May is a month chock full of holidays here in France. Just last week, we celebrated May Day. Since it fell on a Tuesday, lots of French took Monday off as well so they could have a four-day weekend—that’s what the French call faire le pont (“to make the bridge”). This year, May is also the month that brings us such Christian holidays as Ascension on May 17 and Pentecost on May 27. While the latter is no longer a public holiday in France, the former is … but let’s not get into a discussion about laïcité, okay? Instead, I’m writing about today’s holiday:
le 8 mai
A blogger friend of mine noted in a post today that it was “Victory Day” … but no one could tell her exactly which victory it commemorated. Being the history nerd that I am, I passed along the needed information. (It also helped that my local Métro station is named for the holiday!) Given that, I figured I might as well write my own little blogpost on the holiday that I just celebrated by doing absolutely nothing special …
“Victory in Europe Day” or “V-E Day” is the day that marks the end of World War II in Europe, when the Allies formally accepted Nazi Germany’s act of military surrender. Following the fall of Berlin and Hitler’s suicide on April 30, 1945, control of Germany passed into the hands of Admiral Karl Dönitz, who established a short-lived new German government named after Flensburg, the town on the Danish border where he was holed up at Germany’s naval academy. Allied forces were advancing rapidly on what remained of the German army in northwestern Germany and, on May 4, Dönitz surrendered to British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery near Hamburg.
The next day, Dönitz dispatched representatives to Reims, in northern France, to negotiate a complete German surrender with General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe. He gave instructions to drag out the negotiations for as long as possible so that as many German soldiers and refugees as possible could surrender to the Western Allies instead of to the Soviets. Eisenhower would not tolerate the tactic, however, and Dönitz relented, authorizing General Alfred Jodl to sign an act of unconditional surrender. The act was executed at 2:41 am on May 7 and provided that all forces under German control would cease active operations at 11:01 pm the next day. At Stalin‘s insistence, the act of surrender was signed again on May 8 by Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel at Marshal Georgiy Zhukov‘s headquarters in Berlin. At 11:01 that evening, the war in Europe was officially over.
Because of the timing of these events, “Victory in Europe” is celebrated on different days in different countries. It is celebrated on May 8 in France and other Western European countries (except for the British Commonwealth, which celebrate the original May 7 signature). Russia and other former Soviet republics celebrate on May 9, because the end of hostilities came that day at 1:01 am Moscow time, due to the two-hour time difference with Berlin.
In France, May 8 became a public holiday of commemoration in 1953, but its status as a public holiday was revoked by the decree of President Charles de Gaulle in 1959. Later, as part of the ongoing reconciliation with Germany, President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing further revoked the “commemoration of allied victory” associated with the day. At the request of President François Mitterand in 1981, however, May 8 was reestablished as a public holiday commemorating the Allied victory.
Ever since, it’s been one of the spate of springtime holidays when you don’t have to go to work in France, whether or not you know why you get to sleep in … but now you do!
© 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved