Seventy years ago today, Germany’s surrender to the Allies took effect, marking the formal end of World War II in Europe.
Or did it?
Americans, Brits, and the French mark the date of the Allied Victory in Europe (V-E Day) on May 8; Russians celebrate the occasion on May 9. It’s not just a time-zone difference, but a tale of two cities, two documents, a few missing sentences, and about 75 minutes.
Rumors of a German surrender had begun to circulate in late April 1945, when the Associated Press filed what proved to be an erroneous report announcing that the Germans had capitulated during a peace conference in San Francisco. But it was clear by then that the German offensive was unravelling. Adolf Hitler killed himself in his bunker on April 30, 1945; in the days that followed, his successor Karl Doenitz oversaw a series of ceasefires. “German divisions were surrendering across Europe,” David Kiley wrote in the military newspaper Stars and Stripes on Thursday. “Allied units were liberating concentration camps. German-run radio stations were reporting that the Wehrmacht was smashed.”
On May 7, General Alfred Jodl, the chief of staff to the German army, arrived in Reims, France with Doenitz’s authorization to surrender. Kiley’s father, Staff Sergeant Charles Kiley, was in the room as a reporter for Stars and Stripes when the German general signed the document. “The surrender was signed in five minutes in the war room at Supreme Headquarters here, 55 miles east of Compiegne Forest where Germany surrendered to the Allies in the last war, November 11, 1918, and the scene of the capitulation of France to the Third Reich in this war June 21, 1940,” Charles Kiley wrote. The surrender was intended to take effect the following day, May 8, 1945, at 11:01 p.m. Central European Time.
“There were no dramatics during the surrender,” Kiley reported, noting that Jodl was “erect and expressionless, his uniform neat, his boots highly polished” and his face “impassive” as he signed.
But the signature of Jodl, a relatively low-ranking general, was not enough—especially not for the Soviet Union, which had suffered by far the most casualties among the Allies fighting the Germans. The reason had to do with the last time Germany surrendered, 55 miles to the west, in 1918. The surrender had been signed by a civilian politician who opposed the war and not by Germany’s top military commander. Hitler and his allies later claimed this meant that German forces hadn’t really lost, but had been “stabbed in the back” by their political opponents. Determined to avoid this outcome after World War II, the Soviets insisted that the head of Germany’s Armed Forces High Command, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, surrender personally to Joseph Stalin’s representative in Berlin.
On May 8, Keitel arrived in Karlshorst, a Berlin suburb, to ratify the surrender and formalize the end of the war. But there was a problem. “Apparently, the Russian text was delivered incomplete in Berlin and lacked a few sentences,” according to a Deutsche Welle report from 1970. The Reims surrender was due to take effect at 11:01 p.m., but the final version of the document didn’t reach Keitel until some 75 minutes after that. The field marshal affixed his signature to the revised surrender in the early-morning hours of May 9, hence the enduring confusion and controversy over when exactly World War II ended in Europe.
The difference seems not to have been a big deal at the time. The Soviets accepted the May 7 document from Reims—if only as an interim document—and the other Allies agreed with Soviet insistence on ratification by Germany’s highest-ranking military commander. But during the Cold War, “a subtle battle broke out to hijack historical perspectives,” Deutsche Welle explained. “The scene in Karlshorst was perceived as a propaganda move staged especially for Stalin.”
If this battle over World War II history started out subtle, it hasn’t stayed that way. This year, Russia will celebrate its Victory Day, which President Vladimir Putin has called the country’s “biggest holiday,” without Western politicians, who are boycotting the event in protest of Russian actions in Ukraine. “Nobody in the West is even hiding that the whole issue of not coming to Russia is not based on what the population of Europe thinks about the issue, but is owing to extreme pressure from Washington,” a Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman told The Guardian.
Washington, meanwhile, is celebrating V-E Day in its own way on May 8—with its airspace full of World War II-era jets conducting an anniversary flyover. But the bureaucratic confusion over Germany’s surrender 70 years ago makes that date rather misleading. As Deutsche Welle pointed out, “Nothing really happened on May 8, 1945.”