As states around the world prepare to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe — VE Day — the day will mean very different things to different people.
“It’s certainly part and parcel of a collective memory, but each country has its own way of reflecting and looking back at it, and each country has their very particular slant that has changed over time,” said David Zimmerman, a military historian at the University of Victoria.
May 8, 1945 marked the date on which the surviving military leadership of Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally to the unlikely coalition of Soviet and western armies, little more than a week after Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler had committed suicide to evade accountability for the conflict that his genocidal regime had unleashed on Europe in the fall of 1939. The Second World War did not formally end though until the formal surrender of Germany’s ally Japan on Sept. 2, 1945.
Overall, Zimmerman describes May 8 itself as a “momentous moment” that signified the start of a new era and world order. “For most people, it comes down to the defeat of a truly evil force in the world, and it was a moment to be celebrated, and it is still today a moment to be commemorated as being a positive development in the world,” he said.
Over the decades, the winning powers of the war have used the occasion to pay tribute to their respective veterans, a development coming to an end as the number of survivors dwindles. “There still are obviously veterans around, but very few,” he said.
The day of May 8 itself and its interpretations have changed over time. For one, it matters little to those whom the Nazis sought to wipe out through systematic murder— Europe’s Jews.
Jews don’t pay a lot of heed to the end of the war, said Zimmerman.
“We have our specific day of commemoration, [Yom HaShoah] which is related to when Passover is. So for us, we mark the liberation of the camps,” he said. “There is also the International Holocaust Remembrance Day [Jan. 27] , which remembers the liberation of Auschwitz. So it’s a very different sort of thing. Looking for a happy moment for Jews, it is the day that marks the independence of Israel in 1948 rather than this. For Jews, it was still very much an unresolved conflict, and I think probably for other groups such as Poles and Ukrainians, or others, who are still struggling to find some reasonable national identity.”
Far removed from the immense physical and human devastation that Hitler’s regime had first brought upon Germany’s neighbours, then upon Germans themselves, Canadians for their part treated VE-Day as a turning point in their history as a country, said Zimmerman. The day not only marked the end of the conflict first and foremost on the minds of Canadians, but also the start of a new age, he said.
“When the war started, Canada was still coming out of the Great Depression, and now suddenly the war, and Canada had emerged as much stronger than what it had been at the start of the conflict,” said Zimmerman. “People craved normalcy, but there was a sense that Canada had achieved great things as a result of our contribution to the war.”
What followed next were decades of unparalleled prosperity.
Citizens of the United States, which did not formally join the conflict until December 1941, also marked the end of the war in Europe.
But reactions there were more “muted,” said Zimmerman in pointing to the fact that its forces still found themselves fighting the forces of Imperial Japan. The dogged, often suicidal resistance of its remaining conquered territories in southeast Asia raised the spectre of a bloody and costly invasion of the Japanese main islands, hardly a cheery prospect.
“The war was a long way from being over,” said Zimmerman.
Looking across the Atlantic, the British reaction to the end of the war was very much in line with Canada’s. The United Kingdom had fought Nazi Germany the longest, having made great sacrifices along the way. “For Britain, it was an unbelievable sigh of relief that they had defeated Germany, that the war was finally over,” said Zimmerman. “In Britain, there was a different sense [than in Canada] though. Even though they had won the war, there was also a very real sense that they had made tremendous sacrifices and it wasn’t clear when those sacrifices were going to end.”
Food rationing, inadequate housing and general poverty would define the British experience for years to come, he said.
The former Soviet Union, which lost some 27 million people during its nearly four-year struggle against Nazi Germany, marked the end of the war with a military parade in Moscow’s Red Square, then turned its attention towards rebuilding its war-torn country and consolidating its newly acquired territories and political influence in eastern Europe, with the Cold War against the United States looming on the horizon.
Some two decades passed until Soviet leadership returned to the idea of marking the end of the war with a massive military parade, a tradition maintained and carefully manipulated for propaganda purposes by the Soviet Union’s main successor, modern-day Russia, and its current authoritarian regime under the leadership of Vladimir Putin.
“It [VE-Day] is very important,” said Zimmerman. “In fact, Mr. Putin has devoted much of his recent years trying to resurrect the reputation of Joseph Stalin as the great liberator, as the great preserver of the state against the German invasion.”
Naturally, not all successor states of the former Soviet Union such as the Ukraine see it this way. For most countries in eastern Europe, May 8, 1945 also formalized the moment when they traded rule from fascist Berlin for rule from communist Moscow.
For Germany, May 8, 1945 marked Stunde Null (Hour Zero), or so it appears in many history books. No modern industrial state had ever suffered such physical devastation and decline in moral standing. But the necessities of rebuilding coupled with the almost-immediate division into two states four years later soon pushed Germans to bury any memories of it.
The prosperity of the post-war period allowed West Germans to escape both feelings of national defeat and personal responsibility, while the communist government of East Germany saw itself as an anti-fascist government with the only surviving Nazis living in West Germany.
Collective German interpretations of May 8, 1945 started to change on its 40th anniversary when the late German president Richard von Weizsäcker, himself an officer during the war and the son of a high-ranking Nazi diplomat, called it a day of liberation of Germans from fascism in linking that day with Hitler’s rise to power in January 1933. His words have since become broadly accepted consensus in contemporary German society.
Zimmerman does not necessarily buy this argument. “To say this was a liberation is an equally false view of history as is the view of the Soviet Union about the significance of these events,” he said. Ultimately, this view suggests a neat distinction between the Nazis and the vast majority of Germans that simply did not exist, he said.
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