Could Nazi Germany defeat modern Germany?

May 8, 1945: Total Defeat or Liberation Day?

On May 8, 1945 the guns finally fell silent. The Second World War, sparked by Adolf Hitler's Nazi German Reich in 1939, is over. With the unconditional surrender of the Wehrmacht, the millions of bloodshed ends - but initially only in Europe. Japan, allied with Nazi Germany, continues to fight and only surrenders in August, when the USA dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

For the international anti-Hitler coalition - led by the Soviet Union, the United States of America, Great Britain and France - the 8th of May is of course a reason to celebrate, despite all the suffering it has suffered. The mood is completely different in war-torn Germany, which is divided into four zones of occupation by the victorious powers. Total military defeat is accompanied by feelings of guilt and shame. With the attack on Poland, the German Reich triggered the world war and is guilty of unprecedented crimes against humanity, above all the systematic extermination of six million Jews.

Even the horror at this leaves most Germans in the years after the war with no thought of seeing May 8th as the day of liberation. Just like the people in Europe, which has long been occupied by German soldiers, after six years of war. Now the signs have reversed: Germany, the loser of the war, is occupied. And in the beginning ideological war between the communist Soviet Union and the democratic western allies, the division of Germany, but also of Europe, is becoming apparent.

Theodor Heuss: "We knew about things"

On May 8, 1949, exactly four years after the end of the Second World War, politicians from various parties meet in Bonn to pass the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany emerging in the western zones. The Free Democrat (FDP) Theodor Heuss used this opportunity to reflect on the end of the war: "Basically, May 8, 1945 remains the most tragic and questionable paradox in history for each of us. Why? Because we were redeemed and destroyed in one. "

Theodor Heuss is sworn in as the first President of the Federal Republic of Germany on September 12, 1949 in the Bundestag in Bonn

In September 1949 Heuss was elected the first Federal President. Three years later he sets an example with his visit to the former Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. "The Germans must never forget what happened to people of their ethnicity in these shameful years," says the West German head of state in view of the Holocaust committed by Germany. And Heuss adds: "We knew about the things."

A memorial for the Red Army: "The Liberator"

While high-ranking politicians in the Federal Republic wrestle for words and gestures for the crimes committed in the German name, the German Democratic Republic (GDR), founded on October 7, 1949, celebrates the anti-fascist state cult adopted by the Soviet occupying power. The most visible symbol is the gigantic memorial complex, inaugurated on the fourth anniversary of the end of the war, on a Berlin cemetery with over 5,000 dead of the Red Army.

"The Liberator", a Red Army soldier, is the central figure of the WWII memorial in Treptower Park in Berlin

The focus is on a soldier holding a small child and stepping on a Nazi swastika in his boots. With this 30 meter high monument, the rulers in the GDR have shaped the imagery of their commemoration of the end of the war from day one. "The Liberator", as the gigantic figure is called, is a synonym for the Soviet Union, which was victorious over Nazi Germany. Their dictator Josef Stalin imposed the whole of Eastern Europe on their social system based on violence and oppression.

Walter Ulbricht castigates the Federal Republic's accession to NATO

Under these conditions, the GDR stylized itself as a bulwark against fascism and imperialism. The enemies are located west of the Elbe and the Atlantic: above all the Federal Republic and the USA. There is no adequate space for a self-critical handling of the German responsibility for the atrocities during the Nazi era. Walter Ulbricht, who, on behalf of the Soviet Union, promoted the compulsory unification of communists (KPD) and social democrats (SPD) to form the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) became the defining figure.

Konrad Adenauer (2nd from left) is delighted in Paris about the forthcoming admission of the Federal Republic of Germany to NATO

Under his leadership, May 8th developed as "Liberation Day" into an annually recurring ritual that the GDR used until the end of its day for state propaganda. The focus is always on current political developments or goals. Ulbricht uses the tenth anniversary of the end of the war to settle accounts when the Federal Republic of Germany joins the North Atlantic Defense Alliance (NATO). At a mass rally with 200,000 people in East Berlin, he accuses the West of opposing the reunification of Germany, while the GDR as a "peace-loving and democratic state" is fighting for it.

Konrad Adenauer speaks of "purification and change"

At the same time, Federal Chancellor Konrad Adenauer regards the NATO membership he has pushed as a vote of confidence in the young democracy. Ten years after the end of the war in Paris, the German people paid for the crimes committed by a deluded leadership on their behalf with "endless suffering", says the Christian Democrat (CDU). "In these sufferings his purification and change took place."

  • In the footsteps of the liberators

    Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial

    On April 29, 1945, American soldiers liberated the concentration camp near Munich. A memorial was not erected on the site until 1965. In the middle of the former Appelplatz, this sculpture by the Jewish artist Nandor Glid has been a reminder of the atrocities of the Nazis since 1968. Glid had lost many family members in concentration camps.

  • In the footsteps of the liberators

    Battle in the Huertgen Forest

    US armed forces fought several violent battles against the German armed forces near Aachen. Relics of these battles can still be found in the Hürtgenwald, which lasted from autumn 1944 to early 1945 and are considered to be some of the longest and most important battles on German territory. The Hürtgenwald is now part of the "Liberation Route Europe", which is reminiscent of the route taken by the Allied forces.

  • In the footsteps of the liberators

    Remagen Bridge

    On March 7, 1945, US soldiers captured the surprisingly still intact Remagen railway bridge near Bonn. Thousands of soldiers crossed the Rhine for the first time, the "Miracle of Remagen" went down in war history. Bomb attacks by the Germans bring the bridge down ten days later. Today there is a peace museum in the bridge.

  • In the footsteps of the liberators

    Commonwealth Cemetery of Honor in the Reichswald

    While the US Army usually transports their fallen home, the dead of the British armed forces find their final resting place in 15 cemeteries in Germany. The largest Commonwealth war cemetery is the British War Cemetery in the Reichswald near the Dutch border. Among the 7,654 dead are around 4,000 pilots and fighter aircraft occupants, including many Canadians.

  • In the footsteps of the liberators

    Seelower Heights Memorial

    In the east, the Red Army opened its last major offensive on April 16, 1945: with a devastating barrage at dawn, the advance towards Berlin began at the Seelow Heights. 900,000 Soviet soldiers face 90,000 Germans. The memorial provides information about the greatest battle of the Second World War on German soil and commemorates the tens of thousands of dead.

  • In the footsteps of the liberators

    "Elbe Day" in Torgau

    Russians and Americans met for the first time on April 25, 1945: in Torgau on the Elbe. This closes the gap between the east and west fronts. The end of the war is within reach, Torgau's handshake becomes world-famous. The annual "Elbe Day" memorial event was canceled in 2020 due to the corona crisis.

  • In the footsteps of the liberators

    German-Russian Museum Berlin-Karlshorst

    In the officer's mess in Berlin-Karlshorst, the German Wehrmacht signed the unconditional surrender on the night of May 8th to 9th, 1945. Today the museum is presenting the document in the surrender hall, which was issued in three language versions: English, Russian, German. Another theme of the permanent exhibition is the war of extermination against the Soviet Union from 1941.

  • In the footsteps of the liberators

    Soviet memorial in Treptower Park

    The sheer size of the Treptower Memorial is impressive. The memorial with the military cemetery extends over an area of ​​around 100,000 square meters. It was built after the end of World War II to commemorate the Red Army soldiers who died in the battle for Berlin. Two stylized Soviet flags made of red granite form the portal to the honor grove with the tombs.

  • In the footsteps of the liberators

    Potsdam Conference in Cecilienhof Palace

    After taking over government power, the three main Allies met in the Cecilienhof Palace in Potsdam in the summer of 1945. Josef Stalin, Harry S. Truman and Winston Churchill lead the delegations that discuss the post-war order in Europe. In the end, the division of Germany into four zones of occupation is clear.

  • In the footsteps of the liberators

    Allied Museum in Berlin-Dahlem

    Berlin was also divided into four sectors in 1945. The Zehlendorf district will be the center of the US armed forces. The former "Outpost Theater" cinema is now part of the Allied Museum. The exhibition spans the period from the first years of the occupation in West Berlin through the Airlift and the Cold War to the withdrawal of the Americans in 1994.

