Today, Britain remembers VE Day as a moment of victory and celebration. But in mainland Europe, memories are sometimes a little more complicated.
On 8 May 1945, huge crowds took to the streets to drink and dance the night away in Paris and Brussels, just as they did in London. But according to the French newspaper Libération, “It was only the young who felt exuberant” – among the older generations there was, instead, an air of indefinable melancholy.
In Rome, according to at least one witness, “the atmosphere was sober and calm, even among the civilians”. In a letter to his wife, shortly after the celebrations, Len Scott, a former journalist, claimed that despite a certain amount of “feeble cheering”, the celebrations in the Italian capital passed “as uneventfully as a church parade”.
VE Day at 75
Seventy-five years ago this month, Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allies, bringing to a close the European war. Read articles from BBC History Magazine’s VE Day special supplement, in which we explore the moment of victory from several perspectives:
In some parts of Europe, there were no celebrations at all. In Prague, for example, the last German units did not surrender until 9 May: amid continued fighting and chaos, there was no time for organised festivities. In parts of northern Yugoslavia, fighting continued for another week.
One of the most vivid accounts of VE Day in mainland Europe was given by the French fighter pilot Pierre Clostermann, who was stationed in Fassberg in Germany when the Armistice was announced. According to Clostermann, the mood on his airfield on 8 May 1945 was downright gloomy. “That evening in the mess was like some extraordinary vigil over a corpse,” he later wrote. “The pilots were slumped in their chairs – no one spoke a word, or sang, or anything.” Late in the evening, someone turned on the wireless: the BBC was reporting on the celebrations in Trafalgar Square. “All eyes turned towards the set, and in them you could read a kind of hatred.” Eventually someone threw a bottle at the wireless, smashing it. One by one they all went to bed.
Reactions like this were not typical, but neither were they unique. To understand them, one must first appreciate the events that led up to VE Day, and the conditions that pervaded across the continent as the war came to its end.
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The year 1945 was not only one of victory: it was also a time of extreme violence. In Belgium, it began with a massacre. The German army had just launched a massive counterattack against the Allies in the Ardennes, and returning SS units had committed a string of atrocities against soldiers and civilians alike. So on New Year’s Day, some members of the US 11th Armored Division decided to take their revenge. Near the village of Chenogne they gathered together 60 or so German prisoners in a field and opened fire on them with machine guns. It was not an auspicious start to the year.
Over the next four months, the Allies launched a series of offensives across Europe that were every bit as devastating as the German assault five years earlier. In January, they neutralised the German attack in the Ardennes. In February, they struck towards the heart of Germany, crossing the Rhine in late March. Shortly afterwards, in April, they launched separate attacks to liberate the northern parts of Italy and the Netherlands.
Even more devastating was the war that was being raged in the air. By the beginning of 1945, the German air force had all but ceased to exist, and the Allies were able to bomb German cities almost unopposed. In February and March, the RAF and the US Army Air Force laid waste to dozens of cities, including Dresden, Pforzheim and Würzburg. The desolation caused by these attacks brought frequent comparisons to Armageddon. On seeing the devastation of Munich in 1945, the diarist Victor Klemperer declared: “It truly did almost make one think that a Last Judgment was imminent.”
By the end of April, it was obvious even to Hitler that there could be only one end to this war. The final straw came when his ally, Benito Mussolini, was captured in Italy. He was executed on 28 April and his body was put on display, hanging by its feet, in a piazza in Milan. Not wishing to suffer the same fate, Hitler committed suicide two days later. He left instructions for his body to be burned.
Over the next few days, a series of surrenders followed. Berlin fell on 2 May. The German armies in north-west Europe surrendered to Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery on 4 May. On 7 May, in the French city of Reims, members of the German High Command signed an unconditional surrender of all German troops. The following day, shortly before midnight, a final, definitive surrender was signed in Berlin. The war in Europe had formally come to an end.
If the war in the west involved a certain amount of brutality, atrocity and humiliation, on the eastern front things were far worse.
The Red Army finally crossed the Vistula around Warsaw on 12 January 1945. Over the next four months it overran the rest of Poland, East Prussia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and parts of Austria. By the end of March it had reached the Oder river; and by 25 April it had encircled Berlin. The battle to subdue the German capital during the next two weeks was among the most vicious encounters of the entire war.
