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'Zero hour' for Germany — in more ways than one

May 8, 2020

Adolf Hitler was merely ash among the rubble when World War II ended in Europe. The desolate aftermath was dubbed "zero hour" by Germans — a more prescient term than they realized, for it also paved the way to rebirth.

Berlin after World War II - the city was in ruins (archival photo)
Image: picture-alliance/Judaica-Sammlung Richter

By the time the already-fractious Allies had agreed on the form, timing and signing details of Germany's unconditional surrender at the end of the World War II, Berlin had been under the complete control of the Soviet Red Army for almost a week.

Adolf Hitler, terrified of the prospect of being captured alive or being held accountable for millions of murders, had married his partner Eva Braun and then the two died by suicide shortly before the Battle of Berlin was decided. Their newlywed corpses were burned and the ashes scattered near the so-called Führerbunker, Hitler's base of operations later in the war. He didn't even want his corpse to fall into enemy hands.

The Allies eventually agreed that combat would officially cease as of 11:01 p.m., Berlin time, on May 8, 1945. The strangely specific timing was no accident. It assured that in Moscow, one hour ahead of Berlin, the clocks would have ticked over to May 9, allowing the Soviets their own day on which to recall victory in what was known in the USSR as the Great Patriotic War.

Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel signs the capitulation in Berlin shortly after midnight local time on May 9
Field Marshall Keitel signs the capitulation shortly after midnight local time on May 9Image: picture-alliance/dpa

It was the Allied leaders who delivered triumphant speeches to their people. Winston Churchill stood atop the roof of the Health Ministry in London before cheering crowds and proclaimed: "This is your victory! It is the victory of the cause of freedom in every land. In all our long history, we have never seen a greater day than this. Everyone has tried." The exiled former and future French leader, Charles de Gaulle, also spoke of victory in his radio address, noting that France's military command was present for the signing of the capitulation. 

Meanwhile, the man who briefly succeeded Hitler that May, Admiral Karl Dönitz, issued a radio broadcast lasting barely 30 seconds. He alluded to his previous broadcast, on May 1, when he had announced Hitler's death and said his first priority would be "to save the lives of German people." To that end, he said, he'd asked the armed forces to agree to unconditional surrender.

"On May 8, at 23:01, the guns will fall silent," Dönitz said. His next major public stage would be the Nuremberg Trials and his conviction for war crimes in 1946. He served just 10 years in prison. 

Read more:  The start of a cold peace

The 'rubble women'

The dominant international view was and remains that the role of Germans in the war was that of the perpetrators, not the victims, after their country set in motion a global war that went on to claim an estimated 60 million lives and its forces exterminated 6 million Jews in the Holocaust.

On the ground — especially after more than a decade of wall-to-wall propaganda from the schoolyard up, distorting the image of Hitler's Germany — this reality was not as immediately obvious.

Many German cities lay in rubble, either firebombed by western Allies (most notably Dresden and Hamburg) or overrun by the Soviets (Berlin). Occupying soldiers are estimated to have raped more than 1 million German women. Rushing into this wasteland was an exodus of as many as 14 million ethnic Germans refugees who either fled or were driven out of territory far to the east of today's borders.

Many young men were either dead, wounded, captured or traumatized, often by war crimes they'd committed themselves or had seen in the field. Meanwhile, the true extent of the Holocaust's horror, which did not feature in Josef Goebbels' anti-Semitic propaganda, was coming to light. The immediate postwar desolation became known colloquially as "Stunde Null": zero hour.

Book cover for the English language version of Florian Huber's "Promise Me You'll Shoot Yourself"
Florian Huber has written extensively about the misery in defeated Germany in 1945Image: Penguin

"First of all Germans had to accept the defeat, which in itself was very hard for many of them," historian Florian Huber told DW. His two most recent books focus on the immediate postwar months and years for ordinary Germans. His look at the wave of suicides in Germany at that time, Promise Me You'll Shoot Yourself, has also enjoyed success in English. For those who kept going, Huber said, simply securing food and income was the top priority.

