Commemorating the 8th of May 1945: Start better relations with Russia 2020


By Elisabeth Hellenbroich

Because of the global Corona Pandemic, most of the commemorations that were planned to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the 8th / 9th of May 1945 – which marked the end of the Second World War (1939-45) – have  been cancelled in several places in Russia and Europe. In Moscow the commemoration was supposed to take place with war veterans, accompanied by a military parade in the presence of foreign leaders such as French President Emanuel Macron, who had long before been invited by President Putin (also the German Chancellor had received an invitation), as well as Chinese President Xi  Jinping, while President Trump had rejected to attend.

Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in an interview with Tagesspiegel (3.05.) underlined that the “Corona pandemic” is more reason to have better relations with Russia: “Instead of confrontation, we need a world-wide understanding, cooperation and solidarity,” he stated. A similar interview was given by Italy’s former foreign Minister Franco Frattini who in an interview with TASS Agency called for the lifting of sanctions against Russia.  In his interview Schröder added some reflections about Russia’s history, by emphasizing that we can’t block on the history of Russia. He reminded that the war of Hitler against Russia was “a cruel campaign of destruction whose aim was to have Russia disappear from world stage.”

On this background it is instructive to read a book which was published in April by the well- known German Russia-expert and Research director of the German- Russian Forum, Alexander Rahr. The book was co-authored with Wladimir Sergijenko (Ukraine; International Pen Club) under the title “Der 8. Mai – Die Geschichte eines Tages” (The 8th of May. History of one day, Das Neue Berlin, Eulenspiegel- Verlag, April 2020).The book is based on testimonies  and diaries written by former eyewitnesses – some were serving as Jews in the Red Army (Stefan Doernberg), others like Konstantin Simonov who also served in the Soviet Red Army as officer wrote war diaries; there was also Vera Albrecht recounting the story of how the Russian soldiers took Berlin; the report from  CBS journalist  Harry Butcher, close to US General Dwight Eisenhower, who reported about the event in Reims; or there was the testimony given by former Russian Military Academy Member Gregory Klimov, who later defected to the CIA.

The motive for the book, as Alexander Rahr explained in a recent interview with the online magazine “Russland- news”, was that the “memory culture” in particular the memories about the Second World War is  nowadays “fading” away and gets manipulated. He pointed out that there are different “narratives” which explain the history of the Second World War.  At the end of the war against Hitler’s Nazi Germany, the US and USSR spoke a “common language.” Today however,  Rahr observed, we often hear a different “narrative”: that the Americans were the “good” liberators, the Russians the “evil occupiers.” One eyewitness, Vera Albrecht, as we can read in the book, reports how on the 2nd of May the fights in Berlin came to a halt. She described in her diary that loudspeaker camions went through Berlin stopping in front of entrenchments and peoples’ air raid shelters, in streets and places, playing over the loudspeaker the declaration of surrender by General Weidling – the German battle commander from Berlin, who told the people: “I order the immediate halt of any resistance. Every hour that you continue fighting prolongs the horrendous suffering of the civilian population and of our wounded. In agreement with the Supreme Command of the Soviet troops I urge you to immediately stop fighting.”

Days before the war ended, tens of thousands of people desperately fought against the Red Army in the streets of Berlin in an intensive house to house combat. Weeks before that American, British and Soviet soldiers had moved ahead jointly from the West and Eastern Front.  Hitler, instead of taking responsibility for the catastrophe that he had unleashed, committed suicide on the 30th of April in a bunker of the Reichstag.  Before that, as the book reports, he had designated as successor Admiral of the Fleet, Karl Dönitz, who empowered Colonel General Alfred Jodl, the responsible for the warfare from Norway to Northern Africa, to conduct “surrender negotiations” with the American Headquarter in Reims.  Jodl tried to “delay” the Wehrmacht surrender to the Red Army, so as to make it possible for as many Germans as possible in the Eastern Territories to flee to the West. But he didn’t succeed.

