Posted by Torben
The officers' mess at the former military engineering school in Berlin-Karlshorst taken over by the Soviet Military Administration as its headquarters at the end of World War II. It was here that the second unconditional surrender was signed. Now the German-Russian Museum. Photo by Anagoria, distributed under CC BY-SA 3.0 license.
This month marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. But on what date did the war end exactly? Was it May 8th 1945 – V-E Day in the United States? Or was it May 9th – Victory Day in Russia?
In Germany, the end of the war is commemorated on May 8th. In fact, as a one-off for 2020, Berlin declared May 8th a holiday, in a way marking the culmination of a remarkable shift in the German collective memory. Over the course of more than seven decades, the country's capitulation has been transformed in the public imagination from “the German catastrophe” to a liberation from tyranny worthy of (sober) celebration: Germany's unconditional surrender put an end to a war in which tens of millions had lost their lives. Many were murdered by Germans in the name of the Nazi German regime, among them six million Jews, hundreds of thousands of Sinti and Roma, millions of Soviet prisoners of war, hundreds of thousands of people with mental disabilities, and thousands of homosexuals.
Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin and the Soviet flag (likely) flew from the Reichstag on April 30th 1945, but even then, the war was not quite over. Hitler's designated successor as president of the Reich, Admiral Karl Dönitz, attempted to form some semblance of a government based out of the city of Flensburg on the Danish border. Dönitz tried negotiating with the Allies, hoping to bring German troops back from the east to prevent them from being taken prisoner by the Soviets. But by by the evening of May 6th 1945, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, Dwight D. Eisenhower, had had enough. He insisted that an unconditional surrender be signed immediately, otherwise Germany would face further bombing raids and troops fleeing the Soviets would not be permitted behind American lines. The surrender was to go into effect on May 8th at 11:01pm Central European Time. That would give the Germans just two days to try to get their troops back, but it was better than nothing.
In 1944, the main Allies had agreed on a draft for the “Act of Military Surrender”: the surrender was to be unconditional and all power ceded to “Allied Representatives.” The US, UK, and USSR were also of one mind that German military officers should be the signatories – thereby pre-empting the creation of another “stab in the back” legend as after World War I, when senior military officials like Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg had succeeded in convincing many Germans of the lie that their military had been undefeated on the battlefield and instead “stabbed in the back” at home. And so it was the Chief of the Operations Staff of the German Armed Forces High Command, General Alfred Jodl, who, summoned to Eisenhower's headquarters in the French cathedral city of Reims, signed the surrender ending the war at 2:41am local time on May 7th. American General Walter Bedell Smith and Soviet General Ivan Susloparov co-signed (and French General François Sevez witnessed) the document.
There was only one problem. Joseph Stalin wasn't happy.
The Soviet dictator had not given General Susloparov permission to sign the surrender. Also, the text didn't conform to the draft agreed by the Allies in 1944. These circumstances gave Stalin the excuse he needed to rectify the real deficiency of the Reims signing in his eyes: he hadn't choreographed it. He wanted representatives of all three branches of the German military, as well as Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov, to sign the surrender in Soviet-occupied Berlin, emphasizing the outsize contribution of the Red Army to the Allied victory over the Third Reich.
This second signing ceremony was to take place at the headquarters of the Soviet Military Administration, located in the neighborhood of Karlshorst in southeastern Berlin. The German delegation was flown into Berlin from Flensburg on the morning of May 8th, but they were not taken to Karlshorst until late in the evening. There had been some delays. First, the Allied delegation had to make its way to Berlin, then they had to figure out who the signatories would be. Eisenhower (who could not be seen to have been summoned by Zhukov, his nominal subordinate) had sent his British deputy, Air Marshal Arthur Tedder, to sign in his place along with Zhukov. But General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, a de Gaulle ally, insisted on signing on behalf of the French as well. The Soviets had not anticipated a French presence, and a French flag had to be improvised. More importantly, if only Zhukov, Tedder, and Tassigny signed, the Americans would be the only major Allied power to be excluded. The Soviets, however, insisted on limiting the number of Allied signatures to three. The compromise that was reached had Zhukov and Tedder sign on behalf of the Allies, and Tassigny and American General Carl Spaatz sign as witnesses.
Minor alterations to the text – each revision had to be translated and each translation vetted – led to further delays. Consequently, the German delegation, comprising Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel representing the German Army, Admiral Hans-Georg von Friedeburg of the Navy, and Luftwaffe General Hans-Jürgen Stumpff, only signed the surrender – after some dithering on the part of Keitel – sometime between midnight and 1am on May 9th local Berlin time. The document was backdated May 8th, and, in accordance with the Reims document (which was binding), the German surrender went into effect (retroactively) at 11:01pm on May 8th.
