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May 8, 1945: Total defeat or day of liberation?

May 5, 2020

The end of World War II was followed by an ideological battle over guilt and responsibility. West Germany was slower to face the challenge than communist East Germany with its state policy of anti-fascism.

Sowjetisches Ehrenmal im Treptower Park Berlin
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Zinken

On May 8, 1945 the guns finally fell silent. World War II, started by Adolf Hitler's Nazi Third Reich in 1939, was over. The unconditional surrender of Germany's armed forces, the Wehrmacht, brought to an end the suffering of millions — initially, however, only in Europe because Nazi Germany's ally, Japan, continued fighting and would only concede defeat in August when the Americans had dropped atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

For the international anti-Hitler coalition — led by the Soviet Union, the United States, Great Britain and France — May 8 was, despite all the suffering that had gone before, a day to celebrate. That joy was not shared by most Germans. Their country had been destroyed and then divided into four zones of occupation by the victorious powers. Defeat had been complete and overwhelming. It triggered emotions of guilt and shame. The Third Reich had set the terrible conflict in motion with its invasion of Poland. Unprecedented crimes against humanity followed, above all the systematic extermination of six million Jews.

In the post-war years, any sense of outrage over these crimes was still not enough for most Germans to consider May 8 as a day of liberation — in contrast to the European countries that German forces had occupied during the six years of war. Now the tables had been turned: Germany defeated and occupied. An ideological war between the communist Soviet Union and an alliance of democracies in the West began to take hold, signaling the division of Germany and the division of Europe.

Theodor Heuss: 'We knew of these things'

On May 8, 1949, exactly four years after the end of World War II, representatives of the country's political parties gathered in the city of Bonn to enact a new constitution (Basic Law) for the emerging Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany). The Free Democrat Theodor Heuss (FDP) was in a reflective mood as he looked back on the end of the war: "The fundamental fact is that for each of us May 8, 1945 remains the most tragic and questionable paradox of history. Why? Because we were, at one and the same time, redeemed and annihilated."

In September 1949, Heuss was elected as Germany's first federal president. Three years later, his visit to the former Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp was seen as a watershed moment. "The Germans must never forget what was done by people of their nation during these shameful years," said West Germany's head of state as he contemplated Germany's biggest crime — the Holocaust. And, Heuss added, "We knew of these things."

A monument to the Red Army: "The Liberator"

While senior West German politicians struggled to come up with the right gestures, and the right words, to describe the crimes committed in Germany's name, the German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany) — founded on October 7, 1949 — had adopted the occupying Soviet Union's state cult of anti-fascism. The most visible manifestation of this development was the gigantic War Memorial and Military Cemetery at Treptower Park for more than 5,000 war dead, inaugurated on the fourth anniversary of the end of the conflict.

At the heart of the complex is a soldier cradling a small child in his arm while at the same time crushing a Nazi swastika under the heel of his boot. With this monument, towering 30 meters into the sky above, East Germany's leaders took a firm grip on the imagery that would be employed to commemorate the end of the war. "The Liberator," as the gigantic figure was called, embodied the Soviet Union's triumph over Nazi Germany. Its political system, based on violence and oppression, would be imposed on the whole of the Eastern Bloc by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. 

The Soviet War Memorial in Berlin was built to commemorate the 80,000 Soviet soldiers who died in WWII.
The Soviet War Memorial in Berlin was built to commemorate the 8 million Soviet soldiers who died in WWII. Image: picture-alliance/Bildagentur-online/Schoening

Walter Ulbricht attacks West Germany's accession to NATO

East Germany styled itself as a bulwark against fascism and imperialism. The country's enemies were to be found west of the Elbe River and west of the Atlantic: in West Germany and the USA. There was no forum for a critical appraisal of Germany's responsibility for the horrors committed during the Nazi era. Walter Ulbricht set the tone by, at the behest of the Soviets, imposing the Zwangsvereinigung – the forced merger of the Communist Party (KPD) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in East Germany to form the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED).

Under his leadership, May 8 became the "Day of Liberation," an annual ritual that East Germany instrumentalized for propaganda purposes right through to the dying days of communism, with a focus on current events or goals. Walter Ulbricht, for instance, used the 10th anniversary of the end of the war to rail against West Germany's accession to NATO. At a mass rally in East Berlin, attended by some 200,000 people, he accused the West of blocking German reunification while East Germany, "a peace-loving and democratic state," battled to bring the divided country together.

