VE Day: Joy in Europe, but worse horrors of WWII were yet to come

Eileen Battersby: Europe’s streets lined with people too exhausted by six years of grief

“…above the battle’s fury -

Clouds and trees and grass.”

From: To Mark Anthony in Heaven, by William Carlos Williams.

Beyond joy, beyond relief, it was more a communal emotion bordering on hysteria. Victory in Europe Day on May 8th 1945, 70 years ago today, saw the streets of cities and towns across Europe, North America and elsewhere filled with cheering crowds. Piccadilly Circus in London appeared to undulate in one human mass, as did Times Square in New York. Flags were waved, car horns blared, songs sung and impromptu dance steps demonstrated by traumatised people too exhausted by six years of grief, rationing, uncertainty, to know what they were doing or saying. Little did any of them suspect that the grotesque finale was yet to fall from the sky over two cities in far distant Japan.


For them the war, at least the war in Europe, was finally over. Britain's prime minister, Winston Churchill, addressed the nation in Whitehall, delivering yet another of his famous speeches. The US president Harry Truman declared that Victory in Europe Day - which also happened to be his 61st birthday - was the happiest of his life and paid tribute to his great predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had died less than a month earlier, on April 12th 1945.

The war was changing very quickly. Hitler was dead. He had taken his own life in his bunker, a day after Mussolini had been executed by Italian partisans. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and his wife had also killed themselves after poisoning their six young children. Admiral Doenitz had been informed that he was chancellor of Germany. On the morning of May 2nd, the Russians under the command of Marshall Zhukov had accepted the surrender of Berlin. A new phrase "Iron Curtain" was heard for the first time as the German foreign minister, Count Schwerin von Krosigk, announced on Berlin radio: "In the East the iron curtain behind which, unseen by the eyes of the world, the work of destruction goes on, moves steadily forward" - and the translated transcript had been reported internationally. Admittedly, Goebbels had also referred to an iron curtain some weeks earlier, but his broadcast in German had not been covered outside Germany. Still the world waited. In northern Italy and southern Austria, an estimated one million German soldiers had laid down their arms. Yet for more than a week after Hitler's death the faltering war in Europe continued to drag on.

As accusing comments were beginning to be voiced about Russian intentions a group of 850 Jewish women, survivors of the Stutthof death camp, were attempting to flee Lubeck and had joined a huge party of about 10,000 refugees about to board three refugee ships leaving Lubeck harbour, bound for neutral Sweden. The respective skippers, all German, refused to allow the women board. They were returned to shore in the barges that had taken them out to the ships. For those women, the war would not end. As they approached the shore, members of the Hitler Youth opened fire and more than 500 of the prison camp survivors died on the water. The refugees fared little better; two of the three refugee ships were sunk by a British bombing mission mistaking Lubeck for their intended target - Kiel harbour.

A pattern emerged; German forces were fighting in an ever-contracting area and Russian control was rapidly extending. In a telegram sent by Churchill to Truman on May 4th, he pointed out that by the increasing area of Soviet control "would control the Baltic provinces, all of Germany to the occupational line, all Czechoslovakia, a large part of Austria, the whole of Yugoslavia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, until Greece in her present tottering condition is reached. "Churchill stressed: "All the great capitals of middle Europe, including Berlin, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia" would be in Russian hands, he had forgotten to add Warsaw, Riga and Tallinn.

But Germany not Russia preoccupied the Western Allies. On May 5th, British and Canadian soldiers overpowered the remaining German soldiers in the Netherlands. As a Dutch eye witness recalled: "We were free again." In the early hours of the next day, the people of Prague made a stand while US forces had already pushed the Germans out of western Czechoslovakia and the Soviets moved in.

Having been chancellor of Germany for six days Doenitz had no option but to authorize in the early hours of May 7th the total and unconditional surrender of all German forces on all fronts. The Allies accepted and yet the destruction continued with a vicious irony. Later that day as thousands of Dutch citizens gathered in Amsterdam to celebrate news of peace, German soldiers still stationed in the city and serving as a police force with allied approval, were concerned about the size of the growing crowd and opened fire, killing 31 Dutch citizens who had gathered to celebrate the German surrender.

The war in Europe was over, leaving millions dead as well as millions of Germans and German-speaking people homeless, having been expelled by the Soviets, Poles and Czechs. Few western European countries were faced with the ambivalence experienced in France. Meanwhile in Los Alamos, New Mexico, the American top-secret Target Committee had already selected Hiroshima as a likely location for dropping the atom bomb. The war in a shattered Europe was over, or so it seemed to the desperate survivors who waved and cheered and gave thanks on this day 70 years ago, but the second World War was not yet over and its legacy of deadly radiation continues to affect the people of Japan.

Documentary material

There is a wealth of documentary material available in all languages and the story continues to preoccupy historians and to inspire writers across the world. Here is a brief selection of memoir and fiction:

If Not Now, When? by Primo Levi (1982; English translation by William Weaver (1985). All of Levi's writings are vital, he remains a defining witness. This work tells the story of what happened between July 1943 and the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 7 1945.

Peace by Richard Bausch (2008) Inspired by an experience his father, an American soldier serving in Italy, underwent as a soldier and preferred not to discuss this is a devastating study of the way in which the cruelty of war affects the morality of the soldiers caught up in it.

A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli (2012) translated by Sam Taylor. A trio of German soldiers are sent out to hunt Jews in the Polish countryside. Their human quarry becomes less important than the unexpectedly symbolic meal they set out to prepare in a derelict hut.

Monsieur Linh and His Child by Philippe Claudel (2011) translated by Euan Cameron. Claudel's elegant, delicate and sensitive narrative shows the damage war inflicts upon the survivors.

In My Brother's Shadow by Uwe Timm (2005) translated by Anthea Bell. This is a brilliant memoir in which Timm, who was born in 1940, recalls his elder brother, a sapper in the SS who was 16 years older than him and was killed in action. His brother's notebook chronicles the shame and the horror as well as the wartime suffering of the ordinary Germans.

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (1992). Joint-winner of the Booker Prize, Sri Lankan-born, Toronto-based Ondaatje's flash-back and fragmentary memory-driven war epic is most associated with the dramatic images of the charred pilot who had fallen from the sky into the North African desert: "I fell burning into the desert." But much of the action takes place in a villa in war-time Florence where the wounded and dying are tended and there are also scenes depicting the Blitz in London.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (2013). Winner of last year's Man Booker Prize, Flanagan's powerful novel is partly based on the experiences of his father an Australian soldier and prisoner of war forced to work on building the infamous "Death Railway". Admittedly not about the war in Europe yet the war sequences are among the most harrowing in literature.

The Whale That Fell in Love with a Submarine by Akiyuki Nosaka (2003), translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori. Stark and powerful stories from Japan all sharing a mantra, a date, "The 15 of August 1945" - the day Emperor Hirohito in a recorded address, announced the surrender of Japan to the Allies. Victory in Europe Day commemorates the day the war ended in Europe, but for the millions more still to die, the war was not over and in Japan the legacy of disease caused by radiation persists.