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Days of remembrance

Alexander Kudascheff /sgb
May 5, 2015

Seventy years ago, World War II came to an end, at least in Europe. DW takes a look at the events of 1945 and examines how Germany has emerged from the rubble of war to become the country it is today.

a rose at the site of Buchenwald
Image: Reuters/K. Pfaffenbach

May 8, 1945. The Second World War in Europe is at an end. Sixty-five million people have been killed. Germany has lost the war - even though many Germans are glad it is over after six years of conflict and the deaths of fathers, brothers and sons. And residents of the devastated cities can breathe a sigh of relief after years of aerial bombardment.

But the vast majority of Germans experience May 8 as a day of defeat - especially the soldiers in prisoner-of-war camps waiting to find out what will happen to them. Some are released after a short time, but others spend up to ten years in Soviet labor camps. And for the Allies - the Americans, French, British, Poles, Dutch, Canadians, Belgians, Poles and Soviets - it is a day of unconditional surrender. A day of victory.

Then there are the victims of the Third Reich: Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, communists, social democrats, liberals, the open and hidden enemies of Adolf Hitler. For them, May 8, 1945 is a day of liberation - from the concentration camps, from the prisons, from life in the underground.

A paradigm shift

May 8, 1985. For the first time, German President Richard von Weizsäcker says publicly what many feel, or have come to realize. May 8 was indeed a day of defeat. But, objectively speaking, it was also a day of liberation.

The Germans - whether they wanted it or not - were freed from the Nazi dictatorship, they were freed from Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, they were freed from the terror of the murder of the Jews, they were freed from the fear. The war ended the killings, both on the front lines and in the concentration camps.

Germany was defeated, but within a few years of the horrors of the nightmarish Hitler regime it had the opportunity to live in freedom, to live in democracy. At least in the West.

In the East, the so-called German Democratic Republic was founded - a communist satellite state of the Soviet Union without democratic rights or freedoms. It existed 40 long years until the Berlin Wall fell, paving the way for the reunification of the two German states in October 1990.

A new self-confidence

May 8, 2015. Seventy years after the war ended. Today, reunited Germany is one of the most respected countries in the world. It sets an example to the world with its democracy and its socially oriented and yet extremely economically successful model of society.

And for a decade it has also learned to deal with the expectation it will play a leading role in Europe and a very important role in the world - seldom militarily, although that too is now part of this role, but above all politically and economically.

Germany is not boastful, but increasingly confident, and Germans, who are intent on consensus, often feel stung by the criticism its new role brings. But they will have to learn to live with it.

An end and a new beginning

DW commemorates the end of World War II on May 8. The horror was over. We speak to eyewitnesses about how they experienced the war and its aftermath. We hear from fellow travelers, perpetrators and victims.

But we also look back, 70 years later, at our country and how it has developed. How it deals with the slowly fading memory of war and whether, with the passage of time, there can be normality in its relationship to history. And we look at whether Germans today see that day as a day of liberation - and above all why. The memory of May 8 gives us cause to take a look at Germany back then - and even more so at Germany today.

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