On This Day: Victory Day in Europe

On 8th of May 1945, Germany officially ceased military operations, ending the European conflict of World War II and prompting massive celebrations in Allied countries. By 1945, Germany was on the retreat and Allied forces were closing in on Berlin from the east and west. German capitulation was imminent. On April 30, Adolf Hitler committed suicide, leaving Karl Doenitz in power.

Doenitz immediately sought to negotiate a conditional surrender with the western Allied forces, but the Allies would accept nothing less than unconditional surrender to all Allied countries, including the Soviet Union.
On 7th of May 1945, the German High Command, in the person of General Alfred Jodl, signs the unconditional surrender of all German forces, East and West, at Reims, in northwestern France.

At first, General Jodl hoped to limit the terms of German surrender to only those forces still fighting the Western Allies. But General Dwight Eisenhower demanded complete surrender of all German forces, those fighting in the East as well as in the West. If this demand was not met, Eisenhower was prepared to seal off the Western front, preventing Germans from fleeing to the West in order to surrender, thereby leaving them in the hands of the enveloping Soviet forces. Jodl radioed Grand Admiral Karl Donitz, Hitler’s successor, with the terms. Donitz ordered him to sign. So with Russian General Ivan Susloparov and French General Francois Sevez signing as witnesses, and General Walter Bedell Smith, Ike’s chief of staff, signing for the Allied Expeditionary Force, Germany was-at least on paper-defeated. Fighting would still go on in the East for almost another day. But the war in the West was over.

Since General Susloparov did not have explicit permission from Soviet Premier Stalin to sign the surrender papers, even as a witness, he was quickly hustled back East-into the hands of the Soviet secret police, never to be heard from again. Alfred Jodl, who was wounded in the assassination attempt on Hitler on July 20, 1944, would be found guilty of war crimes (which included the shooting of hostages) at Nuremberg and hanged on October 16, 1946-then granted a pardon, posthumously, in 1953, after a German appeals court found Jodl not guilty of breaking international law.

Late the following day, a second unconditional surrender was signed at a formal ceremony in Berlin by Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel. Under the terms of the surrender, all German military operations were to cease at 11:01 p.m. on May 8.

The background

The Battle for Berlin was the decisive battle of the War in Europe, ending with the fall of the Third Reich. Stalin, hoping to seize Berlin before the Western Allies could, launched a massive artillery attack on the city starting April 15.
On April 30, with his bunker under heavy fire and his capital city in ruins, Hitler committed suicide. On the night of May 2, German troops surrendered to the Soviets.
Since the Rheims ceremony was arranged by the Western Allies without agreement with the Soviet Command, shortly after the surrender had been signed the latter announced that the Soviet representative in Rheims, General Susloparov, had no authority to sign this document.In addition, it had been found that the document signed in Rheims was different from the draft prepared earlier, which had been approved by the Big Three. Importantly, a part of Wehrmacht refused to lay down their arms and continued to fight in Czechoslovakia; it has been stated in a German radio broadcast that the Germans made peace with the Western Allies, but not with the Soviets.
The Soviets argued that the surrender should be arranged as a unique, singular, historical event. They also believed that it should not be held on liberated territory, that had been victimized by German aggression, but at the seat of Government from where that German aggression sprang from: Berlin. The Soviet side insisted that the act of surrender signed in Rheims should be considered “a preliminary protocol of surrender”, so the Allies agreed that another surrender ceremony should take place in Berlin. A second Act of Military Surrender was signed shortly before midnight on 8 May at the seat of the Soviet Military Administration in Berlin-Karlshorst, now the location of the German-Russian Museum Berlin-Karlshorst.

On May 8, known as Victory in Europe Day, or V-E Day, spontaneous celebrations erupted all over the Allied countries, including now-famous victory parties in New York’s Times Square and London’s Trafalgar Square.

In London, “American sailors and laughing girls formed a conga line down the middle of Piccadilly and cockneys linked arms in the Lambeth Walk,” wrote New Yorker columnist Mollie Panter-Downes. “It was a day and night of no fixed plan and no organized merriment. Each group danced its own dance, sang its own song, and went its own way as the spirit moved it.”

Canada’s celebrations included an alcohol-fueled riot in Halifax, while the West Coast remained cautious of the Japanese threat still present.

But for many, V-E Day elicited as much mourning as celebration. The BBC writes that the feelings of one British sailor were typical: “On hearing the news he felt immediate exhilaration and marked the occasion with some ‘liberated’ champagne. But then ‘reaction set in’ as he thought of his friends who had been killed, and he no longer felt like celebrating.