Seventy-five years ago this month – on May 8, 1945 – President Harry S. Truman proclaimed V-E (Victory in Europe) Day. Truman announced the surrender of Nazi Germany during a news conference at the White House. The date was doubly significant for him: May 8 was also Truman’s 61st birthday.
Only a few weeks earlier, another chief of state, in another capital, had taken a few moments from the rigors of war to mark a similar occasion. April 20, 1945 was the 56th birthday of Adolf Hitler, the German dictator whose vast and lethal ambitions had plunged the world into an unprecedented catastrophe. In his bunker deep beneath a devastated Berlin, with the Red Army only a few kilometers away, the man who bore personal responsibility for the deaths of tens of millions of people hosted a reception for a few lackeys. His loyal mistress, Eva Braun, was present, as were Hermann Goering, Joseph Goebbels and Heinrich Himmler: the princes of a depraved empire that was now crashing down around their ears.
The death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12 had filled Hitler and Goebbels with irrational delight. They both hoped it would somehow disrupt the alliance among the United States, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union. An ardent astrologer, Goebbels even provided Hitler with a horoscope predicting that the tides of war would turn in Germany’s favor after April 12.
Of course, Roosevelt’s death and Truman’s succession to the presidency had no effect on the military endgame in Europe. Once again, Hitler and the Nazi leadership displayed their phenomenal ignorance of the United States and its political system. With his racist obsessions, Hitler had always discounted the U.S. as a “mongrel” nation incapable of standing up to his Aryan master race. This hubris had led him to declare war on the United States in December 1941, after his Japanese allies attacked Pearl Harbor. Until it was too late, Hitler and his henchmen never appreciated America’s immense material resources or the resiliency of its democratic institutions.
Hitler’s birthday reception in Berlin marked the last time the major leaders of the Third Reich would assemble in the same room. In the days that followed, an enraged Hitler stripped both Goering and Himmler of their offices. Goering’s offense was his apparent over-eagerness to succeed Hitler as chief of state after the dictator declared his determination to stay in Berlin until the bitter end. Himmler’s offense was trying to open secret peace negotiations with the Allies. Both men had left Berlin before Hitler learned of their “treachery,” but this had little effect on their ultimate fate. Himmler killed himself following his capture by the British; Goering also used cyanide to cheat the hangman’s noose after he was tried and convicted of war crimes at Nuremberg.
On April 30, ten days after celebrating his last birthday, Hitler committed suicide in his bunker. Eva Braun, whom he had married the day before, chose the same fate. Their bodies were burned, but the Soviet soldiers who occupied Berlin a few days later found and identified their remains. The Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin chose to conceal this information from his American and British allies. For more than 20 years, the Soviet Union continued to insist Hitler’s body had never been recovered and imply that he might still be alive.
At his news conference on May 23, 1945, President Truman stated his own belief that Hitler was dead, citing as his source the Swedish Prince Bernadotte, who had been in contact with Himmler. Himmler had confided to Bernadotte that Hitler had only twenty-four hours to live . . . and, as Truman told the reporters, when Himmler said that someone would be dead in twenty-four hours, he was usually right.
The final stages of World War II will be an important part of the Truman Library’s newly renovated museum, which is expected to reopen during the fall.
Randy Sowell is an archivist of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence.