Germany Surrenders

The Allied victory over Germany — celebrated on V-E Day, or Victory in Europe Day, on May 8, 1945 — was hard won, with political complications arising in the weeks and months leading up to Germany's unconditional surrender.

The beginning of the end for Germany came on many fronts, though it could be argued that it started with the fall of Benito Mussolini in July 1943 and Italy's surrender and withdrawal from the war in the following months. At first, Hitler showed little concern over the developments in Italy, believing that everything could be fixed by pouring more troops into the country and treating it like another occupied nation. He had little reason to feel otherwise, since this plan had worked so well in the past. However, the fall of Italy was the first in a long line of dominoes that would ultimately cost Germany the war.

No one in the German High Command dared suggest to Hitler that the end was near. In his madness, Hitler remained convinced that the Third Reich would still triumph.

Another domino was the successful invasion of Normandy, which planted Allied troops in occupied Europe and gave them the foothold they would need to push German forces all the way back to Berlin. By the time the primary Allied leaders — Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin — met at the Yalta Conference in February 1945, the writing was on the wall. A lot remained to be done, but Germany was doomed. The Allies knew it, and the German High Command knew it, too.

A New German Leader

In April 1945, several important events came together to ensure the defeat of Germany. The first was the linkup of U.S. and Soviet troops at Tor-gau on the Elbe in the very center of Germany. The second was the surrender of German forces in occupied Italy. The third, and most important, was the suicide of Adolf Hitler on April 30. With a single bullet, Nazi Germany had lost its guiding light.

With Hitler's death, Karl Dönitz became president of Germany and commander in chief of its armed forces. Hitler had instructed Dönitz to continue the war, but for all intents and purposes, it was already lost. Two months earlier, Heinrich Himmler had initiated talks with Count Folke Bernadotte, representing the Red Cross, on the release of some Scandinavian prisoners being held in concentration camps. These discussions quickly turned to the issue of Germany's surrender.

Himmler wasn't the first German official to send out feelers regarding an end to the war. Also in February, Karl Wolfe, the German military governor of Italy, contacted associates of Allen Dulles, the representative in Sweden of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, to discuss the surrender of German troops in northern Italy. Wolfe and Dulles met face-to-face the following March, when Dulles stated emphatically that unconditional surrender was the only term the Allies would accept. Wolfe reluctantly agreed, and secret plans were set in motion to work out the details. On April 29, the day before Hitler killed himself, the German Southwest Command surrendered all forces in Italy to a combination of American, British, and Soviet officers.

Next to lay down arms was the German state of Lower Saxony, which on May 4 surrendered to British field marshal Bernard Montgomery, acting on behalf of Dwight Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force. The surrender agreement included German infantry and naval forces in Denmark, the Netherlands, and northwest Germany.

Germany Seeks Terms for Surrender

Dönitz knew the end was at hand. On May 6, he instructed Alfred Jodl, chief of the operations staff in the High Command of the Armed Forces, to negotiate an armistice with Eisenhower's Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF). Dönitz hoped to work out a separate peace with Eisenhower without having to also surrender to the Red Army, which Dönitz rightly feared was preparing to enact a horrible vengeance against Germany. However, Eisenhower would have none of it and refused everything except an unconditional surrender that met all the Allied requirements set forth earlier.

Dönitz had to agree. On May 7, around 2:40 A.M., Jodl and two other German officers met with Lieutenant General Walter Bedell Smith, SHAEF chief of staff, and other military representatives from the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union in the SHAEF war room in the Professional and Technical School at Reims in northeastern France. The Germans and the Allies — with the exception of the Soviet Union — signed a surrender document; Eisenhower was not present because he refused to meet with German military officials until they had formally surrendered.

That document was not the formal surrender agreement, however. The official document, supervised by Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin, had been under revision since July 1944. Prepared by the European Advisory Commission (EAC), it was to spell out all the details of an unconditional surrender and offer possible solutions to the inevitable economic and political problems that were sure to follow.

The surrender didn't officially take effect until 11:01 P.M. on May 8. The extension was given to allow as many German troops as possible to surrender to American forces rather than to the Red Army, which was out to exact revenge. Soviet officials demanded that a second ceremonial signing take place on May 9 because the Soviet observer at the first signing was too low in rank to sign on behalf of the nation.

Unfortunately, political difficulties prevented the Allies from presenting the EAC document at that time. France had not been included in the creation of the 1944 draft, and the word dismemberment, which had been added at the Yalta Conference to underscore the division of Germany, was not included. A revised draft was quickly written, but Eisenhower decided that the military surrender document, which officially ended hostilities, was sufficient for the moment and that all other problems could be worked out later.

The Axis Lays Down Its Arms

The first order of business was the question of how the Germans were to surrender. A second document addressed this issue with specific instructions on how, where, and when German forces were to lay down their arms. The document also stipulated that Germany was to immediately surrender all naval forces and provide maps of all minefields in European waters.

The Dönitz government remained in power for just over two more weeks. Dönitz, Jodl, and many other German officials were then taken into custody to be tried for war crimes at Nuremberg. Dönitz received a ten-year prison sentence for his role in the war. Jodl, who remained faithful to Hitler even during his trial, was hanged. However, a West German de-Nazification court concluded in 1953 that as a soldier, Jodl had not broken any international laws and posthumously cleared him of earlier charges.

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