Behind the scenes at the end of World War II | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 05.05.2015
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Behind the scenes at the end of World War II

On May 8, 1945, the unconditional surrender of the German Wehrmacht took effect, yet, peace did not come about right away across the country. To many Germans, it was not a day of liberation.

"The war is over. The weapons are silent." Hildegart Theinert wrote this in her husband's diary on May 9, 1945, the day the capitulation of the Wehrmacht was announced all over Germany. Shortly afterwards, Johannes Theinert, a Latin teacher, shot and killed his wife and then himself in the small town of Glatz in Lower Silesia.

But back to the beginning of the story.

Berlin-Karlshorst, May 8, 1945, 11:45 pm. Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel signed the unconditional surrender of the German Wehrmacht - at least according to the official date of the document.

Actually, Keitel signed the document on May 9. His signature was merely a formal repetition of what had already been decided one day earlier in Reims. That's where General Alfred Jodl had declared the "unconditional surrender of all forces on land, at sea and in the air ... to the supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force and simultaneously to the supreme commander of the Soviet troops." All hostilities were to cease on May 8 at 11:01 pm.

Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel signs the unconditional surrender of the German Wehrmacht

Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel signs the unconditional surrender of the German Wehrmacht

At Stalin's urging - according to the generally held theory - the ceremony was to be repeated in Berlin since no high-ranking representative of the Soviet Army had been present in Reims.

"That certainly played a role," said Margot Blank from the German-Russian Museum in Berlin-Karlhorst. "But more important were major concerns on the British side pointing out that at the end of the First World War, it had not been the German military leadership, but the civilian government which had surrendered. The move had enabled the military to claim later on that they had been undefeated on the ground."

Slow end of the Third Reich

It was the fear of a second stab-in-the-back situation that made the British accept Stalin's proposal, said Blank. The renewed German capitulation was signed by the top field commanders of the Wehrmacht: Supreme Commander Keitel in the name of the entire army, Colonel General Stumpff for the air force, and Admiral von Friedeburg for the navy.

The signatures in Reims and Karlhorst were submitted in consultation with Reich President Karl Dönitz. He had become Hitler's official successor after the dictator had committed suicide on April 30. Following the flight from Berlin, Flensburg became the headquarters of his managing government and he returned there after signing the capitulation in Karlhorst.

Watch video 06:13

Survivor Esther Bejarano shares her story

The national government officially remained in office."It was not the German Reich that capitulated, but the Wehrmacht," explained John Hürter from the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich.

It was not before May 23, 1945 that the British occupying forces arrested Dönitz together with all government members - not least resulting from pressure by the Americans who had learned that even after May 8 people continued to be executed according to German military court decisions.

But to many people in Germany, May 8 did not automatically mark the end of the war. For Esther Bejarano, that end already came about at the end of April when Russian troops encountered American troops. Cheering with joy, they set a picture of Hitler on fire. Among them were some Jewish girls who had managed to escape from one of the notorious "death marches" across Germany. Esther Bejarano had been among them.

"They were all dancing around this picture, and I supplied the accompanying music," the now 90-year-old recalled. It was the first time that she voluntarily played an accordion - playing music in the girls' orchestra of Auschwitz had been her only chance to survive. "That was my liberation. We knew, now we are free people."

All concentration and extermination camps were liberated by May 8. But where were all these people supposed to go now? Many of them were erring around in Germany searching for relatives, while others were so exhausted that they had no choice but to remain in the camps for weeks after they had been liberated. The British set up a camp for displaced persons in Bergen-Belsen.

In between fear and liberation: Shortly before the end of the war, hungry civilians search for food in bombed-out freight cars

Shortly before the end of the war, hungry civilians search for food in bombed-out freight cars

War followed by suicide

"Millions of homeless people were hanging around in the former German Reich - among them, displaced persons, former forced laborers, prisoners of war, refugees, former inmates of concentration camps," summed up history professor Hürter. "They were feeling all kinds of emotions - of liberation, but also of fear."

The Theinerts, a teacher and his wife in the Lower Silesian town of Glatz, were deeply worried. They learned of the atrocities committed by the Germans after talking with a former pupil who had returned as a soldier from the eastern front. They feared possible acts of vengeance by the victors.

"Many people felt guilty and somehow entangled by the events; they were afraid of what might come next," said Florian Huber. In his book "Child, promise me that you will shoot yourself," he describes the largest mass suicide in German history, including the fate of the couple Theinert.

He proved that in the small town of Demmin in Western Pomerania alone, some 700 to 1,000 people of a population of 15,000 took their own lives. In Berlin, the suicide rate increased fivefold during the last year of war compared to previous years.

"Only a few moments are left, then everything will be over, everything - forever," wrote Hildegard Theinert shortly before her husband shots her, just one day after the end of World War II.

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