Beginning on the 5th of May, reporters from AP, Life magazine, and others began to sleep on the floor of Eisenhower’s red brick schoolhouse headquarters, for fear of stepping out and missing the moment. Adolf Hitler was dead by his own hand, the life of the German tyrant extinguished on April 30. So it was that General Alfred Jodl came to Reims to sign the document, including the phrase “All forces under German control to cease active operations at 2301 hours Central European time on 8 May 1945“.
The signing of the instruments of surrender ending the most destructive war in history took place on Monday, May 7, at 2:41am, local time. In Europe, World War II had come to an end.The German government announced the end of hostilities right away to its own people, but most of the Allied governments, remained silent. It was nearly midnight the following day when Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel signed a second instrument of surrender, in the Berlin headquarters of Soviet General Georgy Zhukov.
Soviet Premier Josef Stalin had his own ideas about how he wanted to handle the matter, and so the rest of the world, waited.
In England, May 7 dragged on with no public statement. Large crowds gathered outside of Buckingham Palace shouting “We want the King”. Bell ringers throughout the British Isles remained on silent standby, waiting for the announcement. The British Home Office issued a circular, instructing Britons how they could celebrate: “Bonfires will be allowed, but the government trusts that only material with no salvage value will be used.” And still, the world waited.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill finally lost patience in the early evening, saying he wasn’t going to give Stalin the satisfaction of holding up what everyone already knew. The Ministry of Information made this short announcement at 7:40pm: “In accordance with arrangements between the three great powers, tomorrow, Tuesday, will be treated as Victory in Europe Day and will be regarded as a holiday”.
The news was greeted with reserve in the United States, where the first thought was that of the Pacific. Even now, many months of savage combat lay ahead. President Harry Truman broadcast his own address to the nation at 9:00am on May 8, thanking President Roosevelt and wishing he’d been there to share the moment. Franklin Roosevelt had died on April 12 in Warm Springs, Georgia.President Truman’s speech begins: “This is a solemn but a glorious hour. I only wish that Franklin D. Roosevelt had lived to witness this day. General Eisenhower informs me that the forces of Germany have surrendered to the United Nations. The flags of freedom fly over all Europe. For this victory, we join in offering our thanks to the Providence which has guided and sustained us through the dark days of adversity”.
Victory in Europe, “VE Day” wasn’t the end of WWII, only the end of the war in Europe. Fighting in the Pacific would continue until the Japanese surrender of August 15, 1945, a date we remember to this day, as VJ Day.
The popular history of the era doesn’t talk much about the Ostfront, the Eastern Front, though this theater alone was the scene of the largest military confrontation in history. Fighting between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had long since taken on shades of a race war, Slav against Teuton, in a paroxysm of mutual extermination that is horrifying, even by the hellish standards of WWII.Nearly every extermination camp, death march, ghetto and pogrom now remembered as the Holocaust, occurred on the Eastern Front.
The loss of life was prodigious, through atrocity, massacre, disease, starvation and exposure. Civilians resorted to cannibalism during the 900-day siege of Leningrad. Landscapes were destroyed while entire populations fled, never to return.
Mass rape became a weapon of war. Estimates range as high as 2 million German females ages 8 to 80, were defiled by Soviet soldiers. Some as many as 60 or 70 times.
An estimated 70 million people were killed all over the world, as the result of World War II. Over 30 million of them, many of those civilians, died on the Eastern Front. Pockets of fighting would continue through the surrender in Europe. Soviet forces lost over 600 in Silesia alone, on May 9. The day after their own signing. Moscow celebrated VE Day on the 9th, with a radio broadcast from Josef Stalin himself: “The age-long struggle of the Slav nations…has ended in victory. Your courage has defeated the Nazis. The war is over.”