This relentless drive across eastern Europe cost the Soviets more than half a million casualties. Germany, meanwhile, lost more than 1.2 million dead, wounded and missing.
The advance of the Red Army in the last four months of the war was one of the most impressive military feats of modern times. Unfortunately, the undoubted heroism of Soviet soldiers has long been overshadowed by their simultaneous savagery. When they arrived on German territory, they regularly torched villages, massacred civilians, and occasionally also mutilated their bodies and put them on display. At Metgethen in East Prussia, witnesses found the bodies of children who had been bayoneted and beaten to death. In Gross Heydekrug, a woman was crucified on the altar of the local church, with two German soldiers similarly strung up on either side.
Those who tried to stop this senseless destruction were often censured by their fellow Soviets for displaying “undue compassion towards the enemy”. For example, when Lev Kopelev, a propaganda officer for the Red Army, publicly criticised his fellow soldiers for the crimes they were committing, he was arrested and thrown in prison. He was not released for 10 years.
Women had particular reason to be fearful. The mass rape that occurred when the Red Army overran eastern and central Europe in 1945 was one of the most widespread atrocities of the whole war. It was not only German women who suffered, but also Hungarians, Austrians and even women in countries like Poland and Czechoslovakia, which were supposed to be allies of the Soviet Union. In Vienna alone, according to contemporary medical records, 87,000 women were raped during and after the liberation. Estimates for Europe as a whole range between two and three million victims.
In the last months of the war, reports of atrocities by the Red Army were used by the Nazis as propaganda to galvanise the German people. However, these reports also caused a mass panic in central and eastern Europe, especially among people with German heritage. Millions of refugees began to stream westwards, including some four million from the eastern reaches of Germany alone. (This mass migration would continue after the war, when the remaining people with German ancestry were forcibly expelled from countries such as Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary.)
Alongside these German refugees were hundreds of thousands of others who were forcemarched into Germany against their will. These people were inmates from Germany’s extensive network of concentration camps, slave labour camps and prisoner-of-war camps. Not wishing them to fall into enemy hands, the Nazis decided to evacuate them en masse. These evacuations were carried out in a hurry, in the depths of winter, without adequate food or clothing for the prisoners. As a consequence, they have come to be known by those who survived them as ‘death marches’.
Marilka Ossowska was one such prisoner. She had spent two years working as a forced labourer in Auschwitz, Ravensbrück and Buchenwald, before being evacuated towards Czechoslovakia towards the end of the war. When I interviewed her in 2007, she told me that she and her fellow prisoners marched day and night for three days: anyone who could not keep up was shot and left on the road. One night, unable to take any more, she threw herself into a roadside ditch and waited for the column to move on. Miraculously, none of the guards saw her.
Displaced: German civilians await transport in Berlin. Many people of German descent in countries at war with the Reich, such as Poland, were brutally created. (Photo by Getty Images)
Marilka spent the last two weeks of the war in hiding. The reason why she was not recaptured and punished in the war’s final days was that the whole system in Germany had begun to break down. And she was not alone: forced labourers everywhere had begun to leave their jobs, and had taken to the roads in the hope of making their way home.
“Germany in 1945 was one huge ants’ nest,” she said. “There were Germans escaping from the Russians. There were all these prisoners of war… It was really incredible, teeming with people and movement.”
When the war came to an end in 1945, there were at least 17 million such displaced persons in Germany alone. According to a study made in the 1950s, over 40 million people across Europe had become refugees of one sort or another during the war.
Marilka Ossowska did not remember any kind of celebration on VE Day: she was too busy simply trying to survive. While housewives in Britain were using up precious rations to bake cakes in celebration of the end of the war, Marilka had to make do with eating rapeseed flowers and nettles that she found beside the road.
Food riots and starvation
The situation was not much better for millions of people all across Europe in 1945. The war had systematically smashed transport links, making it impossible to move vital supplies around the continent. As a consequence, people everywhere were starving.
One of the possible explanations for the muted celebrations in Rome on VE Day was that the people were hungry. Housewives had already been involved in food riots in the city, and in December 1944 a ‘hunger march’ had been held in protest over shortages. At the end of the war, according to a report by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, food riots were continuing throughout the country.
