On May 8, 1945, Canadians across the country marked VE (Victory in Europe) Day with parades and other festivities. (Columbia Basin Regional Institute file)

On May 8, 1945, Canadians across the country marked VE (Victory in Europe) Day with parades and other festivities. (Columbia Basin Regional Institute file)

UVic historian reflects on changing definitions of VE Day

Countries have different perspectives on the 75th anniversary of end to Second World War in Europe

As states around the world prepare to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe — VE Day — the day will mean very different things to different people.

“It’s certainly part and parcel of a collective memory, but each country has its own way of reflecting and looking back at it, and each country has their very particular slant that has changed over time,” said David Zimmerman, a military historian at the University of Victoria.

May 8, 1945 marked the date on which the surviving military leadership of Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally to the unlikely coalition of Soviet and western armies, little more than a week after Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler had committed suicide to evade accountability for the conflict that his genocidal regime had unleashed on Europe in the fall of 1939. The Second World War did not formally end though until the formal surrender of Germany’s ally Japan on Sept. 2, 1945.

Overall, Zimmerman describes May 8 itself as a “momentous moment” that signified the start of a new era and world order. “For most people, it comes down to the defeat of a truly evil force in the world, and it was a moment to be celebrated, and it is still today a moment to be commemorated as being a positive development in the world,” he said.

Over the decades, the winning powers of the war have used the occasion to pay tribute to their respective veterans, a development coming to an end as the number of survivors dwindles. “There still are obviously veterans around, but very few,” he said.

The day of May 8 itself and its interpretations have changed over time. For one, it matters little to those whom the Nazis sought to wipe out through systematic murder— Europe’s Jews.

Jews don’t pay a lot of heed to the end of the war, said Zimmerman.

“We have our specific day of commemoration, [Yom HaShoah] which is related to when Passover is. So for us, we mark the liberation of the camps,” he said. “There is also the International Holocaust Remembrance Day [Jan. 27] , which remembers the liberation of Auschwitz. So it’s a very different sort of thing. Looking for a happy moment for Jews, it is the day that marks the independence of Israel in 1948 rather than this. For Jews, it was still very much an unresolved conflict, and I think probably for other groups such as Poles and Ukrainians, or others, who are still struggling to find some reasonable national identity.”

Far removed from the immense physical and human devastation that Hitler’s regime had first brought upon Germany’s neighbours, then upon Germans themselves, Canadians for their part treated VE-Day as a turning point in their history as a country, said Zimmerman. The day not only marked the end of the conflict first and foremost on the minds of Canadians, but also the start of a new age, he said.

“When the war started, Canada was still coming out of the Great Depression, and now suddenly the war, and Canada had emerged as much stronger than what it had been at the start of the conflict,” said Zimmerman. “People craved normalcy, but there was a sense that Canada had achieved great things as a result of our contribution to the war.”

What followed next were decades of unparalleled prosperity.

RELATED: COURAGE REMEMBERED: Remembrance day past and present

RELATED: UVic military historian sees parallels between eve of First World War and today

Citizens of the United States, which did not formally join the conflict until December 1941, also marked the end of the war in Europe.

But reactions there were more “muted,” said Zimmerman in pointing to the fact that its forces still found themselves fighting the forces of Imperial Japan. The dogged, often suicidal resistance of its remaining conquered territories in southeast Asia raised the spectre of a bloody and costly invasion of the Japanese main islands, hardly a cheery prospect.

“The war was a long way from being over,” said Zimmerman.

Looking across the Atlantic, the British reaction to the end of the war was very much in line with Canada’s. The United Kingdom had fought Nazi Germany the longest, having made great sacrifices along the way. “For Britain, it was an unbelievable sigh of relief that they had defeated Germany, that the war was finally over,” said Zimmerman. “In Britain, there was a different sense [than in Canada] though. Even though they had won the war, there was also a very real sense that they had made tremendous sacrifices and it wasn’t clear when those sacrifices were going to end.”

Food rationing, inadequate housing and general poverty would define the British experience for years to come, he said.

The former Soviet Union, which lost some 27 million people during its nearly four-year struggle against Nazi Germany, marked the end of the war with a military parade in Moscow’s Red Square, then turned its attention towards rebuilding its war-torn country and consolidating its newly acquired territories and political influence in eastern Europe, with the Cold War against the United States looming on the horizon.

Some two decades passed until Soviet leadership returned to the idea of marking the end of the war with a massive military parade, a tradition maintained and carefully manipulated for propaganda purposes by the Soviet Union’s main successor, modern-day Russia, and its current authoritarian regime under the leadership of Vladimir Putin.

“It [VE-Day] is very important,” said Zimmerman. “In fact, Mr. Putin has devoted much of his recent years trying to resurrect the reputation of Joseph Stalin as the great liberator, as the great preserver of the state against the German invasion.”

