VE Day – the beginning of a new Europe

Seen as a day of celebration through much of the world, Victory in Europe (VE) Day also signified deep changes to the continent and its peoples. University of Kent historian Dr Charlie Hall examines what these new beginnings were.He said:

‘On 8 May 1945, the Second World War in Europe ended. This did not come as a shock to most people. Nazi Germany had fought on until the bitter end but their imminent defeat was obvious to all but a few diehard fanatics. Even Hitler himself had realised all was lost and committed suicide in his Berlin bunker on 30 April. Ceasefire negotiations had been underway for a few days and the initial surrender, between Nazi Germany and the Western Allies, was actually signed in the early hours of 7 May but, at the urging of the Soviets, a more formal and historic surrender ceremony was arranged in Berlin for the following day.

‘While VE-Day is now celebrated as a moment of final triumph in Britain and elsewhere, the reality is less clear. To begin, war with Japan in the Pacific Theatre continued until August 1945, with many British troops still stationed overseas – in Asia, Africa and Europe – for months after eventual victory had been declared.

‘Moreover, a new post-war world had to be built and nowhere was this more pressing than in Germany itself. Occupied by the four Allies – Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the United States – the country was in ruins, unable to provide its citizens with the most basic essentials. Britain even had to introduce bread rationing, which it had avoided throughout the war, to ensure the Germany did not starve.

‘The destruction of Germany was also political. The Nazi dictatorship had collapsed and brought any credible structure for government down with it. The occupiers had to impose their own systems and before long Germany was divided on stark ideological lines. In the West, the occupation zones of Britain, France and the United States merged and then became the Federal Republic of Germany, a capitalist liberal democracy which soon thrived as it underwent its so-called post-war “economic miracle”. In the East, the Soviet zone became the German Democratic Republic, a one-party socialist dictatorship. The border between these two opposing nations, strengthened by the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, represented the frontline of the Cold War; the dominant state of European affairs for the next 40 years.

‘Meanwhile, in the West, further plans were underway to unite Europe more closely, and reduce the chances of conflict breaking out between neighbours. Indeed, as early as September 1946, Winston Churchill called for a “United States of Europe” and encouraged his fellow Europeans to “turn our backs upon the horrors of the past and look to the future”. That said, he did not necessarily envisage Britain being a part of this new federal Europe, feeling that its future lay in the Commonwealth. In any case, by 1952, the European Coal and Steel Community had been formed. This offered initial integration of the economies of six European nations and laid the foundations for the European Union.

‘Taken together, what this shows is that, while 8 May 1945 marked an ending in some respects, it also marked a series of new beginnings. There is little doubt that the Europe we live in today has been shaped indelibly by the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.’


Dr Charlie Hall, Lecturer in Modern European History, School of History, University of Kent

Dr Hall’s research centres on ideology, propaganda and society in twentieth-century Europe and Britain. He is currently working on perceptions of Nazism in Britain since 1923. He is also interested in social and cultural histories of military technology, the transnational movement of people and ideas, and the aftermath of conflict.

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