Karlshorst: “The war in Europe is over”

On the 7th of May Colonel General Jodl signed the unconditional surrender of the German Wehrmacht in the Reims Headquarter of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe.  On the 8th of May 1945 at 23 o’ Clock a follow up event took place at the Engineer School, Karlshorst (Berlin), the Headquarter of the Soviet Command.  Marshal Georgy Zhukov led the ceremony.

According to an eye witness account given by a Soviet soldier in Karlshorst May 8th 1945, at the Engineering school Karlshorst (Berlin) in a 200 square meters hall, the signing of the “unconditional surrender” documents occurred. Flags were on the wall. There were different tables in the room; one for the Soviets and Allied Generals, one for the Germans (including Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel et al.) and one for the correspondents. Finally Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov entered the hall with the other Generals from the Allied Forces. He opened the session for the signing of the surrender documents, which were first read in different languages. Then Zhukov ordered to have the German delegation enter: At the central table the signing of the documents began: Signatures were given by Marshal Zhukov, US General Carl Andrew Spaatz, Arthur William Tedder, Marshal of the Royal Airforce, and by French General de Lattre de Tassigny. Then Zhukov stated: “The German delegation should sign the document about unconditional surrender.” Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel signed first, followed by the other German Generals. Then Zhukov said: “The German delegation can leave the room. With the capitulation document signed the war is over”.

When the Second World War ended May 8, 1945 – 60 million (!) people were dead, while the “Third Reich” of the Nazis sank into ashes and ruins as well as into blood and tears. The  60 million were victims of war –  30 million (!) in  the USSR ; they included the 6 million  Jews as well as minorities  murdered in concentration camps; millions of German and European soldiers, as well as civilians who were burnt during bombing raids, dying of famine, in cold temperature and perish during flight and expulsion. One can read in the book that in Yalta (February 1945) Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill had declared to bring all Nazi criminals to courts and punish them. The tricks which were tried out at the end of the war by some of the Wehrmacht Generals to negotiate a separate peace deal, didn’t work. At that time according to the book account, the “reputation and esteem” of the Soviet Union and its Army thanks to their fight against fascism was so big on the side of the US and GB that “an agreement with the enemy behind their back was impossible.”

“The War in Europe is ended” was the banner Headline in the New York Times on the 8th of May. Half a million people celebrated on Times Square; in Paris a mass was celebrated in the Cathedral Notre Dame and General Charles de Gaulle stated that the German Reich as state power and doctrine had been totally destroyed.  On the 9th of May the Soviet radio reported that the great day of victory over Germany had come; that the “fascists of Germany had declared themselves defeated by our Allies and our troops and had unconditionally surrendered.”

Warning not to use history as a weapon

In the epilogue of the book Alexander Rahr comments, that this book was not a political “discourse” but meant as a “warning” not to use “history as a weapon” which is unfortunately done today. He instead advises that the anniversary of the 8th of May should “be occasion for the different warring parties in European politics to pause for a while on world stage and reflect how a reconciliation of the conflict ridden European community is possible. Is there the possibility for a unified narrative in East and West?”  Rahr pays attention to some facts which are overlooked in today’s debate that focusses on the “good America” which liberated Germany and Europe and the on the “evil Russia” which imposed dictatorship. Rahr emphasizes that one should take into account, that Adolf Hitler had conducted this war against Russia – different than his war against the West – as  a “war of annihilation” , in order to conquer Eastern Europe up to the Urals as “Lebensraum”  for a future Great German Reich.

The Wehrmacht in 1941/42 went up to Leningrad, Moscow and the Caucasus .The turning point was the battle of “Stalingrad” – which Hitler lost. From 1943 till 1945 the Red Army pushed back the Wehrmacht from Soviet territory and Eastern Europe. On the 2nd of May the victorious Soviet soldiers hissed the Red Flag on the Reichstag of Berlin; before Hitler had committed suicide and after the defeat of Germany his “crimes against humanity” became evident for everybody. According to Rahr “the actual western world view is shaped by the contrast ‘Freedom- Unfreedom’. The enlightened liberal West – as the author of the book argues, “since 100 years is at the side of freedom – Russia is identified since the 20th century at the side of “unfreedom.” The West as winner of the East/ West conflict has developed a zeal to make the world more “just” by way of a liberal freedom model, not by social equality, Rahr  comments and further comments that  “morally and emotionally” the West is at the side of the “new” Eastern European states that gained back their independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Hence the historical controversy, whether the 8th of May 1945 is a day of “liberation or a new bondage,” divides the West and East.