In Poland and Ukraine, which had been stripped bare by the various armies that had passed through, the situation was even worse. During the occupation, the Nazis had followed a deliberate policy of requisitioning food at the expense of the civilian population. In Kharkiv alone, starvation helped to cause some 70–80,000 deaths. By the time the Soviets returned, there was no farm machinery left and not enough workers to man the farms – so the starvation continued.
In the Netherlands, one of the last places in Europe to be liberated, the situation became so bad that people resorted to eating tulip bulbs. By the end of the war, the official food ration in the west of the country was just 400 calories per day – that is, about half the amount received by the inmates of the Belsen concentration camp. In such circumstances, the black market became essential to survival, and people from all the major cities regularly trudged out to the countryside in the hope of trading their coats or watches for food. By the time the Allies arrived, according to the writer Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema, cities like Amsterdam were unrecognisable. Roelfzema had spent much of the war in Britain, flying with the RAF, and was shocked by the state of his country on VE Day. “Every town throbbed with frenzied celebration, but underneath the boozing and the singing and the sex, times were sad. There had been too much suffering, too much destruction, too much death. Under the shrill flags everything was drab and grey.”
It is impossible to remember the end of the war without also recalling perhaps its greatest tragedy: the murder of millions of so-called Untermenschen in what would later become known as the Shoah, or the Holocaust.
That the Nazis had been systematically killing Jews in eastern Europe was well known by 1945: the Soviets had already uncovered evidence of mass killings at Majdanek, Treblinka and Babi Yar. But it was not until Auschwitz was liberated at the end of January 1945 that the industrial nature of the killings was revealed. Soon, the western Allies were also coming across concentration camps. In April, the British and Americans liberated Belsen, Buchenwald and Dachau, and they too began to appreciate the full scale of what had been done to the Jews of Europe.
For the US war crimes investigator Benjamin Ferencz, this was a particularly traumatic time. The concentration camps he visited were, he said, “all basically similar: dead bodies strewn across the camp grounds, piles of skin and bones, cadavers piled up like cordwood before the burning crematoria, helpless skeletons with diarrhoea, dysentery, typhus, TB, pneumonia and other ailments, retching in their louse-ridden bunks or on the ground with only their pathetic eyes pleading for help”.
After such sights, Ferencz did not feel much like celebrating VE Day.
David Bradford, a British medical student taken to Bergen-Belsen by the Red Cross to help with emergency relief work, was equally stunned by the horrors that he witnessed. He spent 8 May 1945 doling out cigarettes and food to his patients, many of whom were too weak to eat, let alone celebrate. The level of despair in the camp was almost unbearable. “They couldn’t see any future – what was VE Day to them? Even if they managed to live, they were left only with the prospect of going back to ruined cities in Poland and Czechoslovakia.”
The German surrender on 8 May 1945 brought an end to the Holocaust, but the genocide and its consequences have continued to haunt Europe ever since.
Given all that had happened in the final months of the war, it is perhaps not surprising that VE Day was not celebrated in Europe with the same enthusiasm that it was in Britain. After all they had seen and experienced, many soldiers did not feel much like celebrating. They were homesick, and anxious about what the future might now hold. Many were mourning dead comrades, and still felt vengeful towards their defeated foes. “In the desperation and the gloom and the sadness of Europe there was no VE Day,” claimed Phil Loffman, an Australian NCO who, like Marilka Ossowska, had escaped from German captivity in April 1945. “We were with the Russians and there was nothing celebrated. The war was over and there were still dead people and people being shot.”
For civilians in Europe, it was often even worse. They lived in a world that had been shattered by violence. At least 35 million people had been killed, and perhaps as many as 50 million – nobody could be sure, because the continent was in such a state of chaos. It would take years for economic and political stability to return, and decades before their devastated towns and cities could be rebuilt.
The psychological legacy was perhaps even greater still. Which is why the end of the Second World War is still being commemorated, all over Europe, even 75 years later.
Keith Lowe is the author of Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II (Viking, 2012). His latest book is Prisoners of History: What Monuments to the Second World War Tell Us About Our History and Ourselves
This article was first published in the May 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine