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Monday, May 08, 2006

Victory In Europe, May 8, 1945

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Today is known as V-E day in the United States and Western Europe. This is traditionally considered the day in which Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allied powers, bringing the Second World War in Europe to an end. While it is true that many German forces surrendered on this day 61 years ago, the real story is more complicated. In truth, the surrender of the Third Reich took more than a week. Before the end of hostilities, many Allied planners stated that the end of war would be more chaotic and dangerous to future relations than the war itself. Truer words have never been spoken.

The handwriting was on the wall on April 25th when US and Soviet troops linked up near Torgau on the Elbe River. This cut Germany in two and sent a signal to anyone who still doubted the inevitable. Five days later, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his bunker under Berlin. Before his death, he appointed Admiral Karl Donitz, the man who had led the successful U-boat campaigns early in the war, the new Reichsprasident, or President of Germany.

The surrenders began on May 2nd when all German forces in Italy laid down their arms. The Soviet Army gained control of Berlin that day as General Helmuth Weidling surrendered the city. The 4th of the month saw German forces in almost all of Northern Europe surrender. The next day, Admiral Donitz ordered all U-boats to cease operations and return to base.

On May 6th, General Alfred Jodl traveled to Rheims and offered the surrender of all German forces fighting the West. This would allow the Germans to continue the war against the Soviets in the hope that more German soldiers and citizens would have a chance to make across the American and British lines. They were under no illusions about what would happen once the Soviets were in control. General Eisenhower threatened to break off negotiations unless the surrender was unconditional and on both fronts. Early on the morning of the 7th, Jodl signed the unconditional surrender document stating that “all forces under German control to cease active operations at 2301 hours Central European Time on May 8, 1945.

Thus, May 8th became V-E day. With the time difference between Germany and Moscow, the surrender was not recognized there until May 9th. This explains why, today, many Eastern European countries celebrate Victory Day on May 9th.

While the end of the war meant that thousands of lives would be spared, it also meant that thousands more were given a death sentence, mostly at the hands of the Soviets. Soviet refugees who were rounded up in the West and returned to the Soviet Union were almost all killed or sent to gulags in Siberia. Soviet soldiers who had been captured by the Germans early in war were also killed or imprisoned upon their return home by a paranoid Josef Stalin. Many refugees and soldiers committed suicide rather than return to the Soviet Union.

Germany was split into two nations---one overseen by Great Britain, France and the United States and one dominated by the Soviet Union. West Germany became an independent republic in 1949, although NATO troops would remain there in large numbers until the end of the Cold War and thousands still remain today. East Germany became a Soviet satellite state with all the repression that comes with such an association. The two countries were reunified in October, 1990 and formally became one sovereign nation again on March 15, 1991, nearly 46 years after the end of the war.

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