v-e day -- 5/4/21

Today's selection -- from Year Zero by Ian Buruma. The official end to World War II in Europe was attended by jockeying among political leaders, confusion, and massive celebrations:

"The official date for the end of the war in Europe, V-E Day, was in fact May 8. Even though the unconditional surrender of all German troops was signed in a schoolhouse in Rheims on the evening of May 6, the cel­ebrations could not yet begin. Stalin was furious that General Eisenhower had presumed to accept the German surrender for the eastern as well as western fronts. Only the Soviets should have that privilege, in Berlin. Stalin wanted to postpone V-E Day till May 9. This, in turn, annoyed Churchill.

"People all over Britain were already busy baking bread for celebratory sandwiches; flags and banners had been prepared; church bells were wait­ing to be tolled. In the general confusion, it was the Germans who first announced the end of the war in a radio broadcast from Flensburg, where Admiral Doenitz was still nominally in charge of what remained of the tattered German Reich. This was picked up by the BBC. Special editions of the French, British, and U.S. newspapers soon hit the streets. In Lon­don, large crowds gathered around Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square, expecting Churchill to announce victory so the biggest party in history could finally begin. Ticker tape started raining in the streets of New York. But still there was no official announcement from the Allied leaders that the war with Germany was over.

"Just before midnight on May 8, at the Soviet HQ in Karlshorst, near my father's old labor camp, Marshal Georgy Zhukov, the brutal military genius, at last accepted the German surrender. Once more, Admiral von Friedeberg put his signature to the German defeat. Field Marshal Wil­helm Keitel, expressionless, rigid, every inch the Prussian soldier, told the Russians that he was horrified by the extent of destruction wrought on the German capital. Whereupon a Russian officer asked Keitel whether he had been equally horrified when on his orders, thousands of Soviet vil­lages and towns were obliterated, and millions of people, including many children, were buried under the ruins. Keitel shrugged his shoulders and said nothing.

"Zhukov then asked the Germans to leave, and the Russians, together with their American, British, and French allies, celebrated in style with teary-eyed speeches and huge amounts of wine, cognac, and vodka. A banquet was held in that same room the following day when Zhukov toasted Eisenhower as one of the greatest generals of all time. The toasts went on and on and on, and the Russian generals, including Zhukov, danced, until few men were left standing.

"On May 8, crowds were already going crazy in New York. They were also pouring into the streets in London, but a peculiar hush still fell over the British crowds, as though they were waiting for Churchill's voice to set off the celebrations. Churchill, who had decided to ignore Stalin's wish to postpone V-E Day till the ninth, would speak at 3 P.M. President Truman had already spoken earlier. General Charles de Gaulle, refusing to be upstaged by Churchill, insisted on making his announcement to the French at exactly the same time.

"Churchill's speech on the BBC was heard on radios around the world.

"There was no more room to move on Parliament Square outside Westmin­ster, where loudspeakers had been installed. People were pressed against the gates of Buckingham Palace. Cars could no longer get through the crowds in the West End. Big Ben sounded three times. The crowd went quiet, and at last Churchill's voice boomed through the loudspeakers: 'The German war is therefore at an end ... almost the whole world was combined against the evil-doers, who are now prostrate before us ... We must now devote all our strength and resources to the completion of our task, both at home and abroad ... ' And here his voice broke: 'Advance Britannia! Long live the cause of freedom! God save the King.' A little later, he made the V for Vic­tory sign on the balcony of the Ministry of Health. 'God bless you all. This is your victory!' And the crowd yelled back: 'No it is yours!'

"The Daily Herald reported: 'There were fantastic "mafficking" scenes in the heart of the city as cheering, dancing, laughing, uncontrollable crowds mobbed buses, jumped on the roofs of cars, tore down a hoarding for causeway bonfires, kissed policemen and dragged them into the dancing ... Motorists gave the V-sign on their electric horns. Out on the river tugs and ships made the night echo and re-echo with V-sirens.'

"Somewhere in that crowd were my eighteen-year-old mother, who had been given time off from her boarding school, and her younger brother. My grandmother, Winifred Schlesinger, daughter of German-Jewish im­migrants, had every reason to be happy, and her worship of Churchill knew no bounds. But she was nervous that her children might get lost in the 'excited, drunken crowd-especially Yanks.'

"In New York, five hundred thousand people celebrated in the streets.

"Curfew was lifted. The clubs -- the Copacabana, the Versailles, the Latin Quarter, the Diamond Horseshoe, El Morocco -- were packed and open half the night. Lionel Hampton was playing at the Zanzibar, Eddie Stone at the Hotel Roosevelt Grill, and 'jumbo portions' of food were on offer at Jack Dempsey's.

"In Paris, on the Place de la Republique, a reporter for the Liberation newspaper watched 'a moving mass of people, bristling with allied flags. An American soldier was wobbling on his long legs, in a strange state of disequilibrium, trying to take photographs, two bottles of cognac, one empty, one still full, sticking from his khaki pockets.' A U.S. bomber pilot thrilled the crowd by flying his Mitchell B-25 through the gap under the Eiffel Tower."

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Ian Buruma


Year Zero: A History of 1945


A Penguin Random House Company


Copyright 2013 by Ian Buruma


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