May 8 – Celebrating the End of World War II as a German

By Kai-Arne Zimny

75 years ago, the world sighed in relief. After six grue­some years and over 70 mil­lion lost lives, World War II was final­ly over. May 8, 1945, marked both the end of a ruth­less regime and the war in Europe. The Allied Forces had brought the Ger­man Wehrma­cht to its knees, and at 11:01 p.m., the war in Europe was offi­cial­ly over. In the U.S. and the UK, the day is cel­e­brat­ed as “Vic­to­ry in Europe Day,” and for decades, May 8 (and in some cas­es May 9) has been a hol­i­day in var­i­ous Euro­pean coun­tries – but not in Ger­many. How­ev­er, for its 75th anniver­sary, the Day of Lib­er­a­tion has been declared a one-time hol­i­day in Berlin.

Despite its his­toric sig­nif­i­cance, the date received rel­a­tive­ly lit­tle recog­ni­tion in the post-war Fed­er­al Repub­lic of Ger­many. In the 1950s and 60s, many want­ed to for­get, to only look ahead. And sure­ly, there were revi­sion­ist sen­ti­ments among some Ger­man politi­cians who refused to shed too much light on May 8, and some of them may have thought of it as a day of defeat rather than a day of lib­er­a­tion. May 8 marked not only the end of the war, but also the end of Ger­man crimes against human­i­ty, unfath­omably atro­cious in nature and number.

And yet, it was not until the 1980s that West Ger­man politi­cians began to pub­licly speak of May 8 as the “day of lib­er­a­tion.” Start­ing in the 2000s, the day was declared a com­mem­o­ra­tion day in some fed­er­al states. The GDR, how­ev­er, was more eager to cel­e­brate: Already in 1950, Germany’s East­ern half had declared May 8 a nation­al hol­i­day with annu­al fes­tiv­i­ties hon­or­ing most­ly the Sovi­et war effort. Does this mean the West want­ed to deny and for­get while the East was more open about its past? I’d call such a con­clu­sion rushed and unwise; actu­al­ly, one could even argue for the oppo­site: it’s much eas­i­er to cel­e­brate than to con­tem­plate. And by so fer­vent­ly cel­e­brat­ing one’s own lib­er­a­tion right after it occurred, it might become all too tempt­ing to con­sid­er one­self a mere vic­tim of the past, shun­ning all notions of per­son­al and col­lec­tive responsibility.

Speak­ing of easy: It’s easy for me to say, yes. In the post-war era, it must have been a colos­sal chal­lenge for all Ger­mans to tru­ly take respon­si­bil­i­ty for what had hap­pened, to ask one­self what one could have done. Maybe the way both Ger­man states dealt with the sig­nif­i­cant date of May 8 rep­re­sents the grad­ual shift in Ger­man com­mem­o­ra­tive cul­ture – from want­i­ng to deny and for­get to being able to reflect and process.

I do believe it’s a good thing that May 8 is a hol­i­day in Berlin this year. Today, we have enough dis­tance to reflect on our past as Ger­mans, and as that dis­tance keeps get­ting big­ger, we need to make sure not to for­get. It’s cru­cial to draw atten­tion to that day 75 years ago that shaped the world as we know it today: to com­mem­o­rate and hon­or the sac­ri­fices hun­dreds of thou­sands had to make to lib­er­ate Ger­many, Europe, and the world from unspeak­able evil. To mourn lives lost on all sides. Whether one lives in Berlin or not, cel­e­brat­ing May 8 needs to hap­pen along with mind­ful remem­brance and clar­i­ty about his­toric responsibility.

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