A brief guide to VE Day
On 8 May 1945, millions of people rejoiced in the news that Germany had surrendered: after nearly six years, the war in Europe was finally over. Second World War historian Keith Lowe brings you the facts about this momentous day in history…
What does VE Day stand for?
When is VE Day?
On the afternoon of 8 May 1945, the British prime minister Winston Churchill made the radio announcement that the world had long been waiting for. “Yesterday morning,” he declared, “at 2.41 a.m., at General Eisenhower’s headquarters, General Jodl, the representative of the German High Command, and Grand Admiral Dönitz, the designated head of the German State, signed the act of unconditional surrender of all German land, sea and air forces in Europe.” After nearly six years, the war in Europe was finally over.
The celebrations began almost immediately. However, there was still one last technical detail to be taken care of. Since the Soviet authorities had not yet given their approval to the surrender document, a second, definitive document was signed in Berlin.
The official time when this final document was signed was 23.01, Central European Time (although in reality it was not signed until almost a quarter to one the next morning). By Moscow time, however, the official time of signing was already after midnight. As a consequence, America and western Europe consider VE Day to have taken place on 8 May, while Russia and some eastern European countries celebrate it on 9 May.
Where did VE Day take place and how was it celebrated?
Although VE Day was strictly speaking a continental European event, it was celebrated all over the world. In London, more than a million people took to the streets and huge crowds gathered outside Buckingham Palace to see Churchill standing on the balcony alongside King George VI. In Paris and New York, similar crowds gathered along the Champs Elysée and in Times Square. According to Alexander Werth, the Moscow correspondent for the BBC and the Sunday Times, the fireworks display over the Kremlin on 9 May “was the most spectacular I have ever seen”.
Not all of the celebrations went exactly as planned. In the Canadian city of Halifax, for example, riots broke out when thousands of soldiers and sailors began looting liquor stores. In Australia and New Zealand, the celebrations were a little more sober: such countries were glad to know that their soldiers would soon be coming home from Europe, but were more concerned about the war in the Pacific, which was still going on.
What events led to VE Day?
The final collapse of Nazi Germany began in January 1945, when the Soviet Red Army launched a series of offensives across a front that ran all the way from the Baltic Sea to the borders of Yugoslavia. By the end of March they had reached the River Oder, just 60km from the German capital. At around the same time, British and American armies also began crossing the Rhine.
By the end of April Berlin was encircled, and the situation looked hopeless for Germany. In Italy, Hitler’s ally Benito Mussolini was captured and executed, and his body put on display before jeering crowds. In order to avoid the same fate, Hitler committed suicide on 30 April 1945 in a bunker under his headquarters in Berlin, along with his wife, Eva Braun, whom he had married the day before.
Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, whom Hitler had nominated as his successor, began negotiations with the Allies just a few days later. A series of partial surrenders took place at Lüneberg Heath in northern Germany, and at Haar in southern Germany – but in the east, the fighting would continue right up until VE Day itself. Indeed, in some places – for example in Prague, and in parts of northern Yugoslavia – German troops would continue fighting even after the final surrender had been signed.
What is the difference between VE Day and VJ Day?
While VE Day marked the end of the Second World War in Europe, fighting in the far east would continue for another three-and-a-half months. As a consequence, there was always a slightly solemn undercurrent to the celebrations of VE Day. “We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing,” said Churchill during his VE Day broadcast, “but let us not forget for a moment the toil and efforts that lie ahead. Japan, with all her treachery and greed, remains unsubdued.”
Japan was not finally defeated until after the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. On 15 August 1945, the Japanese emperor announced his unconditional surrender – and this date is remembered in the UK as VJ [Victory in Japan] Day. However, the official surrender documents were not signed until 2 September, which is considered VJ Day in the USA.
Did the young Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret attend VE Day celebrations?
King George VI and his queen, Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon, made a total of eight appearances on the balcony at Buckingham Palace on VE Day. Their daughters, Princess Elizabeth – the future Queen Elizabeth II – and Princess Margaret, appeared alongside them.
That evening, however, in an unprecedented and spontaneous breach of protocol, the two young women slipped out of the palace in order to join the revellers. They were accompanied by two Guards officers, but in the darkness easily blended in with the crowds. Princess Elizabeth was a member of the Auxiliary Territorial Service, and like many others on the streets that night was dressed in uniform.
Later, she recalled: “We stood outside and shouted ‘We want the King’… I think it was one of the most memorable nights of my life.”
Is VE Day still celebrated today and why? How do the different countries celebrate?
Most nations in Europe still celebrate the anniversary of the end of the Second World War in one way or another. The war was probably the most destructive event in European history. It involved the devastation of hundreds of cities, and the deaths of at least 35 million people, most of them civilians. The end of this conflict, and the dawn of a new era of peace, are universally considered events worth celebrating.
Different countries mark the anniversary in different ways, and on different days. In Italy, for example, ‘Liberation Day’ is celebrated on 25 April – the day in 1945 when Italian partisans proclaimed a general uprising against the German occupiers of their country. In the Netherlands, Liberation Day falls on 5 May, because this is when the German forces capitulated there. But VE Day on 8 May is generally recognised as the single day that unites the vast majority of countries in Europe.
What is the significance of VE Day?
VE Day signified several things at once.
First and foremost, it brought a symbolic end to organised violence across the continent. Europe remained in turmoil for many years after May 1945, but at least the era of pitched battles between huge armies was over. In Britain it meant the end of bombing, and the return of hundreds of thousands of servicemen to their loved ones.
Secondly, it marked the liberation of several countries from foreign occupation. Although France had already been liberated many months earlier, most of Europe was not finally freed from Nazi rule until the spring of 1945. Many countries, including Norway, Denmark, and parts of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, were occupied right up until VE Day itself.
Finally, in western Europe at least, VE Day marked the end of totalitarianism, and the beginning of a new era of democracy. With the Nazis gone, European countries were free once more to choose their own governments. In eastern Europe, which fell under communist rule after 1945, the people would have to wait a further four decades before democracy was restored.
Does Germany recognise or celebrate VE Day?
For many years after the war, VE Day was regarded by many in Germany as a day of shame rather than one of celebration. In East Germany, which became communist after 1945, ‘Liberation Day’ was a public holiday for many years, but it was not generally celebrated with much enthusiasm.
Today, however, VE Day is remembered in a much more favourable light. Germans suffered terribly during the war, not only beneath Allied bombs, but also at the hands of their own rulers. Tens of thousands of Germans were imprisoned or executed by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945, often for the most insignificant misdemeanours. As a consequence, the defeat of the Nazis is now universally regarded as a blessing.
In Germany, VE Day is not a day of celebration as it is in other countries. Rather it is regarded as a day of sombre commemoration, when the dead are remembered, and the promise is renewed never to allow such terrible events to repeat themselves.
Keith Lowe is the author of the international bestseller, Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, which won the Hessell-Tiltman Prize in 2013 and Italy’s Cherasco History Prize in 2015. His latest book is Prisoners of History (HarperCollins, 2020)
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in 2020