Germany’s unconditional surrender brings peace to Europe
Reach PLC (UK)
Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, surrounded by Soviet forces, committed suicide in his Berlin bunker beneath the ruins of his ‘thousand-year Reich’ on 30 April 1945. His successor, Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, decided to save as many Germans as possible from falling into Soviet hands by doing what earlier in the war would have been quite unthinkable – surrendering. A high-ranking German military delegation was dispatched to the headquarters of Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery, hero of British Eighth Army’s defeat of German forces at El Alamein in Egypt in 1942. Not renowned for his people skills, Montgomery, on seeing the Germans at his HQ near Lübeck in Germany, barked, ‘Who are these men? What do they want?’ They had come to surrender the German forces in Northern Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands. A final document of unconditional surrender, as the Allies demanded, was signed at US General Dwight Eisenhower’s HQ in Reims, north-eastern France, on 7 May. The following day, 8 May, was settled on as the official day to celebrate the long dreamed of victory (the USSR chose 9 May for its celebrations). Ever since it has been the day on which the end of the war in Europe is commemorated, with 2020 marking the 75th anniversary of peace. In 1945 the feelings of rejoicing, but also grief and quiet reflection, were felt most keenly as the war in Europe came to an end after six long and dreadful years. Estimates of Europe’s dead vary hugely between 35 and 60 million, with civilian losses from bombardments, air attacks, political and racial executions in addition to disease and famines most likely exceeding military casualties. Britain lost an estimated 357,000 civilians and service personnel, with a further 466,000 members of the British Commonwealth losing their lives. In the USSR, where the fighting was at its most massive and horrific, around 18 million Russians perished. The war had started after Hitler invaded Poland on 1 September 1939. Britain and France, which had pledged to support Poland if attacked, tried to restrain him via diplomatic efforts. When these failed, they declared war on Germany two days later. By September 1941, Hitler’s aggression appeared to be all but irresistible. He had speedily conquered Western Europe, with only Britain stubbornly holding out against invasion, thanks to the RAF. German forces had taken Greece and subjugated Yugoslavia, while Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel was threatening to gain control of the Suez Canal. Most spectacularly, the Nazis’ brutal invasion of the Soviet Union earlier in June was stunningly effective. Millions of Red Army troops had been killed or captured and German forces were closing on Moscow. However, though few would have guessed it, events and decisions would soon turn against the Nazi regime. The US military might swung behind the resistance to Germany following the country’s entry into the war with the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan, Germany’s ally, in December 1941. Later in 1942 the British Eighth Army, led by Montgomery, initially checked the progress of the Axis forces before securing a famous victory at El Alamein in November. The victory not only secured Egypt and the Suez Canal but was also a great boost for Allied morale, proving that Axis forces could be beaten on the battlefield. On the Eastern Front, where Hitler’s Wehrmacht were in a ferocious struggle with the Red Army, the Soviets decisively turned the tide in 1943 and defeated the invaders at Stalingrad. Some 235,000 German and allied troops surrendered. The Western Allies finally opened a second front against the Nazis with the invasion of Normandy on D-Day, 6 June 1944. It was clear that Germany, fighting on two fronts against forces with superior industrial and manpower resources, would be defeated. Hitler had become Chancellor in 1933 and promised Germans that his Nazi empire would last 1,000 years. Instead, it had been swept away after 12 years, which featured conflict, genocide and misery.