Read more:World War II: 'Patterns of human behavior repeat themselves'

"The biggest problem was how to get along with daily life when the man was imprisoned in the prisoner of war camps while children and families tried to get along with a situation that was very extreme," Huber said, "and nobody could really say when it would end."

This did allow for women to take a more active role. Obsessed with preserving traditional gender roles, Hitler had not called on women to volunteer to take up work in factories and other facilities to aid the war effort as the US and UK had; Nazi Germany's wartime economy had been propped up by the labor of enslaved people — a mixture of civilian and military prisoners.

In the postwar years, a new German compound noun was coined for the women who took the lead in clearing the debris from city streets. They were venerated as the "Trümmerfrauen," or the rubble women.

Women clearing away the wreckage on Berlin's streets, archive photo from August 1947.
'Rubble women' clearing away the wreckage on Berlin's streets — to give an idea of that task's scope, this photo is not from May 1945, but rather August 1947Image: picture-alliance/dpa

A divided land

Initially, Germany was divided into four zones, one administered by each of the Allies to whom it had formally surrendered: the UK, the US, the Soviet Union and France. But the tensions between these allies of necessity had been apparent even before Germany's capitulation, and had resurfaced at precisely the Potsdam conference where the country's ultimate postwar fate was decided.

Nevertheless, in a marked change of strategy after the punitive peace terms following World War I, the Allies opted for a lighter touch, gradually ushering Germany back into the international community. Reparations would still have to be paid, but nothing like to the extent of those demanded at Versailles in 1919.

The broader transition from global conflict to the Cold War would soon lead to a longer division of the country — with the Soviet-occupied zone becoming East Germany, or the GDR, and the other three areas making up West Germany, or the Federal Republic. Paradoxically, this fresh threat and division might have smoothed the rocky path to democracy for West Germany. 

"I am quite convinced that the Cold War experience made it easier, especially for West German society, to accept being part of the Western world," Huber said. "It also made it easier for them to adopt, voluntarily, a new democratic constitution, which we have to this day."

The Marshall Plan — a major investment program launched by the Unites States in 1948 to rebuild Western Europe after the war and prepare it for the long standoff between capitalism and Soviet communism — added a financial incentive to welcome a new world order in the face of the familiar perceived threat from perhaps Hitler's fiercest foes: Stalin and the USSR.

East and West

West German foreign policy rapidly strove for outward reconciliation and reparation. A new and purely defensive Bundeswehr was formed, and no foreign military deployments whatsoever were approved until 1990. To this day, any missions abroad require regularly renewed parliamentary approval.

When Germany does participate in overseas operations, it is typically providing logistical support for allies hitting the targets, such as in the coalition against the "Islamic State," or performing peacekeeping and defensive operations in territory that has been secured by NATO or other friendly forces (with Afghanistan being the largest and longest-running example).

West Germany, and later the reunified country, led the push for the formation and then the expansion of what is now the European Union. The government in Berlin also anchored a historical responsibility for the Holocaust and the defense of Israel's existence as part of the nation's raison d'etre.

Especially in the early decades after the war, a specter overshadowed such advances: the number of former senior Nazis still occupying positions of power in governments, courts, newspapers and society as a whole.

Read more: The student who hunted Nazi judges in postwar Germany

"It took an extraordinarily long time for West Germany to make any serious attempt to face the Nazi past," said Susan Neiman, a philosopher and American Jew who has spent much of her career in Germany, writing several books exploring the country's relationship to the Holocaust, and is currently with the Einstein Forum in Potsdam.

"It's often the case that foreigners don't quite appreciate how true this was, because the iconic picture of postwar Germany was [Chancellor] Willy Brandt on his knees at the Warsaw Ghetto memorial [in 1970]. That is the picture we expected and we wanted to see. What most foreigners don't realize — and it took me decades to realize it myself — is that many West Germans hated that gesture of Brandt's. They thought it was wrong; they attacked Brandt for having left the country during the war. The much more common view in West Germany was not atonement or repentance for having been a perpetrator, but self-pity for having been a victim." 

