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Marking VE Day in Germany becomes a time for reflection near Cologne

For Germans, VE Day is both a day to remember the victims of fascism and a time to celebrate liberation from fascism. At one time it meant defeat.

Cologne at the end of World War II

The city of Cologne at the end of World War II

Melodious bird songs and shrubby overgrowth now mask what was once a Nazi firing range in a forest outside of Cologne, where 25 soldiers were executed for desertion or "subversion of the Wehrmacht."

The six parallel firing ranges, each 400 to 600 meters long, are today cut by a trail only a few minutes' walk from a local swimming pool, where children splash away. Yet those who stroll through the Dünnwald forest these days are unaware of its dark history.

A trail cuts through the firing range at Dünnwald forest outside Cologne.

A trail cuts through the firing range at Dünnwald forest outside Cologne.

Between October 1940 to December 1943, 23 men were executed for desertion in Dünnwald. Two more were executed in March and April of 1945, in the waning days of World War II.

Among the last to be executed was Jakob Brock, a soldier on the eastern front who while on convalescence leave in his native Cologne got married in March 1945, shortly before US troops took the left bank of the Rhine.

Aware the war was coming to an end, Brock sought to combine convalescence and marriage leave, but with the postal system in disarray he was unable to get a letter from his unit. Instead, he received permission by phone from his commander. Then shortly after his prior leave was up, an alert was put out for his arrest.

He was detained in April, brought before a military court and executed hours later. The 23-year-old left behind his new wife, who in November gave birth to a daughter.

The Nazis executed nearly 20,000 men accused of treason and desertion during World War II, according to noted historian Fritz Bilz, who collaborates with the National Socialism Documentation Center in Cologne.

The museum's friendship association, EL-DE Haus, and the Union of Victims of the Nazi regime - Federation of Anti-fascists, highlight Nazi atrocities.

Deutschland Denkmal im Gremberger Wäldchen

A memorial stands in the Gremberger forest outside Cologne to mark the mass grave of 74 Soviet forced laborers

To mark the end of World War II in Europe, or VE Day, on May 8, the two organizations led members through some of the less well-known crimes of the Nazi regime in the Cologne area.

The tour included the Dünnwald firing range, a visit to one of six

Jewish cemeteries

around Cologne and the site of a mass grave of Soviet forced laborers. Several million eastern Europeans were forced into labor in Nazi Germany during the war, including some 100,000 in Cologne. Many perished.

Liberation from fascism

Around the world,

nations celebrate VE Day as a defeat of Nazi Germany.

But in Germany, VE Day is both a day to remember victims of fascism and a moment to celebrate freedom from fascism.

It wasn't always that way, Bilz told DW.

For years many Germans viewed May 8 as a day of defeat. First there was the generation that experienced and fought in the war; many of them supported the Nazis and almost all suffered in the war's immediate aftermath.

Then there was a second generation, who did not want to accuse their fathers of crimes, Bilz said. But a third and fourth generation, Bilz noted, has now come to view May 8 broadly as a day of liberation.

Visiting the now peaceful site

where Jakob Brock's life was cut short brings home the point.

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