WWII surrender Life After the Bitter End

Germany's surrender in May 1945 brought an end to World War II and triggered celebrations across the world. But for many the battle was only just beginning.
The end of the Second World War marked the beginning of another period of hardship for the German people.

Everyone experienced the end of war on May 8, 1945 differently.

Victor Klemperer, the son of a Jewish rabbi, had escaped from a “Jewish house”, or safe house, in Dresden when the city was bombed in the final months of the war. He managed to flee to Bavaria, where he found himself when Germany surrendered three months later.

“Now that the life threat is over,” he wrote, “we have small but added sufferings in our conditions. But we are constantly grateful to have so many hours of the day enjoyable again. Bucolic hours, so to speak.”

German author Thomas Mann experienced the end of the war in Europe during his exile in California. He noted Germany’s surrender in his diary on May 7, 1945 [the document was signed on May 7, but didn't come into effect until May 8]. He wondered if Germans would reconcile themselves to the truth of what happened in their country.

“Where is the denial and condemnation of National Socialism?” he asked. “Where is the declaration to want to return to truth, justice and humanity?”

For many people, the changes in May 1945 were fundamental and profound, and not comparable to anything that had happened before.

Decades earlier, the harsh terms of the 1919 Versailles peace treaty, which ended World War I, did not disasssemble the German Reich, or nation state, created in 1871. Germany saw itself as morally stigmatized but did not completely give up its great claims to power in Europe.

In May 1945, the situation was different. At that moment, there no longer was any German state, no sovereignty in a traditional sense. The history of the German nation state – and its excessive buildup under the Third Reich – was over.

In its place, allied forces occupied and divided the country. In this total end, the character of total war since 1939 was removed. So was the experience of killing in the name of ideological convictions, the blurring of borders between soldiers and civilians, of military fronts and home fronts in the aerial war, and the ultimate growth of nationalistic violence, particularly in the last weeks and months of the war.

Quelle: dpa
General Alfred Jodl signs Germany's unconditional surrender on May 7, 1945 in Reims, France.
(Source: dpa)

 

For many people, the changes in May 1945 were fundamental and profound, and not comparable to anything that had happened before. They had gone from life under the National Socialist regime to subjects of the allied occupation.

Of course, it also made a big difference whether one experienced the end of war as a former prisoner, forced laborer or concentration camp inmate. Or as a refugee or displaced person. Or whether one lived in a bombed out city or lived in the countryside.

Still, May 8, 1945 reminds us of another sign of modern wars: It is much easier to describe how they start than how they end.

The double end of the war foreshadowed the competition between the two allies, which would eventually grow into the Cold War.

For Italy, the end of the war began with allies landing in Sicily in 1943 and lasted until April 25, 1945, which is still celebrated as the day of liberation there.

After the signing of the surrender treaty in Reims the day before, May 8, 1945 marked the end of the war in the West. Very late that evening, past midnight Moscow time, Joseph Stalin's representative in bombed-out Berlin signed for the Soviet Union – which is why Russia still celebrates the end of the war on May 9.

The double end of the war foreshadowed the competition between the two allies, which would eventually grow into the Cold War.

In Asia, World War II didn’t actually end until September 2, 1945, when Japanese officials surrendered aboard the battleship USS Missouri.

Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel signs a second German surrender for the Soviets in Berlin on May 8, 1945.

 

As World War I taught us, the formal end of war does not always mean an end to violent strife – whether civil conflicts in Italy and the Balkans, or between communists and nationalists in many areas of eastern and southern Europe.

In Asia, the end of World War II marked a transition to bloody conflicts and decolonization, when European colonial rulers from Britain, France or the Netherlands retreated and then learned how much their credibility had suffered during the war.

So May 8, 1945 has many voices and contradictions. In retrospect, it was not a radical break in one single moment, but more of a gradual process between 1943 and 1949 – a post-war transition where chaos, lack of clarity and violence did not end in many places.

 

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