General Alfred Jodl, who would end up being convicted at Nuremberg and executed in 1946, signed the unconditional surrender of Germany to the Allies in the French city of Rheims in the early hours of May 7, 1945. It would take effect at 11.01 pm on May 8. At that time, World War II officially ended in Europe; in Asia, Japan did not surrender until August. But the Cold War had already begun. The lack of trust among the countries that had defeated Nazism was already very high at that time, so much so that they could not even agree on the moment in which the end of the war should be celebrated. In fact, Stalin demanded that a second surrender be signed in Berlin before Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov, which did not take effect until May 9. That is why Russia commemorates its victory in the so-called Great Patriotic War on Monday, while the rest of the allied countries celebrated it on Sunday.
“Churchill cabled Stalin to explain that, since crowds were already gathering in London to celebrate, Victory in Europe Day celebrations in Britain would take place on May 8, as they did in the United States,” writes Antony Beevor in his book The Second World War. “Stalin retorted in displeasure that Soviet troops were still fighting [...] Victory celebrations, Stalin wrote, could not begin in the Soviet Union until May 9.”
Europe is experiencing one of its most dangerous moments since then, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and threats from the Kremlin that it could resort to its nuclear arsenal, while Russian leaders toy with the idea that a third world war could break out. It is by no means the first time that World War II has been used to justify present-day atrocities – Serb nationalists during the Yugoslav conflicts of the 1990s tried to resurrect all the ghosts of an alleged fascist threat – but it is disturbing to what extent Russian President Vladimir Putin not only uses May 9 for his propaganda purposes and to vindicate his invasion of Ukraine, but also replicates Stalin’s obsessions: to maintain control over the countries that he believes should remain under the Russian orbit and the accusations of Nazism against his enemies in order to justify any brutality.
The discussion around the celebrations of May 8 or 9 may seem trivial, but it reflects what the atmosphere was then among the victors of the conflict: everyone knew that a new war was about to begin, if it had not already begun. This time it would be without battles, albeit with a lot of violence, for the distribution of the world. Stalin and the rest of the allies had divided up Germany and Europe by areas of influence. The USSR was not going to take long to impose communism in all the states that it considered should be part of its own sphere of influence.
Nothing reflects the underlying confrontation between the allies at the end of World War II like the fate of the few remains that Soviet troops found of the body of Adolf Hitler, who had committed suicide on April 30. As his body was burned with gasoline at the door of the bunker, only part of the dictator’s jaw and two dental bridges could be recovered, which Soviet agents placed inside a cigar box and took to Moscow in great secrecy under Stalin’s orders. In his book The Fall of Berlin 1945, Beevor recounts that Zukhov, who had commanded the Battle of Berlin, never found out that a few remains of Hitler’s corpse had been recovered. In fact, it was not until the 1990s, with perestroika, that it emerged that the Soviets had taken these remains of the Nazi dictator, nor that they had been destroyed in the 1960s.
Beevor thus explains the Soviet dictator’s reasons for hiding such important information: “Stalin’s system needed the presence of both external and internal enemies, and he feared the release of tension. [...] Even when Hitler’s real body was found on the very next day, orders immediately came from the Kremlin that nobody was to breathe a word about it to anybody. Stalin’s strategy, quite evidently, was to associate the West with Nazism by pretending that the British or Americans must be hiding him. Rumors already circulated at a high level that he had escaped.” Putin, like Stalin, has also accused the Ukrainian government of being Nazis who deserve to be defeated.