A French post card depicting the German surrender at Reims from a painting by Lucien Jonas for the Musee de l' Armee in Paris.
Seventy-five years ago today on May 7, 1945 representatives of the German High Command signed articles of unconditional surrender to the Allies at a French school house in Reims used as the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF).
It had been apparent for weeks that the German position was hopeless. Pressed on all sides, the Soviets were about to take Berlin when Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his bunker leaving Grand Admiral Karl Donitz as his successor as President of the Reich. Dönitz realized his only duty was ending the war as quickly as possible on the best possible terms for Germany. He immediately began back channel negotiations.
Meanwhile German armies began surrendering regionally. German forces in Italy lay down arms on May 1. Berlin surrendered on May 2 and two separate armies north of Berlin capitulated.
On May 4 Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery accepted the unconditional surrender of all German forces in Holland, Northern Germany, Denmark and all naval forces in the area. General Admiral Hans-Georg von Friedberg, acting on orders from Dönitz initially offered surrender to Western allies alone leaving the option for his troops to turn around to face the Russians. Montgomery coldly refused leaving the Germans no other choice by surrender.
The same day troops in Bavaria, the state whose mountains were once considered as a fallback position for a drawn out campaign of guerilla resistance, surrendered. From the Channel Islands—held by Germany even after the Normandy Invasion—to Prague one after another German forces capitulated.
Dönitz was informed that any surrender had to be conducted by a representative of the German High Command. This was because the Allies did not want a repeat of the Armistice of the First World War which was signed by the government, not the military leading to the charge that the Army had been “stabbed in the back,” a key propaganda point when Germany re-armed.
On May 6 Dönitz dispatched Colonel General Alfred Jodl, Chief of the German General Staff to Reims with orders to offer surrender to Western forces only—exactly the same terms turned down my Montgomery two days earlier. Allied Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower harshly excoriated Jodl and bluntly demanded unconditional surrender to all allies or face continued prosecution of the war. Informed of the terms, Dönitz wired his consent.
Celebrating after the German surrender at Reims were General Ivan Susloparov, General Walter Bedell Smith, Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Royal Air Force Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder.
At 2:41 local time Jodl signed the Instrument of Surrender. Eisenhower pointedly and as an intended snub did not personally accept or sign for the Allies assigning his Chief of Staff, the brusque General Walter Bedell Smith, to be principal signer for the Allies. Also signing was General Ivan Susloparov, Soviet liaison to SHAEF. Susloparov signed before he could get full authorization from his government so it was understood that a second surrender would be signed with the Soviets on the Eastern front. French Major General François Sevez signed as the official witness.
The surrender of all hostile forces was set for May 8, 11:01 pm Central European Time. Shortly after midnight on May 8 the second surrender signing was conducted at the seat of the Soviet Military Administration in Berlin. Marshal Georgy Zhukov, of the Soviet High Command was the principal Allied signatory and was joined by British Air Chief Marshal Arthur William Tedder, as Deputy Supreme Commander SHAEF. American Lt. General Carl Spaz, Commander of United States Strategic Air Forces in Europe; and General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny of the First French Army were witnesses. Signing for the Germans were Admiral Hans-Georg von Friedeburg, Commander-in-Chief of the Navy; Colonel-General Hans-Jürgen Stumpff of the Luftwaffe; and Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, Chief of Staff of the German Armed Forces also signing on behalf of the Army. The signing was completed fifteen minutes after midnight.
By the terms signed in Rheims, fighting had already ceased just over an hour earlier.
When the news of the surrender broke there were joyous street celebrations like this one in London.
News of the end of the war in Europe broke on May 8, with spontaneous celebrations erupting across Europe and North America. Street celebrations in Britain and France were especially jubilant.
President Harry Truman announced the end of the war in a somber broadcast with the words that “Flags of Freedom fly all over Europe today,” while reminding listeners that the war against Japan continued. The knowledge that a long bloody war against Japan might still stretch ahead with American troops taking most of the casualties in a final assault against the home islands somewhat restrained celebrations in this country.
This knowledge also haunted many allied troops in Europe, who knew that they might be shipped to the Pacific. Indeed some Air Force and Naval units were almost immediately re-directed and some of the crack U.S. Airborne, Infantry, and Armored divisions which had been in the thick of fighting for months were slated for re-assignment, as were many individual G.I.s whose units would be dissolved.
Isolated German units continued to surrender for about a week.
Not all fighting ended on May 8. Field Marshal Ferdinand Schörner of the Army Group Centre fought on in Austria and Czechoslovakia, but the Soviets turned all of their considerable might against him and by May 15 ceased all offensive operations with mop up in Czechoslovakia completed.
The last battle in the war took place on May 15 in Slovenia and the last shots were fired on the Dutch island of Texel where Ukrainian prisoners of war had rebelled against the German occupiers on April 5 and kept up a guerilla campaign against them. The German garrison had simply been forgotten in the shuffle and was afraid if they surrendered to the Ukrainians they would be executed en masse.
A final bit of business was dissolving the German Government under Dönitz. The Allies had concentrated so hard on getting the armed forces to lay down their arms that they had neglected to demand that civil authority be transferred to them. Worse, they had neglected to outline how a military occupation would work. On May 28 a rather junior British officer was dispatched to the town of Flensburg to read to Dönitz Eisenhower’s edict dissolving the government and arresting all of its members.
In the meantime, local commanders took charge where they were. On June 9 the Allies officially signed a Declaration Regarding the Defeat of Germany and the Assumption of Supreme Authority by Allied Powers taking over civil authority at all levels in occupied Germany.
Details of the shape of the occupation—and of the post war world—were agreed to at the Potsdam Conference by Truman, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (replaced after this agreement was reached at the Conference by Clement Attlee when Churchill stunningly suffered an election loss) and Soviet leader Josef Stalin. The agreement divided Germany, and its capital of Berlin in zones of Allied control.
On December 13, 1946 President Truman finally declared that hostilities between the United States and Germany had ceased.
Yet the war was not technically over. Even after the establishment of the German Federal Republic (West Germany) as a U.S. ally and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) in 1949, the U.S. felt it needed the fiction of an official state of war to maintain authority for stationing troops in Germany.
Congress adopted a resolution declaring a formal end to hostilities in 1951. Official occupation continued until 1955 when the West German government was given full sovereignty.
In September 1990, more than 45 years after the surrender the Four Powers—the U.S., Britain, France, and the U.S.S.R—finally signed a Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany with both German Federal Republic and the German Democratic Republic which allowed the two German states to unite, which they did on October 3, 1990. The war was finally, officially over.