Because of the one hour time difference, the surrender officially went into effect at just after midnight, May 9th Moscow time. More importantly, it was only on May 9th that the unconditional surrender was announced to the Soviet public – their Victory Day. This was not the case in the US or the UK. The signing ceremony at Reims had been packed with journalists and cameras; witnesses compare the experience to being on a movie set. But after the Soviets expressed their displeasure with the Reims document, Eisenhower issued a press embargo to allow time for the Soviets to conduct their ceremony in Berlin. Journalists were not permitted to file their reports until 3pm on May 8th, when Washington, London, Paris, and Moscow would simultaneously announce the surrender. The news leaked, however (36 hours being a long time to wait to report the end of World War II). Later in the day on May 7th, Associated Press reporter Edward Kennedy, believing the news was going to break after the capitulation had been mentioned on German radio, managed to get news of the surrender to London and from there to New York. It was 3:30pm in Paris, 9:30am in New York.
That gave the newspapers plenty of time. The next day, May 8th, the New York Times front page headline read, “THE WAR IN EUROPE IS ENDED! SURRENDER IS UNCONDITIONAL; V-E WILL BE PROCLAIMED TODAY; OUR TROOPS IN OKINAWA GAIN.” With Americans and Brits celebrating on the streets of New York and London, both President Truman and Prime Minister Winston Churchill decided that they could not wait until the ceremony in Berlin was completed before declaring victory. At 3pm, Churchill intoned, “My dear friends, this is your hour.” At about the same time – 9am in Washington D.C. – Truman, using similar language, declared, “This is a solemn but glorious hour.” May 8th was V-E Day.
But what was that “solemn but glorious hour” precisely? As we've established, Germany's unconditional surrender went into effect on May 8th at 11:01pm Berlin time. Since Germany had (re-)introduced daylight savings time (DST) in 1940, Berlin was two hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT +2). It wouldn't be for long, by the way. On May 24th 1945, the Soviets, who remained the sole occupiers of the city until the summer, (temporarily) put Berlin on Moscow time (GMT +3). Time became a symbol of victory.
It was a tool the Nazi German occupiers had wielded in France. In 1911, that country had adopted Greenwich Mean Time (GMT +0), implementing DST in the summers. When Germany invaded in 1940, Berlin time was introduced in the German-occupied north of France (GMT +2), while the time in Vichy France remained unchanged (GMT +1). In order to accommodate railway schedules, Vichy France put its clocks one hour ahead in the spring of 1941. Now all of Metropolitan France was on German time and it remained so even after its liberation in 1944 (and until today).
France had decided to keep its clocks aligned with those of its British ally. In 1940, the UK had set its clocks ahead by one hour (daylight savings; GMT +1) and it did not turn them back in the fall. Instead, from 1941 the UK set its clocks ahead one hour further in the summers (GMT +2) to what became known as “British double summertime.” The object was to save fuel and to preserve the daylight for workers making their way home before blackout. It meant that London, Paris, and Berlin were all on the same time in the spring of 1945.
Moscow was on summer time all year. In 1930, the Soviet Union had introduced so-called “decree time.” Clocks were permanently set one hour ahead of standard time (Greenwich Mean Time +3). The tongue-in-cheek term “decree time” implies the skepticism of a population still attuned to a diurnal rhythm: while the Soviet regime could “decree” what time it was, it could not actually affect when the sun reached its zenith.
Farmers in the United States were similarly skeptical of daylight savings time. Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a bill was introduced in the House of Representatives calling for year-round DST for the duration of the war. It was great for industry, but farmers were not amused: “I am distressed at the increasing degree of ignorance on the part of our urban population as to how their food is produced,” declared a New York congressman representing a rural district. Nonetheless, the bill passed overwhelmingly, putting Washington D.C. six hours behind London, Paris, and Berlin (GMT -4). When the law expired, the United States reverted to a chaotic system whereby towns and cities might choose to go on DST while the surrounding countryside did not.
The “Act of Military Surrender” went into effect at 5:01pm on May 8th in Washington D.C.; 11:01pm on May 8th in London, Paris, and Berlin; and at 12:01am on May 9th in Moscow. To answer the question posed at the outset: the war ended on both May 8th and May 9th. That, however, is the conclusion of a pedant. It is more honest to acknowledge that the war ended on neither date. Although Germany's unconditional surrender was largely, though not entirely, adhered to, it is absurd to suggest the fighting ended with the snap of a finger. Hundreds of thousands were yet to die in Asia, where the war continued to rage. Europe, in turn, faced a redrawing of the political map and a refugee crisis of staggering proportions. Here, too, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, perished in the aftermath and as a consequence of the war. But in our various national collective memories, the day the war ended is, quite simply, the day we were told.