Written by Todd DePastino

At the conclusion of our VBC Happy Hour on May 8 with Korean War veteran Bud Mendenhall, our resident historian Greg Yoest gave us a quick thumbnail history of the German surrender in 1945 in World War II.

Boy, was it complicated.

In short, the Germans surrendered very early on May 7, 1945, but it was not announced nor consider effective until May 8.

Then, Josef Stalin objected to the way the surrender had been handled in the “Little Red Schoolhouse” in Reims, France. He wanted a better location in Germany with higher-ranking Soviet personnel and German representatives from Army, Navy, and Air Force present.

Schoolhouse in Reims, France, part of V-E Day

The “Little Red Schoolhouse” In Reims, France, wasn’t so little. (Fab5669, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

So, the Soviets hastily arranged a second ceremony in Berlin on May 8. But by the time the second ceremony occurred, it was already May 9, just after 12am. The surrender was backdated to 11:01pm May 8, Berlin time, which made it 12:01am, May 9, Moscow time, and 5:01pm, May 8, Washington, D.C., time.

Building where the second German surrender happened for V-E day

The building where the second German surrender was conducted. It was headquarters of the Soviet Military Adminstration in Germany. Today, it houses the German-Russian Museum Berlin-Karlshorst (Thm72, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

As I said, it was complicated.

This is what Stalin wanted. A day all his own, May 9, to declare “Victory Day.” And for generations in the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation, May 9 has been held sacred as the day to commemorate the end of the Great Patriotic War. The rest of Europe and the United States, meanwhile, stuck with May 8 as V-E Day.

That’s why I took note this week when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy proposed that his country move Victory Day from May 9 to May 8, better to align Ukraine with Europe, rather than Russia. Zelenskyy also decreed that May 9 would be known as “Europe Day,” a celebration of EU unity.

All of this demonstrates not only the enduring power of historical events but the unfinished nature of historical interpretation. World War II lives on, not just in memory, but in our everyday politics.