Willy Brandt, 1970
What the world wanted to see, but a controversial image in Germany — even by 1970Image: Imago/Sven Simon

Real movement came in Germany with the next generation: the youngsters who were university students around the time of Brandt's 1969-74 tenure, and who often grew up asking their own parents searching questions about the Nazi era. Both Neiman and Huber point to a speech by then-president Richard von Weizsäcker in 1985, the 40th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, or V-E Day, when he declared May 8 one of liberation for Germany, not defeat.

"East Germany was rather different," Neiman said. "East Germany was anti-fascist from the start — because the first victims of Nazis were not Jews, they were Communists and Social Democrats. So the leaders of East Germany were mostly in exile or concentration camps and they were genuinely opposed to the Nazis. Did they abuse their anti-fascist stance ideologically? Of course they did! But was it clear in one side of Germany that the Nazis were evil, and that defeating them was good? Yes." 

The GDR's anti-fascism was very much "top-down," as Neiman puts it: "It was state ideology." So, though the GDR's political class could accurately claim to have never harbored any support for Nazism, this was rather less true for ordinary citizens — many of whom would spend decades listening to fresh propaganda that reassured them that Nazism and capitalism went hand in glove and any responsibility for World War II lay west of the Berlin Wall.

Susan Neiman, pictured in 2017 during an previous appearance on DW TV.
One of Neiman's first books, Slow Fire, was a personal account of a Jewish American philosophy student's experiences in 1980s Berlin, soon before the Wall would fallImage: DW

Neiman's 2019 book, Learning From the Germans, is an exploration of what lessons the US South could take from the progress made in Germany from examining the national past. It was recently published in German. 

"When I told German friends and colleagues about the book, they either laughed at me or shouted at me — because it's part of being a good German that you don't believe Germany has any lessons to teach anyone else [on such matters]," Neiman said. "And my answer was always: That's an admirable attitude to hold, but it's also rather provincial. ... If you look at other national histories, I think you have to acknowledge that Germany as a whole has gone further in changing its view of itself from a victim to a perpetrator than any other country with remotely comparable history."

A new front

Could the progress made be at risk as the number of survivors of World War II dwindles? Young Germans, in particular, score increasingly poorly in surveys exploring their knowledge of the Nazi era.

By the numbers, the nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) is one of the least successful populist far-right movements in Europe, yet it has still established what many analysts deemed impossible for years: a viable political party clearly to the right of the Christian Democrats with seats in the Bundestag and all state parliaments. 

The AfD's heavy hitters and more controversial figures don't tend to talk that much about World War II or the Nazis, although when they do, they will often breach postwar taboos, especially by questioning the culture of remembrance. Alexander Gauland, who weighed in this week arguing against making May 8 a public holiday in Germany, once described Hitler and the Nazi regime as "a speck of bird sh*t on over 1,000 successful years of German history."

The party's chairman in the state of Thuringia, Björn Höcke, described Berlin's Holocaust Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe as a "memorial of shame" in January 2017.

"I think we must be aware that the AfD does represent a considerable part of German society today," Huber said. "So, yes, they are here to stay. And we certainly will witness a hard and long fight between those who still insist on keeping alive our lessons from the past and those who want to close this chapter of our history, once and for all." 

This doesn't seem to have escaped Chancellor Angela Merkel either. In December last year, having already made it clear her time in office was winding down, she visited Auschwitz for the first time, on the 75th anniversary of its liberation."We can never forget," Merkel said at the concentration camp, which was built in Nazi-occupied Poland and is arguably the site most symbolic of the Holocaust on the planet. "We can never draw a line under this or seek to relativize it."

According to surveys, the vast majority of Germans agree and feel a moral responsibility for the darkest chapter of their country's history.

Hallam Mark Kommentarbild App
Mark Hallam News and current affairs writer and editor with DW since 2006.@marks_hallam