May 8th - Liberation Day in the GDR

The unconditional surrender of all parts of the Wehrmacht after the end of the Second World War came into force on May 8th. In the GDR, this day was celebrated as a legal day of liberation from 1950 to 1967. In this article, we show thematic objects from our collection. (8 May 2023)

On May 7th, 1945, the German Colonel General Jodl signed the declaration of surrender in Reims on behalf of the German armed forces, with which the unconditional surrender came into force on May 8th at 11.01 p.m. Central European Time (CET). Subsequently, on the night of May 8th to May 9th, 1945, German officers from the three branches of the armed forces - army, air force and navy - signed the unconditional declaration of surrender of the German Reich in the officers' mess of the Wehrmacht Pioneer School in Berlin-Karlshorst, while in the presence of the Soviet Marshal Georgi Konstantinovich Zhukov. The German state and army leadership thus granted the Allies the right to regulate all German political, military and social affairs in the respective occupation zones. The period of open-armed conflict in Europe was over.

Memorials to the Day of Liberation in Berlin

Monuments and memorial cemeteries were soon established in the Soviet occupation zone to commemorate the day of liberation and the countless victims of the war. With an estimated 27 million dead, the Soviet occupying power suffered an enormous loss on the part of the civilian population and soldiers. In Berlin, the first Soviet memorial in Tiergarten was created just a few months after the end of the war and was ceremoniously inaugurated in November 1945 on the anniversary of the Soviet October Revolution. Other memorials such as the Soviet memorial in Schönholz in Berlin Pankow and the Soviet memorial in Berlin Buch were added in the following years. The largest site, and also the central memorial, was built over several years in Berlin Treptow.

The construction of this complex was given higher priority by the occupying power than the urgently needed construction of new housing in the city of Berlin, which was still largely in ruins. On May 8th, 1949, the fourth anniversary of the end of the war, the Soviet memorial in Treptow, covering an area of ten hectares, was officially opened. The remains of 7,000 Red Army soldiers rest on the site, the centrepiece of which is a statue of a Soviet soldier standing on a hill carrying a child in his arms and holding a sword in his other hand. At his feet lies a smashed swastika. The statue with its mound, pedestal and walk-in pavilion is an impressive 30 metres high. The sarcophagi and burial plots aligned around the central point are partially decorated with Stalin's quotes in the style of their time of origin.

May 8th as a Public Holiday in the GDR

The site was subsequently the venue for diverse and widespread mass events such as torchlight processions organised by the FDJ and the Pioneers, various state rituals and the annual events on »Liberation Day«, which was declared a public holiday in the GDR from 1950 to 1967 and in 1985 by a resolution of the People's Chamber. The culture of remembrance on Liberation Day was characterised by the dominant position of the Soviet Union and the ideological disputes during the »Cold War« and was therefore very one-sidedly focused on »Big Brother«.

The Brochure »The Great Victory« in the Collection

Our collection includes a brochure entitled »Der große Sieg - Die welthistorische Bedeutung des Sieges der Sowjetunion im zweiten Weltkrieg« (»The Great Victory - The World Historical Significance of the Soviet Union's Victory in the Second World War«). Published in 1980 by Dietz Verlag Berlin, it is intended as »illustrative material for the 35th anniversary of the liberation from Hitler’s fascism«. On 80 pages, accompanied by numerous photographs and maps, it covers the period from the emergence of the Third Reich to its destruction. The role of the other Allies, Great Britain, the USA and France, is mentioned in passing on a total of four pages of the brochure. The outstanding role of Soviet power is clearly described here. Contemporary slogans such as »learning from the Soviet Union means learning to win!«, which adorned public spaces in the GDR on large-scale banners, emphasised the leading role of the Soviet Union.

Broschüre »Der grosse Sieg«

Seelow Heights Memorial

There were also central places of honour and memorials outside Berlin during the GDR era, such as the Seelow Heights Memorial. The Seelow Heights, favoured by the sloping terrain towards the Oder, were developed by Wehrmacht units into the last main defence position outside Berlin.

It was at this historic site that the Red Army crossed the Oder in the spring of 1945 and opened the gateway to the Reich capital of Berlin after days of heavy fighting. The Battle of the Seelow Heights is considered the largest and most costly battle of the Second World War on German soil. As at the Treptow Memorial, state rituals such as swearing-in ceremonies for NVA soldiers and other mass events were also celebrated at this memorial site.

The picture shows a postcard with the title »Military History Memorial of Liberation on the Seelow Heights« from the collection of the DDR Museum.

Postkarte Seelower Höhen

The Berlin-Karlshorst Museum

The site in Berlin Karlshorst, where the war in Europe ended, is now home to the Berlin-Karlshorst Museum. The museum pursues »the indispensable task of keeping the National Socialist mass crimes alive in the public consciousness, remembering their victims and facilitating constructive dialogue about the different perspectives on the history of the Second World War«.

Years ago, our scientific director Dr. Stefan Wolle, in collaboration with the historian Ilko Sascha Kowalczuk, wrote a publication on the Soviet influence in the GDR entitled »Red Star over Germany«, which fits in well with the topic. The book was published by Christoph Links Verlag.

The »Day of Liberation« Today

May 8th, which is referred to as »Liberation Day«, is increasingly the subject of controversial debates, as the Germans were not »liberated« but »defeated« as a nation of perpetrators. It is argued that the use of the term “liberation” could contribute to relativising or trivialising German responsibility for the crimes of National Socialism.

The DDR Museum expressly distances itself from any relativisation or trivialisation of the crimes of National Socialism and emphasises the importance of a critical examination of history.


Editor's note: This blog post was first published on 7 May 2015.

More on this topic