Will VE Day ever be celebrated in Germany?
Victory in Europe Day (or VE Day) celebrates the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany during the Second World War, and its formal acceptance by the Allied powers. VE Day is celebrated by countries all over the world and commemorates the Allies’ victory and the liberation of Europe from the Nazis. VE Day in most of Europe is celebrated annually on May 8, however, due to different time zones across Europe and Russia, it is celebrated in some former Soviet and Yugoslav countries on May 9.
Since VE Day celebrates Germany’s surrender and ultimate defeat in World War II, it is widely assumed that the event in Germany is a solemn affair of remembrance and shame and, for a long time, this was in fact the case. However, more recently, the day has come to be viewed rather differently; as a celebration of liberation and the rebirth of democracy.
The Allied victory in Europe
The road towards Germany’s unconditional surrender in World War II started at the beginning of 1945, when the final Nazi offensive on the Western Front was repelled. Germany was being approached by the Soviet forces in the east, who were liberating German-occupied towns and concentration camps, and by British and American forces in the west. Both forces had forced their way into Germany by late April, with the western force pushing into Northern Italy on their way to Nazi-occupied Austria.
As the British and American forces marched on Milan, Italian partisans captured a convoy near Dongo, a town in the north of Italy on the north-western shore of Lake Como. Several Italian fascist leaders were travelling with this convoy, including the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. He was captured and, a day later on April 28, was executed. His body was taken to Milan and displayed at the Piazzale Loreto, in front of cheering crowds.
By this time, Soviet forces had moved into Berlin and British and American forces had begun to capture other parts of Germany, scoring decisive victories in the Battle of Hamburg and the Battle of Nuremberg. With Berlin lost to the Soviet troops and the Americans cutting off his escape routes, German dictator Adolf Hitler committed suicide in the Führerbunker, alongside his wife Eva Braun, so to escape the same fate that befell Mussolini.
In his last will and testament, Adolf Hitler left two men to be his successors. Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz was named Staatsoberhaupt (Head of State) and bestowed the title of Reichspräsident (President) and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. Joseph Goebbels was named the Head of Government and given the title of Reichskanzler (Chancellor), although he committed suicide with his wife just one day later.
Dönitz continued in his role as the German President, making him the sole representative of the German Reich after the death of Goebbels. He negotiated a series of surrenders in northern and southern Germany and focused on trying to get German forces to surrender to the Western Allies, fearing bitter reprisals from the Soviet forces.
He then sent his representative, Admiral Hans-Georg von Friedeburg, to US General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s headquarters to negotiate a surrender. He was joined by the German Colonel-General Alfred Jodl, who signed the instrument of unconditional surrender on May 7. Included in the document was the line: "All forces under German control to cease active operations at 23:01 hours Central European Time on 8 May 1945."
The decision to surrender was made public on May 8, and a definitive version of the German Instrument of Surrender was signed in the evening. Due to the clause mentioned above, VE Day is celebrated on May 8, throughout most of Europe. However, it is observed on May 9 in Russia and other Eastern European countries, due to them being an hour ahead of Central European Time.
How is VE Day celebrated around the world?
The end of the Second World War is celebrated in most European countries in some way or another. For most countries, the end of the war symbolises the end of fascism in Europe, the importance of democracy, peace in Europe and, for many, liberation from the Nazi regime. It is also a day of remembrance, with many countries holding ceremonies to pay their respects to those who lost their lives in World War II. VE Day is celebrated on May 8 in the UK, Poland and France (where it is a national and public holiday).
In Europe and North America, VE Day is often celebrated with parades, parties and ceremonies dedicated to the countries’ armed forces. Heads of state in different countries also often give a speech on VE Day. Sometimes there are even national displays of respect, like observing a period of silence on the day. This is largely reminiscent of the first VE Day in London, when large crowds gathered outside Buckingham Palace and Westminster to hear speeches from Prime Minister Winston Churchill and King George VI. The future Queen Elizabeth would appear beside her father during the event and famously joined in the celebrations.
In the former Soviet and Eastern European countries, Victory Day is celebrated on May 9. Today, in Russia, Victory Day is a large celebration, complete with military parades, public gatherings and a “Victory speech” by the Russian president. Several other countries also celebrate Victory Day on May 9, including Israel, Romania, Serbia and Ukraine.
How is VE Day observed in Germany?
In the years following the Second World War VE Day was a day of sombre reflection for Germany, especially in the west. In East Germany, May 8 was celebrated as Tag der Befreiung or Day of Liberation under the government of Walter Ulbricht, an event that continued annually until the reunification of Germany in 1990. However, in both cases, the day is only celebrated amongst a select few, with most Germans unaware of the day's importance.
The President of West Germany, Richard von Weizsäcker, in an attempt to distance the country from its past, stated in 1985 that VE Day was a cause for celebration, as it marked the liberation of Germany, not its defeat. Since then, the idea that VE Day should be celebrated has taken hold in Germany, with many people believing the country should celebrate its freedom from the controlling grip of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party. Despite this, the day has remained relatively indeterminate.
VE Day in Germany today
VE Day is thus seen as the rebirth of democracy amongst Germans. However, the holiday is still relatively obscure, and many people in Germany are still not aware of its significance. In 2020, the holiday was brought to widespread public attention, maybe for the first time ever, when a one-off holiday was announced on May 8 in Berlin, to celebrate 75 years since the fall of Nazism in Germany and the end of the Second World War. However, the holiday was not held outside the German capital.
Celebrations were planned throughout Berlin, including a street party, an open-air exhibition and several events being hosted in museums. However, the coronavirus pandemic led to many of these events being cancelled, although Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier took part in a memorial service to remember those who had lost their lives in the war.
It remains to be seen whether VE Day will ever be acknowledged throughout Germany. In 2020, Auschwitz survivor Esther Bejarano wrote an open letter to Chancellor Merkel and President Steinmeier asking for VE Day to be observed as a national holiday in Germany. “[It is] a day on which the liberation of mankind from the Nazi regime can be celebrated,” she wrote. A subsequent petition attracted more than 100.000 signatures but there is still major opposition to the move, particularly from the AfD, who argue that May 8 is a “day of defeat”.