VE Day Germany surrender WW2
It wasn't until 1945 that Germany was able to look its Nazi past in the faceKeystone/Getty Images

Seventy years ago, the Second World War came to an end, at least in Europe. On 7 May, Germany's generals surrendered to the Allies at Reims; in the night of 8/9 May this ceremony was repeated at Berlin-Karlshorst, this time in the additional presence of a Russian representative.

Four days before, on 4 May, Grand Admiral Dönitz had agreed to a partial surrender in Northern Germany as well as the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway. Almost six years after its beginning, the war, which had cost millions of lives, made millions homeless, and destroyed huge parts of Europe, came to an end.

This ending differed completely from the end Germany had experienced in the First World War a generation before. This time, there could be no doubt that Germany's armies had been beaten on the battlefield.

Contrary to 1918, many towns or villages lay in ruins. Railway lines, canals and roads often did not exist anymore. Millions of Germans had lost their homes during bombing raids, most of them were suffering from hunger, illnesses, and the lack of everyday goods. Thousands were looking for new homes, at least temporarily, after they had hastily left their former ones in Germany's Eastern provinces, when the Russian army started its final offensive in January 1945.

Most importantly, whether all Germans realised this or not, there could also be no doubt who had started the war and who was responsible for its horrors, not to mention the litany of crimes committed by Germans at home and in the occupied countries.

The bloody regime of "flying court-martials" in the last weeks of the war, which had sentenced thousands of soldiers and civilians alike to death because they would not believe in the "Endsieg" anymore; the genocide of the concentration camps; and the death-marches which hoovered up the remaining inmates of these camps as the denouement neared.

Differing responses from Germans

In spite of these experiences and hardships, Germans responded to this situation in very different ways, depending upon their personal situation, political affiliations and convictions, social class or simply the region where they lived.

Though millions had supported the Nazi regime, there were still millions who had been liberals, social-democrats, or members of the catholic Center Party. Of course, contrary to Allied expectations and fears, as well as the scenarios created by Nazi-propaganda, there was no resistance movement following the death of Hitler.

As a result, for many the end of the war meant defeat and the loss of all illusions they had cherished; for others it was the chance of a new beginning, and for some it meant indeed liberation in far more than a merely literal sense.

Memory, though, is often short-lived. The pain over the loss of fathers, brothers, husbands, mothers, sisters, or friends, who had either died at the front or during bombing raids; the agonising wait to hear news of those missing or trapped in Allied prisoner of war camps; the basic fight for survival and the hardships of building up a completely new existence; all these fresh, inescapable horrors swiftly overshadowed the memory of war.

The beginning of the Cold War, its ensuing division of Germany into two separate states, as well as the loss of Germany's Eastern provinces, to which millions still hoped to return one day, further contributed to a culture in which the end of the war was regarded more as a defeat than as a liberation from Nazism, if it was not wiped out from memory completely.

VE Day Germany surrender WW2
May 1, 1945: Servicemen in New York cheer the news that Hitler died in his Chancellery in BerlinKeystone/Getty Images

Moreover, the feeling that the Germans had also been victims soon overshadowed the search for answers, which could explain what had happened in 1945 and why it had happened following the Nazi seizure of power in 1933.

As a result, Germans did not commemorate 8 May like the Allies did annually; instead it was zero hour, which shaped German memory with all its implications for many decades to come: the building-up of a new democracy, of a flourishing economy, and a society that shared the same values and which was not riven by class and party struggles, as it was before 1933.

Only in the east of Germany, in the GDR, did 8 May play an important role. There this day was part of the founding myth of a new, democratic and socialist Germany. However, the fact that the state, which claimed to have learnt the lessons of history was itself a dictatorship, only held up by Soviet arms, soon undermined its credibility.

The turning point

The real turning point in West German memory and commemoration was the famous speech by President Richard von Weizsäcker on 8 May 1985. Using the 40th anniversary of the end of the war, he was the first member of a German government to openly strike a new tone in the debate about Germany's past.

Of course, he did not deny that many Germans had been victims, and had paid dearly for what had happened before the end of the war.

"Yet with every day something became clearer, and this must be stated on behalf of all of us today" Weizsäcker said. "The eighth of May was a day of liberation. It liberated all of us from the inhumanity and tyranny of the National-Socialist regime.

"For us, 8 May is above all a date to remember what people had to suffer. It is also a date to reflect on the course taken by our history. The greater honesty we show in commemorating this day, the freer we are to face the consequences with due responsibility."

For many this was the speech they had waited for for decades. For some, it was a surprise, for they were still unwilling to accept this change in commemorating an event which had a completely different meaning to them. Yet these people failed in their attempts to redirect the political, public and historical discourse.

VE Day Germany surrender WW2
May 1945: Hundreds of German prisoners line the streets in Aachen after the final surrenderCentral Press/Getty Images

Instead, Germany has proven that it is willing to meet its responsibility by remembering what happened between 1933 and 1945 in the country's name. The number of public and private initiatives and memorials commemorating the Holocaust and Nazi terror, the scores of small stumbling blocks with the names of murdered German Jews who had lived in these streets before they were deported to the death camps, is almost impossible to count.

The well-made documentaries, the excellent books on this dark period of German history and the research projects investigating the complicity of members of German ministries in Nazi crimes play an equal role in preserving the Germany memory. The trials of Auschwitz guards and functionaries such as Oskar Groening, though too late in every respect, emphasise the willingness to leave no doubt that Germany has learnt its lesson.

Nevertheless, as President Joachim Gauck said at Stalag 326 at Stukenbrock, where thousands of Russian prisoners of war were starved to death under inhumane circumstances, we always have to remember that the "war only ended once the Western Allies and the Soviet Union had forced Germany to surrender, thus also liberating the country from the Nazi dictatorship".

He added: "We of the later generations in Germany have every reason to be grateful for this self-sacrificing battle by the former opponents in the East and West. Their struggle made it possible for us to live in peace and dignity in Germany today."

Michael Epkehnhans is a German military historian who specialises in the German Imperial Navy. He is director of research for the Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt der Bundeswehr in Potsdam, and he has published several books, including this biography of Prussian naval hero Tirpitz.