On May 7, 1945, Germany unconditionally surrendered to the Allies in Reims, France, ending World War II and the Third Reich.
Or did it happen on May 9 in Berlin instead?
Both are true. Due to warring ideologies, tussles between the Soviet Union and its allies, and the legacy of the First World War, Germany actually surrendered twice.
As an Allied victory looked more and more certain in 1944 and 1945, the United States, U.S.S.R., France, and the United Kingdom bounced around ideas on the terms of a German surrender. But it was still unclear how the military or political surrender signing would be orchestrated by the time Adolf Hitler died by suicide in a Berlin bunker on April 30, 1945, and his dictatorship reached a bloody end.
Hitler had designated Karl Dönitz, a naval admiral and ardent Nazi, as his successor in the event of his death. Dönitz was doomed not to rule a new Germany, but rather to orchestrate its dissolution. He quickly deputized Alfred Jodl, chief of the operations staff of the Armed Forces High Command, to negotiate the surrender of all German forces with General Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Dönitz hoped negotiations would buy him time to get as many German people and troops as possible out of the path of the advancing Russians. He also hoped to convince the United States, Britain, and France, all of whom distrusted the U.S.S.R., to turn against the Soviet Union so that Germany might continue its war on that front. Eisenhower saw through the ruse, though, and insisted Jodl sign an instrument of surrender without negotiations. (Hear stories from the last living voices of WWII.)
On May 7, Jodl signed an unconditional “Act of Military Surrender” and a ceasefire that would go into effect at 11:01 p.m. Central European Time on May 8. When Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin heard that Germany had signed an unconditional surrender of all its troops in Reims, he was furious. He argued that since the U.S.S.R. had sacrificed the most troops and civilians during the war, its most important military commander should accept Germany’s surrender rather than the Soviet officer who had witnessed the signing in Reims. Stalin opposed the location of the signing, too: Since Berlin had been the capital of the Third Reich, he argued, it should be the site of its surrender.
But Stalin’s third objection—that Jodl was not Germany’s most senior military official—would prove the most convincing to the rest of the Allies, all of whom remembered how the signing of the armistice that ended World War I had helped plant the seeds of the next world war.
In 1918, as the German Empire had teetered on the brink of defeat, it collapsed and was replaced by a parliamentary republic. Matthias Erzberger, the new secretary of state, had signed the armistice of Compiègne, in which Germany unconditionally surrendered.
The surrender came as a shock to most German civilians, who had been told their military was on the verge of victory. As a result, rumors began to circulate that Germany’s new, civilian government—and other popular scapegoats, such as Marxists and Jews—had stabbed the military in the back. Erzberger was eventually murdered as a result of the myth, which became a common refrain among the members of the new Nazi Party as they consolidated to seize power. (Meet the forgotten 'wolf children' of the second World War.)
Stalin argued that allowing Jodl to surrender for Germany in World War II could open the door to a new stab-in-the-back myth since he had been deputized by Dönitz, a civilian head of state. Worried that Germany could again insist that its surrender was illegitimate if anyone but Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, the supreme commander of all German forces, personally signed the document, the Allies decided to restage the surrender.
On May 8, Keitel headed to Karlshorst, a suburb of Berlin, to sign the document in front of Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov and a small Allied delegation. But Keitel argued a minor point, hoping to add a clause giving his troops a grace period of at least 12 hours to ensure they received their cease fire orders before facing any penalties for continuing to fight. Zhukov ultimately offered Keitel a verbal promise but did not grant his request to add the clause. Due to the delay, the document was not executed until after the ceasefire was supposed to begin—and May 9 had already arrived.
The Russians celebrate May 9 as Victory Day to this day. The Reims surrender wasn’t even reported in the Soviet press until a day afterward, proof according to some observers that the second surrender was a propaganda move orchestrated so Stalin could claim a larger part of the credit for ending the war. In the rest of the world, though, V-E (Victory in Europe) Day is celebrated on May 8, the day the ceasefire was officially slated to begin.