The unconditional surrender of Germany

My grandfather in 1941When I left Germany 11 years ago I spent the last night at my Grandfather’s. He lived near Frankfurt and my flight left early in the morning, so he was going to drive me to the airport. My grandfather was of old Prussian stock, stubborn, proud and very conservative. I had never heard him talk much about the war; It was very clear he was very bitter about it. Years ago, my mom told me, he had written down his war experiences, but one night, in a fit of depression, he burned the papers.

So that night, in 1994, I was very surprised when, over a bottle of Bergsträsser wine, he began talking about the war. He reminisced about his adventures in arctic Norway, the march on Paris, the brutal east front and the heat of North Africa. He told me about run-ins with the SS he had had. He spoke of the Nazis with what seemed genuine disgust. He complained that those young, reckless SS officers had no respect for the values of the German Reichswehr, he said he was committed to. And he spoke of the horror of war, and the death and destruction the Reichswehr and the other armies spread across Europe.

My Grandfather’s war stories that night may have been shaky on historical accuracy, but they were an honest reflection of this old man’s desire, almost 50 years after the German surrender, to find some value, some meaning in this horrible experience. And maybe even to extract some honor or dignity from the defeat. This was the voice of an old man who was wallowing in self-pity, who never learned to move forward, never learned from the trauma in his life, and pass on lessons from his experience to a new generation. But it was also the voice of a generation buried under historical shame, crushing defeat and personal tragedy.

My grandfather never returned to his home. His family had to flee East Prussia across the frozen Baltic Sea. His wife died of typhoid fever during the trek. His 3-year-old daughter almost died. He was a prisoner of war for a long time, then he was reunited with his mother in law and his daughter and they settled near Bremen. He died on March 17, 1999.

Today, Europe commemorates the end of WWII in Europe, and the unconditional surrender of Germany on May 8, 1945.

On May 8, 1945, what has officially come to be known as “Victory in Europe” Day, the Allied powers celebrated the defeat of the Germans, who had agreed to an unconditional surrender at Reims, France, the previous day. Their surrender came just six days after Adolf Hitler committed suicide and just under a year after D-Day signaled the launch of a new European offensive.
World War II – Deutsche Welle

Yesterday’s New York Time Editorial by the German writer Günther Grass, is an excellent example of how some of the war generation did move past the trauma of the war, and learned lessons from that experience. Those lessons are badly needed today. We need to listen.

THE question today, then, is have we dealt carefully with the freedom that we did not win, but was given to us? Have the citizens of West Germany properly compensated the citizens of the former Democratic Republic, who, after all, had to bear the main burden of the war begun and lost by all Germans? And a further question: is our parliamentary democracy still sufficiently sovereign as a guarantor of freedom of action to act on the problems facing us in the 21st century?

Fifteen years after signing the treaty on unification, we can no longer conceal that despite the financial achievements, German unity has essentially been a failure. Petty calculation prevented the government of the time from submitting to the citizens of both states a new constitution relevant to the endeavors of Germany as a whole. It is therefore hardly surprising that people in the former East Germany should regard themselves as second-class Germans.
The Gravest Generation – by Günther Grass – NY Times, 05/07/2005

3 Responses to “The unconditional surrender of Germany”

  1. agbessi24 Says:

    Nice piece about your grand father and the end of a war that was going to create chaos and despair in the world. Of cousre it’s normal that somebody like your grand father who’s been part of an atrocious and deadly war like World War 2 didn’t want to talk about it. Some ex-soldiers couldn’t even survive after witnessing such horror. Thanks for sharing this with us!

  2. BlackRiverEagle Says:

    It’s nice that you share this story about your Grossvater with us. I too am very familiar with the myriad emotions and trauma which haunt the survivors of this terrible war to this very day on both sides of the Atlantic. I lost two uncles who served in the European Theatre of WWII including the fighting in Germany. It took them almost 50 years to die from their psychological and social wounds received during the fighting in Europe and after their return to the United States.

    It has been a privelage for me to befriend and share life experiences and stories with some civilian survivors and soldiers of WWII that I have met here in Deutschland and to have the opportunities to learn how the German people themselves view and remember the war(s) via excellent film and video documentaries and personal conversations.

    Like your grandfather, I am not prepared to write or speak (publicly) about what I have learned from these Germans and other nationalities here in re: to the legacy of WWII but perhaps someday I will. For the benefit of the generations that follow them and for my own people as well.

  3. Carine Says:

    Thank you for sharing, this is very enlightening.