Critical voices in the West accuse Russia to instrumentalize the 8th of May for maintaining its “great power status.”  Fact is, according to Rahr, that Stalin had “won” the war, even under tremendous sacrifices.  Fact is also, Rahr observes, that the Triumvirate of the victorious powers, which on the 8th of May defeated Hitler and renewed the world, was only short lived. It was not a holy Alliance of like-minded people, but a “community of convenience” of competing powers against a greater evil: Nazi Germany. Therefore Europe after the war was not ruled by a Concert of powers – like after the war against Napoleon and the Vienna Congress 1815 – but divided up in two spheres of influence. In the following period the USSR and USA, due to their different social systems became bitter enemies. “The narrative of having jointly won the Second World War “faded away” and was overlayed by a new enemy- image, which existed from 1945 till 1990 and still has an effect today 30 years after the end of the Cold War.  Rahr regrets that in 1991 a historical opportunity was missed.  “The collective West should have in 1991 offered Russia a common European alliance, similar to France which after the defeat of Napoleon had won after the Vienna Congress 1815 a firm place in Europe.”

In September 2019, Rahr reports, the European Parliament voted with a huge majority in favor of a resolution that puts Communism and National Socialism on equal footing, stating that both systems are “totalitarian dictatorships” and they condemn Hitler and Stalin as perpetrators of the Second World War. “The geopolitical intention behind this declaration became clear: Prevent Russia to legitimize its Great power status in a future world order by the remembrance day of the 8th of May 1945” , Rahr comments. He ends his book by advising that Eastern Europe should carefully study through the period of communism. This should be carried out as a project by the former Soviet republics and former Warsaw Pact states, without having the West get involved as “Judge.” At the end the aim is reconciliation between the Eastern European nations – which cannot be a one sided declaration of guilt and repentance of Russia. “The mediation of this historical fight is indispensable for a common spirit in Europe.”

Finally one has to have a look at the extraordinary speech given by Former German President Richard von Weizsäcker who in a very moving speech 8th of May 1985 in the Federal Parliament (Bonn) declared that the 8th of May day was in particular a day “which commemorates what people had to suffer, i.e. a date to reflect on the course taken by our history.  “For us Germans the 8 May is not a day of celebration …Some were liberated, while for others it was the start of captivity.  Many were simply grateful that the bombing at night and fear had passed and that they had survived.”  The president  underlined that the 8th of May (..)“ liberated us  from the inhumanity and tyranny of the National -Socialist regime.”

Yet he also cautioned that “we must not regard the end of the war as the “cause” of flight, expulsion and deprivation of freedom. The “cause” goes back to the start of the tyranny that brought about war. “We must not separate May 8, 1945 from January 30, 1933.”(!)…. There is every reason for us to perceive May 8, 1945 as the end of an aberration in German History, an end bearing the seeds of hope for a better future.” According to von Weizsäcker Hitler became the driving force on the road to disaster (…) Hitler wanted to dominate Europe and to do so go through war.” He quoted from Hitler’s speech in May 23, 1939 to his Generals in which he looked for an excuse to attack Poland and have war…” Hitler stated that “no further successes can be gained without bloodshed …Danzig is not the objective. Our aim is to extend the ‘Lebensraum’ in the East and safeguard food supplies… So there is no question of sparing Poland; and there remains the decision to attack Poland at the first suitable opportunity.” Weizsäcker in light of today’s dominant historical narrative leaves no doubt:  “the initiative for the war came from Germany, not from the Soviet Union. It was Hitler who resorted to the use of force.”


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