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For the 72 Million

The Surrender of Germany, May 1945

The battle raging in Berlin signaled the end of the Third Reich. Soviet Red Army forces and the western Allies pressed the Wehrmacht so far into Germany that neither Western commands nor Eastern commands had room to maneuver.

At Yalta on the Crimea in February 1945, the “Big Three” decided how to govern postwar Europe. Stalin, whose nation had perhaps as many as twenty million dead by the time of the conference and a million more by the time the war was over, wanted lots of space between Russia and Germany to prevent another war. Roosevelt and Churchill, mindful of the Soviet purges of the 1930’s and traditionally opposed to communism, tried to prevent Soviet domination in many places. Eventually the “Big Three” agreed that Poland, Hungary, Romania, and the Baltics would fall into the Soviet Sphere of influence. Greece, Yugoslavia and Austria would be split between them; and France, Luxembourg, Holland, Denmark, and Norway would enter the American and British sphere of influence.

Unlike Versailles, Germany would not be expected to pay reparations, and the entire country would be occupied by the four powers — France included. Berlin itself would be split into four districts, each under the control and administration of one of the major powers.

As the Allies approached each other in southern Germany, the Russians brought tremendous power to bear on Berlin. Bitter and protracted fighting remained, especially for the Red Army. Hundreds of thousands of men and women would be killed in vicious house—to—house fighting.

Meanwhile, Army Group B, the last major German unit, surrendered its 200,000 men in the south on April 24. Everywhere, German soldiers were trying to get refugees out of the way of the advancing Red Army and to surrender to the Western Allies. Many of these men were simply rounded up and turned over to the Soviets. Close to 2,000,000 German troops were imprisoned by the Soviets in the closing weeks of the war. Most of them spent as much as a decade in Soviet gulags.

In front of the hard—driving Allied Armies came SS guards forcing concentration camp victims and POWs to march away from the fighting. Thousands died in forced marches or were killed by their guards. Western POWs had the best chance of survival; their guards turned them loose and they made for Allied lines. The others weren’t as lucky; their guards often killed concentration camp prisoners outright.

The Russians and the Allies liberated the concentration camps and the death camps and were shocked by the horrors they found. The corpses, piled high as the Germans tried to destroy the evidence of their crime by accelerating the killing, were all over the camps. Eisenhower toured Ohrdruf Concentration Camp, immediately ordered the German civilians to be forced to see what had gone on in their backyard. Surviving prisoners helped the Allies pick out guards that were hiding in their ranks.

All over Germany, SS and Gestapo officers realized they would be held accountable by the Allies for war crimes and tried to escape. Many like Hermann Goering, Albert Speer, Fritz von Papen, and other high—ranking Nazis were captured and held for trial. Goering’s stash of looted art treasures, plus hidden caches of Nazi gold and jewelry, was found all over Germany. Everything of value was stripped from the occupied countries during the war and sent to Germany.

Heinrich Himmler tried to make a separate armistice with the western Allies and was rebuffed, but this action caused Hitler to order his execution. Little could be done to carry it out. Goering also tried to name himself as successor and fell out of favor with Hitler. Before his death Hitler named Kriegsmarine Admiral Karl Dönitz as his successor.

The Führerbunker in Berlin has passed into legend. The last redoubt of Nazism, it was powerless to stop the battle swirling around it in the streets above. Hitler was temporarily buoyed by the death of United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but when it didn’t alter the Allies’ resolve or lift the siege, he soon return to depression.

In desperate acts, he ordered the sewers flooded, thinking this would stop the Russian advance; it just killed refugees and wounded. He moved nonexistent or trapped armies in battle, and ordered the execution of commanders who were unable to carry out his orders.

Probably insane and in denial of the situation, he decided to commit suicide. On April 30, after repeated reports of his death, he married Eva Braun and they took cyanide and he shot himself. Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels ordered the bodies burned and he and his wife set about killing their children and preparing their own suicides.

All over Germany, especially in the East, thousands of Germans killed themselves. Those that did not faced a Red Army bent on retribution. 100,000 women were raped following the fall of Berlin on May 2. The Russians sacked Eastern Germany and took anything of value back to the Soviet Union.

Organized resistance was coming to an end. The question of who could order the complete surrender of all German forces became a critical question. Units surrendered, starting with Holland and Denmark on April 26. All over Europe German units began to lay down their arms.

On May 7, Dönitz met Eisenhower and other Allied officers outside of Rheims, France, and signed the Instrument of Surrender. The next day German officers signed an armistice with the Soviet Union.

On May 8, Churchill and United States President Harry S. Truman declared V—E Day, Victory in Europe. Cheering throngs packed Piccadilly Circus and Times Square.

In Europe, millions of soldiers, freed slave laborers, and refugees felt relief but did not cheer. All they wanted to do was to go home. Millions of others looked to rebuild their shattered communities. Everywhere DPs (displaced persons — refugees) looked forward the long journey home. Others faced an uncertain future in prison camps or in forced migrations.

The fighting in the Pacific would last for four more months, but everyone expected years of bloody fighting on the Japanese mainland. No one had heard of the Manhattan Project that would change the way wars would be fought forever.

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