  • In the footsteps of the liberators

    Schönhausen Palace in Berlin

    In 1990 the Prussian castle was the scene of the "two plus four talks" between the two German states and the victorious powers USA, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union. You are preparing for German reunification. Commemorative plaques throughout the site inform about how the Second World War finally came to an end here.

    Author: Frederike Müller


On the 20th anniversary of the end of the war, Adenauer's successor Ludwig Erhard (CDU) is the first high-ranking politician in the West to use the word "liberation". However, it is aimed at the lack of freedom in the communist countries. If injustice and tyranny had been eradicated from the world with the overthrow of Hitler's Germany, mankind would have reason enough "to celebrate May 8th as a day of remembrance of freedom".

Willy Brandt praises women, refugees and displaced persons

It will take another five years before the political elite of the Federal Republic of Germany changes its view of the end of the war decisively. The Moscow and Warsaw treaties are signed in 1970 under the first SPD chancellor, Willy Brandt. The reconciliation with the former enemies of the war, the Soviet Union and Poland, are milestones in the policy of détente. For this, the social democrat was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize a year later.

Willy Brandt in 1970 in front of the memorial for the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto, which the Nazis mainly used for deportations to the extermination camps. After the suppressed uprising in the spring of 1943, the ghetto was destroyed

In his May 8 speech, the word "liberation" is missing, but Brandt appreciates the role of women, refugees and displaced persons in the reconstruction of Germany all the more. He particularly praises "our compatriots in the GDR". Under greater difficulties and social conditions "which they did not choose, they achieved successes of which they are proud and which we must fully acknowledge".

In 1985 Helmut Kohl spoke twice about "Liberation Day"

Under Willy Brandt's former Foreign Minister Walter Scheel (FDP), Federal President since 1974, the West German tone of the meaning of May 8, 1945 changed groundbreaking: "We were freed from a terrible yoke, from war, murder, bondage and barbarism," he says on the 30th anniversary of the end of the war. "But we do not forget that this liberation came from outside, that we, the Germans, were not able to shake off this yoke ourselves." The head of state also reminds that Germany did not lose its honor until 1945, but when Hitler came to power in 1933.

January 30, 1933: Reich President Paul von Hindenburg appoints Adolf Hitler (right) as Reich Chancellor

Another Federal President in 1985 came to astonishingly similar insights: Richard von Weizsäcker. The speech by the Christian Democrat 40 years after the end of the war is generally perceived as the largest and most important on this subject. He is by no means the first to speak explicitly about the "Day of Liberation". Chancellor Helmut Kohl (CDU) even did it twice in the same year. First in February in his "Report on the State of the Nation in Divided Germany" and on April 21 in the presence of US President Ronald Reagan on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Richard von Weizsäcker: "Let's look ... the truth in the eye"

What is special about von Weizsäcker's speech is that he does not exclude anyone when he speaks of May 8, 1945 about the "Day of Liberation": "He liberated us all from the inhuman system of National Socialist tyranny." In the other part of Germany, GDR ruler Erich Honecker continues to emphasize what, from his point of view, divides between East and West. The liberation from Hitler's fascism gave the German people the chance to build their lives on a completely new basis. "We took advantage of this opportunity."

Richard von Weizsäcker 1985: "But whoever turns a blind eye to the past becomes blind to the present"

The two German states only came to a similar assessment of the end of the war after the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. The only freely elected Prime Minister Lothar de Maizière (CDU) ruled the GDR for a few months. On the 45th anniversary of the end of the war in 1990, he said at the World Jewish Congress in Berlin that May 8th cast "long shadows on the post-war history of the Germans" and also showed their "inability to mourn". For her it is a matter of "living honestly and truthfully with this story, being admonished and remembered by it". De Maizière's words sound almost like those of Weizsäcker in his famous 1985 speech: "Today, May 8th, let's look the truth in the eye as best we can."