Naturally, not all successor states of the former Soviet Union such as the Ukraine see it this way. For most countries in eastern Europe, May 8, 1945 also formalized the moment when they traded rule from fascist Berlin for rule from communist Moscow.

For Germany, May 8, 1945 marked Stunde Null (Hour Zero), or so it appears in many history books. No modern industrial state had ever suffered such physical devastation and decline in moral standing. But the necessities of rebuilding coupled with the almost-immediate division into two states four years later soon pushed Germans to bury any memories of it.

The prosperity of the post-war period allowed West Germans to escape both feelings of national defeat and personal responsibility, while the communist government of East Germany saw itself as an anti-fascist government with the only surviving Nazis living in West Germany.

Collective German interpretations of May 8, 1945 started to change on its 40th anniversary when the late German president Richard von Weizsäcker, himself an officer during the war and the son of a high-ranking Nazi diplomat, called it a day of liberation of Germans from fascism in linking that day with Hitler’s rise to power in January 1933. His words have since become broadly accepted consensus in contemporary German society.

Zimmerman does not necessarily buy this argument. “To say this was a liberation is an equally false view of history as is the view of the Soviet Union about the significance of these events,” he said. Ultimately, this view suggests a neat distinction between the Nazis and the vast majority of Germans that simply did not exist, he said.


Like us on Facebook and follow @wolfgang_depner

wolfgang.depner@peninsulanewsreview.com

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Keygan Power with brother Quintin and mom Allison while camping the weekend before Keygan’s brain hemorrhage on Aug. 2, 2020. (Photo Allison Power)
Saanich teen ‘locked inside,’ regaining speech after severe brain hemorrhage

16-year-old suffers traumatic loss of function, still plays a mean game of chess

Island Health chief medical officer Dr. Richard Stanwick receives a first dose of Pfizer vaccine, Dec. 22, 2020. (B.C. government)
COVID-19: Vancouver Island in a January spike while B.C. cases decrease

Island’s top doc Dr. Stanwick breaks down the Island’s rising numbers

North Saanich is giving local businesses a break by waving renewal fees for 2021. (Black Press Media file photo)
North Saanich waives business renewal fees for 2021

The municipality raised $48,000 from businesses licences in 2020

The Sooke school district has filled all spots for their French immersion and nature kinderagarten programs in 2021-2022 school year. Regular kindergarten registration is still open and available. (Black Press Media file photo)
Sooke school district gets surplus of nature, French immersion kindergarten applications

Not enough room for almost half of nature kindergarten applicants

Dr. Penny Ballem, a former deputy health minister, discusses her role in leading B.C.’s COVID-19 vaccination program, at the B.C. legislature, Jan. 22, 2021. (B.C. government)
B.C. holds steady with 407 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday

14 deaths, no new outbreaks in the health care system

Shown is Quality Foods at 319 Island Highway in Parksville. The Island-based grocery chain announced on Jan. 25 it made a $2-per-hour pay premium, implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic, permanent. (Mandy Moraes photo)
COVID-19: Quality Foods makes $2-per-hour employee pay premium permanent

Island-based grocery chain had extended increase twice in 2020

A Cessna 170 airplane similar to the one pictured above is reported to be missing off the waters between Victoria and Washington State. Twitter photo/USCG
Canadian, American rescue crews searching for missing aircraft in waters near Victoria

The search is centered around the waters northeast of Port Angeles

The North Cowichan/Duncan RCMP have arrested a prolific offender who is now facing more than 40 charges. (Black Press file photo)
‘Priority offender’ arrested in Cowichan Valley faces more than 40 charges

Tyler Elrix, 37, had a history of evading police; was ordered not to be in Vancouver Island

B.C. Premier John Horgan listens during a postelection news conference in Vancouver on Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
30% of B.C. recovery benefit applications held up in manual review

The province says 150 staff have been reassigned to help with manually reviewing applications

Adam Dergazarian, bottom center, pays his respect for Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, in front of a mural painted by artist Louie Sloe Palsino, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Kobe Bryant’s presence remains strong a year after his death

Tuesday marks the grim anniversary of the crash that took their lives

Surrey RCMP are investigating after a pedestrian was struck and killed at 183 Street and Highway 10 Friday night. (File photo)
Modelling of predicted transmission growth from the B117 COVID-19 variant in British Columbia. (Simon Fraser University)
COVID-19 variant predicted to cause ‘unmanageable’ case spike in B.C: report

SFU researchers predict a doubling of COVID-19 cases every two weeks if the variant spreads

The Brucejack mine is 65 km north of Stewart in northwestern B.C. (Pretivm Photo)
B.C. mine executives see bright gleam in post-COVID future

Low carbon drives demand for copper, steelmaking coal

Most Read