively defeated so they just have been betrayed by some other force. See this book.
    – matt_black
    Jan 30, 2017 at 0:26

To add to @TomAu's excellent answer, the opposite of unconditional surrender, "condidtional surrender" would have essentialy implied that some faction of the Nazi government would be allowed to carry on, after the removal of Hitler and his principal cronies.

Purely speculatively, of course, Speer or maybe Baldur von Schirach come to mind as possible post-Hitler Nazi leaders.

Of course, this was totally unacceptable to the Allies. In such a scenario the Nazi crimes would have not been repudiated and atoned for, but rather downplayed. It would have meant that all the fighting had really been in vain.

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    No, "conditional surrender" would just mean that the Axis would put conditions on their surrender. It doesn't mean that one of the conditions would have to be that the Nazis be allowed to continue in power. Jan 28, 2017 at 14:04
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    @DavidRicherby I maintain it'd have amounted to the same thing in practice. By accepting conditions from some Nazi leaders the Allies would have implicitly recognized them as legitimate negotiating partners. Nothing would be more natural then than recognizing them as some sort of interim government and there you are. Politics has its dynamics. Jan 28, 2017 at 14:12
  • (From Wikipedia) In a February 12, 1943 radio address, Roosevelt explained what he meant by unconditional surrender: "we mean no harm to the common people of the Axis nations. But we do mean to impose punishment and retribution upon their guilty, barbaric leaders". Oct 18, 2021 at 10:41

Another reason relates to WWI. The UK, France and Russia had all been badly damaged by that war, and here they were fighting another one in which Germany was the most dangerous opponent.

The idea of doing it all over again in another few decades was deeply unattractive. Winning the war totally and remaking Germany so that it would no longer be aggressive offered the possibility of averting that.

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    Hell, one of the reasons the EU was conceived and enacted was to tie France and Germany's economic prosperity together to ensure that they would settle old scores and work together.
    – SGR
    Jan 30, 2017 at 8:12

Another purpose was to make a separate peace more difficult. The British and the Russians would have been in significant danger if the other made a separate or early peace with the Germans. The US Russia or England could in theory have signed a peace with Germany and left the war and left the remaining allies in a great deal of danger. This type of peace would have to have been conditional ie the German government would have be left still standing.

While I'm not claiming that there was a huge risk calling for unconditional surrender was a way for the allies to reassure each other that they were all in it for the long term.


I always thought of Unconditional Surrender being applied to the Japanese. It never really occurred to me that it applied to the German side of the Axis, too.

One of the causes of the friction leading up to the war was that Washington and London were trying to arrange the world so it favored their nations and national interests. The Japanese (and many other nations) were not given a seat at the Big Boy Table. The Washington Naval Treaty set Japan's maximum tonnage of warship to 60% of each of the US's and the UK's. This was to guarantee that Japan could not push the US or UK out of the Pacific. Further, since the US and UK are pals, the Japanese could count on being out-gunned by a factor of 3. (The 60% value was arrived at with the help of US signal intelligence and code-breaking. We knew the lowest number the Japanese government would tolerate.)

Now we have royally cheesed-off an extremist faction of Japan's government, and this faction grows in power over time.

So, Pearl Harbor.

Japan is fighting for integrity and a Pacific empire. Circa 1940 USA doesn't give a hoot about what they think their integrity is, and Washington doesn't want them to have an empire (wisely).

Finally with that setup, on conditional surrender:

On Dec 7th, 1941 the Japanese killed 2,400 citizens, destroyed 8 battleships, several small vessels, and damaged a naval base. Let's call it a treacherous sneak attack. On the same day similar mischief happened all over the Pacific Rim, with great loss of life.

What do you think of the idea that a people we consider a 2nd rate power does this, loses WW2 at Midway (Game over, man, game over!), and then is granted surrender terms that allows them to solidify and legitimize their budding empire? The same empire we spent 20 years trying to prevent? It's not happening. If it did, it would have been a strategic victory for the Japanese.

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    Ironically, largely due to fear of the emerging communist threat from both Russia and China, the defacto power in Japan in fact was only disrupted for a few years, "unconditional surrender" notwithstanding. Things were already tending in their favor when the Korean war sealed the deal. The 'lets make this more democratic than even the US truly is' camp was overpowered by the 'bulwark against the reds' camp and the intentions to effectively dissolve the zaibatsu petered out. Mar 23, 2017 at 19:33
  • In spite of the popular picture, Japan was mainly a (bitter) friend of US and UK, and they felt for Germany only in the very last minute.
    – Greg
    Mar 26, 2017 at 8:58

One account that I read was that Churchill and Roosevelt agreed that although Germany lost WW1, the homeland had not been invaded and the German people had not suffered during the war and this is the reason Germany was so easily led into initiating another war just 20 years later. So Churchill and Roosevelt decided that the German homeland must be invaded and destroyed so that the German people would suffer the ravages of war and lose all appetite for another in the future. Thus, they agreed on requiring unconditional surrender to ensure this goal.

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    Sources would improve this answer.
    – MCW
    Mar 23, 2017 at 11:05

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