May 8th was the day celebrated in Great Britain and the United States as Victory in Europe Day. Although the Germans had signed the surrender a day earlier, an event which I discussed here, the final version was agreed on on May 8th and all fighting against the Western Allies stopped. May 8th was a day of celebration for the populations of the victorious nations. In Germany, the day did not receive as positive a reaction. However, it did not receive as negative a reaction as one might expect.
Victory and Europe Day was celebrated by millions of people in the cities of the UK and the United States, and also in the liberated cities of Europe. The populations of France, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, the Netherlands, and many other nations rejoiced as the nation that once invaded and occupied them without cause was finally defeated. Meanwhile, the only concern for the remaining German troops was surrendering to the Americans rather than the Russians. The German population was certainly saddened by their nation’s defeat. However, the end of the war meant a restoration, at least in West Germany, of both basic necessities and political freedoms. By 1945, the German population had been under strict rationing for years. They had experienced shortages of food, electricity, housing, and even water as the Allied forces destroyed more and more of Germany’s infrastructure. The end of the war brought food aid and the reconstruction of German cities. For a time, starvation and deprivation was rampant, but soon the German people would be restored to some semblance of their pre-war lives. Of course, the principle difference between life in West Germany and life in Nazi Germany was the level of personal and political freedom in the two nations. While Nazi Germany in 1939 might have seen more prosperity than occupied West Germany, the latter saw no mass killings, no deportations, and no stripping of the rights of minority groups. East Germany was another story, but even there the severity and extent of the repression was outmatched by that which the population had experienced under the Nazis. For the German people, May 8th, 1945, was a day of defeat, yes, but it was also a day which saw a civilized and moral government return to Germany.
I think that it is always important to look at days like VE day from the perspective of the nations that did not win. So often, the nations on the winning side of history forget the emotional and physical trauma suffered by the defeated populations. Certainly, the German population as a whole was to some extent guilty of the crimes committed by Nazi Germany. However, they should not be remembered as evil, nor should their hardship be overlooked. Further, we should remember that the German population was liberated on May 8th from a government that had come to oppress them just as it had more severely oppressed other nations. Ironically, in their attempt to secure German domination of Europe, the Nazis subjected their people to injustice and subjected them to suffering unparalleled in the annals of German history.