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LOTHAR: Letting out the light on V-E Day

The dark days of World War II ended 68 years ago

- - Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Surrenders, like modern wars, are not what they used to be. Tuesday marks the 68th anniversary of the surrender of the German armies that ended the European half of World War II. The last explosions of the war were the popping of champagne corks at 3 o'clock in the morning in the city of Reims in northern France.

The surrender of the Wehrmacht arrived in bits and pieces because after Adolf Hitler died in his bunker on April 30, the German armies were looking to surrender to anyone but the Russians. The British general, Bernard Montgomery, took the city of Lubeck on May 2, 12 hours ahead of the Red Army, and the next morning, four German officers arrived at his headquarters trying to surrender three German armies.

He threw open the door of his office and demanded: "Who are these men, and what do they want?" He knew very well what they wanted, of course, and when they told him they were trying to avoid allowing German civilians to be mistreated by the Red Army he told them: "You should have thought about that before you started the war." What they really wanted was tacit permission to continue to fight the Russians with no interference from the British. He told them their cause was hopeless and until they surrendered he intended to keep killing Germans. He gave them lunch and told them to return with an answer of unconditional surrender. When they did the following morning, the war for the British was over.

In Reims, where 33 French kings were crowned — one of them, Charles VII, was led into the cathedral by Joan of Arc — Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the commander of the Allied armies in Europe, juggled the politics of how to end the war. Josef Stalin wanted to mark the final surrender on May 9, but Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, agreed only to a 24-hour delay. Gen. Alfred Jodl, the commander of the Wehrmacht, signed for the Germans, and Gen. Bedell Smith signed for the Allies in the war room of the Eisenhower headquarters in France. The room now is the Surrender Museum, part of a technical college, and is kept intact, down to the white ashtrays on the table where the documents were signed.

Now, the war in Europe was truly over, only four months after the bloody and decisive Battle of the Bulge marked Hitler's last attempt to avoid the inevitable. Six cases of champagne, which the Benedictine monk Dom Perignon "improved" in Reims when he set out centuries earlier to strengthen the weak local wine, were brought out to celebrate.

Reims was a fitting setting for the surrender. Eighty percent of the city was destroyed by German artillery in World War I, and it was rebuilt in a lovely art-deco style, just in time for World War II. It was heavily damaged by British and American bombers, and Eisenhower settled in at his headquarters in Reims in February 1945 and remained there until the surrender.

The next day, May 8, was decreed V-E Day, for Victory in Europe. After 2,061 consecutive nights of darkness, the lights went on again in London, but with difficulty. When the switch was thrown, the streetlights would not flare. Londoners took down their blackout curtains to let the light in. One 5-year-old girl, as reported in the Churchill biography "The Last Lion," by William Manchester and Paul Reid, said to her mother: "It's lovely to let out the light, but how shall we keep out the dark?"

It was the right question from the mouth of the babe. The war in Europe was over, but conflict continued in the Pacific, where the work of "keeping out the dark" was grim, indeed.

Corinna Lothar is a frequent contributor to The Washington Times.