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Germany 1945: surrender or liberation?

There’s hardly any controversy about Germany’s unconditional surrender in May 1945 anymore, but that’s mostly due to a very selective view of history.

Colonel General Alfred Jodl, Chief of the Operations Staff of the German Armed Forces High Command and representative of Admiral Karl Dönitz, Germany’s head of state after Adolf Hitler’s suicide on April 30th, on May 7th 1945 signed the German instrument of unconditional surrender in the French city of Reims. Due to the fact that the definitive text was signed the following day in Karlshorst, a locality part of the Lichtenberg district in Berlin, by General Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel and the Western Allied Expeditionary Force, together with the Supreme High Command of the Soviet Red Army, in most countries May 8th, 1945 is celebrated as the end of World War II in Europe.

In May 1985, then German Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker, a veteran soldier who had deserted at the end of the war, first used the term “Day of Liberation” in a commemorative speech on the occasion. That was a new perspective for most Germans. Although heavily Americanized, until then in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) only lefties and/or victims of the National Socialists would share that view. On the other hand, in the territory that became East Germany after 1945, that concept was part of the communist state doctrine until the Soviet puppet regime called German Democratic Republic (GDR) disappeared in 1990.

Another controversial expression then used by von Weizsäcker was “forced wanderings”, referring to the expulsion of up to 14 million Germans from their ancestral homelands east of the new German-Polish border, but also historical areas of settlement in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Yugoslavia, which up to two million of them didn’t survive. The loss of almost 115,000 square kilometers of its territory was surely a disaster for Germany proper. The almost complete annihilation or at least a significant reduction in numbers of those ethnic German minorities also represented a big cultural bloodletting.

Also mostly forgotten are the wanton destruction of towns after these had surrendered, the dismantling of whole industrial plants; the confiscation of gold reserves, foreign assets, patents and trademarks; the systematic kidnapping of scientists; the looting of private art collections and public museums; arbitrary convictions which often resulted in death sentences; the often inhumane treatment and random executions of innocent German prisoners of war and those who had fought by their side; the mass rape of women of all ages; methodic reeducation and the malicious fabrication of a supposed collective guilt; astronomic reparations which exceeded those after World War I; and the total loss of sovereignty for years to come.

In contemporary Germany, coming to terms in a one-side manner with the horrendous crimes committed by the National Socialists and their alien accomplices has led to an alienation from a great past, marked by poets and thinkers, not by “judges and executioners”. This a play on words coming from the Left, that rimes in German. The result is a neurotic coping with the past in general and its military tradition in particular.

The term “the liberation of Europe in May 1945” is ambiguous at least. All those living on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain were in fact not liberated, and had to endure decades of destructive Communism. After the common German enemy had been defeated, the anti-Hitler coalition quickly fell apart and the Cold War started which last for 45 years.

At a personal level, for my family it was hardly a liberation. A great uncle gave his life for his daughters, preventing them from being raped by Red Army soldiers. One of my grandfathers was spared from execution after a young Pole interceded for him, telling a Soviet officer that he had been treated very well as foreign worker. The other grandpa spent two years in an old concentration camp which the Russians kept operating, after being accused of being a Nazi for guarding an old bridge in the last stage of the war. He never fully recovered from the internment. His farm near Berlin was left in ruins after years of decay, and part of the land is still occupied by profiteers of what was called “really existing socialism”. My mother’s cousin left West Prussia in 1945 with just a suitcase and had to start a new life in Brandenburg.

Helmut Kohl (1930-2017), one of the fathers of the European Union and definitely not a nationalist, said about D-day in 1984 that there was “no reason for a German chancellor to celebrate” someone else’s victory, in which tens of thousands of Germans were killed. In this sense, considering the above-mentioned reasons, for Germans the 8th of May is indeed a day of special remembrance, but not of joy. They should feel gratitude for 75 years of peace, though keeping in mind that it came at a high price, and not taking anything for granted. Especially, as those who nowadays only accept one version of the past and regard themselves to be the sole legitimate guardians of historical truth, show more and more authoritarian features.

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