Konrad Adenauer speaks of "cleansing and transformation"

At the same time, West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer (CDU) spoke of Germany's NATO membership — that he himself had forced through — as an expression of trust in the fledgling democracy. In Paris, ten years after the end of the war, the Christian Democrat politician argued that the German people had paid with "boundless suffering" for the atrocities carried out in their name by a fanaticized leadership: "In this suffering a cleansing and transformation came to pass."

To mark the 20th anniversary of the end of the war, Adenauer‘s successor Ludwig Erhard (CDU) became the first high-ranking politician in the West to use the word "liberation." However, he used it to refer to curbs on freedom in communist states. If the defeat of Hitler's Germany had banished all injustice and tyranny from the world, then humanity would have reason enough, he said, "to celebrate 8th May as a memorial to freedom."

Konrad Hermann Josef Adenauer was the first post-war Chancellor of Germany from 1949 to 1963.
Konrad Hermann Josef Adenauer was the first post-war Chancellor of Germany from 1949 to 1963. Image: Imago Images/United Archives International/WHA United

Willy Brandt praises women, refugees and displaced people

It was to be another five years before the political elite in West Germany really began to re-think their position on the end of the war. In 1970, under the first social democrat chancellor, Willy Brandt, the Moscow and Warsaw Treaties were signed. It was reconciliation with one-time enemies in war, the Soviet Union and Poland, and milestones in what became known as the policy of détente. It would lead, one year later, to the social democrat being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

In his speech marking the 8th of May Willy Brandt did not actually use the word "liberation" but was at pains to recognize and commemorate the role of women, refugees and displaced people in the rebuilding of Germany. He was especially effusive in his praise for "our fellow Germans in the GDR." They had, as he put it, in the face of great adversity not of their own choosing, "achieved successes that they can be proud of and which we must fully respect."

Helmut Kohl talks twice of a "Day of Liberation"

Under Willy Brandt's former foreign minister Walter Scheel (FDP), who served as federal president from 1974, there was a decisive change in West Germany's approach to the meaning of May 8, 1945: "We were liberated from a terrible yoke. From war, murder, subjugation and barbarity," he said on the 30th anniversary of the end of the war: "But we have not forgotten that this liberation came from outside. That we, the Germans, were not capable of shaking off this yoke ourselves." The head of state pointed out that it was not in 1945 that Germany had lost its honor, but far earlier: in 1933, with Hitler's seizure of power.

Another federal president came to a remarkably similar conclusion in 1985: the Christian Democrat Richard von Weizsäcker. His address four decades after the end of the war is generally seen as the greatest and most important on this theme. Intriguingly, he was far from being the first person to speak explicitly of a "Day of Liberation." Chancellor Helmut Kohl (CDU) used the same language in that same year — twice. Initially in February in his "Report on the State of the Nation in a Divided Germany" and then on April 21 in the presence of US President Ronald Reagan on the 40th anniversary of the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp.

 U.S. President Ronald Reagan and then West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl
U.S. President Ronald Reagan and then West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl on their visit to the military cemetery in Bitburg, western Germany in 1985.Image: AP

Richard von Weizsäcker: "Look truth straight in the eye"

What makes von Weizsäcker's speech so special it that when he refers to May 8, 1945 as a "Day of Liberation" nobody is excluded: "It liberated us all from the inhuman system of violence and persecution that the Nazis established." In East Germany, meanwhile, leader Erich Honecker insisted on highlighting the things that divided East and West. He said the liberation from Hitler and his fascist system gave the German people the opportunity to build their lives on a wholly new foundation, and "We used this opportunity."

The two German states did not manage to arrive at a similar evaluation of the end of the war until after the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. For just a couple of months, East Germany was governed by the country's only freely-elected prime minister: Lothar de Maizière (CDU). On the 45th anniversary of the end of the war in 1990, he told a gathering of the World Jewish Congress in Berlin that May 8 "will cast long shadows on the post-war history of the Germans" while at the same time demonstrating their "inability to mourn." He said the Germans must learn, "to live with this history honestly and sincerely, to be open to its admonishments and memories." De Maizière's words are reminiscent of von Weizsäcker's in his famous 1985 address: "Today, on May 8, let us as best we can, look truth straight in the eye."

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Marcel Fürstenau
Marcel Fürstenau Berlin author and reporter on current politics and society.