A little more than a week earlier, as Soviet troops besieged Berlin, Adolf Hitler married his longtime mistress, Eva Braun, and the two of them committed suicide in a bunker beneath the German Chancellery. Hitler’s death left Germany under the leadership of Karl Dönitz, who opened negotiations for surrender in the hopes that the Western Allies would prove more benevolent conquerors than the Soviets.
Unwilling to provoke Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, however, Britain, France and the United States insisted Germany surrender to all the Allies simultaneously. As the surrender was being negotiated, Germany managed to transfer some 1.8 million troops, or 55 percent of the Army of the East, into the British-U.S. zone of control.
Alfred Jodl, Dönitz’s chief of staff, signed the unconditional surrender at the Reims headquarters of U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of all Allied forces in Europe. Upon signing, he said: “With this signature the German people and the German armed forces are, for better or worse, delivered into the victors’ hands.”
Despite the efforts of German troops to escape to Czechoslovakia, Russian troops took some 2 million German soldiers prisoner in the days surrounding the surrender. For his part, Jodl would be found guilty of war crimes at Nuremberg and hanged in October 1946.
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As news of the official surrender spread on May 7, relieved and exhausted citizens poured into the streets of London to welcome the war’s end and the defeat of Nazi Germany. Tens of thousands crowded Central London, cheering and partying until midnight, when a thunderstorm ended the celebrations for the night.
Though British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and King George VI wanted May 7 to be celebrated as V-E Day, they acquiesced to their American allies and declared an official celebration on May 8. Street parties took place across Britain, as neighbors shared food that was still being rationed, and crowds gathered in London’s Trafalgar Square to hear Churchill’s radio broadcast from 10 Downing Street piped through giant speakers.
“We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing,” Churchill said, “but let us not forget for a moment the toil and efforts that lie ahead. Japan with all her treachery and greed, remains unsubdued. We must now devote all our strength and resources to the completion of our task, both at home and abroad. Advance Britannia.”
Churchill later appeared before cheering crowds on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, along with the Princesses Elizabeth (the future Queen Elizabeth II) and Margaret, who had been allowed to wander incognito among the crowds to experience the celebrations for themselves. That night, Buckingham Palace was lit by floodlights for the first time since 1939, and a giant V of light was projected above St. Paul’s Cathedral, ending the darkness that had blanketed London, and the rest of Britain, for nearly six years.
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Reims was an appropriately historic place to witness the end of war in Europe in 1945. For centuries, the city had served as the coronation site for French kings, beginning in the Middle Ages and continuing through the coronation of Charles X in 1825. During the World War I, nearly 80 percent of Reims had been destroyed, while during the second conflict Allied war planes heavily bombed the Nazi-occupied city. For the last two years of the war, the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force was located in a red brick schoolhouse just northwest of the Reims train station, where the German surrender was signed on May 7.
With the announcement of the surrender on May 7, Paris exploded into celebration. Crowds of people dashed through the Arc de Triomphe waving the Allied flags, and British, American and French servicemen celebrated along with the crowds of civilians throughout the night. Charles de Gaulle, who led the Free French Forces from Algiers during the Nazi occupation and returned to Paris after liberation in 1944, declared: “The war has been won. This is victory. It is the victory of the United Nations and that of France. Honor to our nation, which never faltered, even under terrible trials, nor gave in to them. Honor to the United Nations, which mingled their blood, their sorrows and their hopes with ours and who today are triumphant with us.”
Soviet leader Joseph Stalin refused to accept the German surrender agreement concluded in Reims. He argued that the Soviet representative there, General Ivan Susloparov, had not been authorized to sign the agreement, given that it differed from an earlier one Stalin had approved. As a result of this confusion, fighting continued on the German-Soviet front for another day, with the Soviet Army losing 600 more soldiers in Silesia on May 8. Late that night (early morning May 9 in the Soviet Union), the Germans signed another surrender agreement in Soviet-occupied Berlin.
Rather than V-E Day, people in the Soviet Union celebrated “Victory Day” on May 9, as fireworks exploded over the Kremlin and celebrations broke out in Red Square. Some 25-30 million Soviets died during World War II, which they called the Great Patriotic War; more than two-thirds of those were civilians. Stalin issued a radio broadcast announcing the end: “The age-long struggle of the Slav nations…has ended in victory. Your courage has defeated the Nazis. The war is over.” Still, the Soviet leader himself seemed uninterested in celebrations: When his deputy Nikita Krushchev called to congratulate him, Stalin reportedly snapped “Why are you bothering me? I am working.”
On May 8, President Harry S. Truman’s 61st birthday, the flags in the United States were still at half-mast to mark the passing of Truman’s beloved predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, a few weeks earlier. Thousands crowded into New York’s Times Square with news of the surrender, and other celebrations took place in cities across the nation, but in general the reaction to V-E Day was more muted than in Europe. Truman’s message to the American people was clear: “If I could give you a single watchword for the coming months, that word is work, work, and more work. We must work to finish the war. Our victory is only half over.”
The German surrender of Europe shifted the focus of World War II to Washington, as the United States was the major world power with the greatest participation (by far) in the war against Japan. Though some in the capital celebrated V-E Day along with the rest of the nation, The New York Times reported that “Thousands of War and Navy employees [in Washington], some uniformed but mainly civilians, greeted the V-E news as soberly as their chiefs gave it to them. There was thankfulness, but no cheering. Perhaps it was in recognition that this nation had only passed the halfway mark in its global war…”