September 25, 2017

1945. Howard K. Smith Describes the German Surrender to the Soviet Union

Surrender Ceremony Held at Soviet Headquarters in Berlin
Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel signs the German Instrument of Surrender at the Soviet Berlin headquarters in Karlshorst, May 8, 1945 (source)



At 5:30 in the afternoon, New York time, yesterday, when it was half an hour before midnight over here, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics officially accepted the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. The Soviets demanded for the sake of history that the leaders of the three armed forces of Germany appear before their greatest commander, Georgy Zhukov, and sign a fresh document of capitulation.

The ceremony took place in the headquarters of Marshal Zhukov, amid the ruins of Berlin. For the Allies the articles were composed and signed by three men who, more than anything else, have crushed Berlin—British RAF Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, whose planes started and continued the destruction of the German capital, General Carl Spaatz, Commander of the American Strategic Air Forces, who continued the job and virtually consummated it, and, for Russia, Marshal Zhukov, whose Red Army actually conquered the center of Nazism.

For Germany, the document was accepted and signed by Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, for the German Army; by General Admiral Hans-Georg Friedeburg, for the German Navy; and by Colonel General Stumpff, for the Luftwaffe.

The article signed in Zhukov's Berlin headquarters last night differs in no essentials from the document of surrender signed in General Eisenhower's headquarters three days ago. There is only a slight difference in wording. The text of the new treaty will be available soon.

The main occasion for the new signature was historic justice. The Red Army's sacrifices for victory in Europe have been the greatest of all the Allies, and the Germans have wanted more than anything to avoid facing the Russians as dominant negotiators. But last night they did.

I was there in Zhukov's headquarters in the east Berlin suburb of Karlshorst. The ceremony took place in the dining hall of a former German Army engineering school in a big complex of plain gray buildings. There was tense drama in that face-to-face meeting of perhaps the two bitterest enemies since Rome fought Carthage.

Two men dominated the scene, Zhukov of Russia and Keitel of Germany. The faces of both men were frozen into hard, unrelenting frowns throughout the ceremony. Zhukov's jaw was calm, with the calmness of a commander who can and did fight his way from the inferno of Stalingrad, a thousand miles across Europe, to triumph in Berlin. Keitel was nervous, irritated, arrogant at being reduced to the most humiliating gesture a Prussian martinet can know, having to face and beg surrender from a "prolet" of Red Russia, as the Prussians are wont to call them.

Keitel and Stumpff and Friedeburg arrived in Berlin with the American and British delegation to the conference. We, the Americans and British, left Reims, France, at daybreak yesterday in four airplanes. We landed at Stendal, Germany, near the Elbe River demarcation line, between American and Russian-occupied territories, to wait for a Russian fighter escort. Keitel, also in an American airplane, joined us at Stendal airport, after flying from Flensburg on the Danish border.

Our escort began with a modest two Soviet fighter planes. They circled over the field until all five of our ships were in the air, then they escorted us over the Elbe. As we neared Berlin, more and more red-nosed Russian fighter planes joined us until the skies were swarming with them.

It was a little hazy over Berlin, for buildings are still burning. But through the haze it was easy to make out the charred wreckage. For miles of city streets, I could see nothing but roofless, hollow hulls of houses. Some places whole city blocks were wiped out, with not even the outlines of foundations of houses visible in the desert of powdery rubble. It was a terrible but fitting setting for the double-check surrender of Nazi Germany.

We landed at Tempelhof, the scarred main airfield of Berlin. Chief Air Marshal Tedder led the delegation of the Western Allies. He was received by two companies of an honor guard, a Red military band, and a battery of nigh on seventy Russian photographers.

Frankly, I enjoyed watching the Russians outdo us at our own game of mobbing celebrities who arrive at airfields. But I was interested in Keitel, the personification and—if civilization is lucky—the last gasp of Prussian militarism. He climbed out of his American transport plane and regarded the photographers with showy scorn. The expression of Admiral Friedeburg, Commander of the German Navy, was diffident. There were deep black circles under his eyes. The face of Stumpff, of the Luftwaffe, was neutral. It expressed nothing. But Keitel looked as though he had just taken a swig of aged bilge water and was waiting to spit it out as soon as nobody was looking.

The streets on the way to Soviet headquarters were in places just valleys between rubble. They were swarming with Red Army soldiers. It must have grated on Herr Keitel's brittle heart to see not white flags but red flags draped on what German homes were habitable. It was a working-class district and the flags are said to have been hung there by Germans. At the entrance to the suburb of Karlshorst, a neat red-brown arch of triumph was already constructed over the street by the Russians. Golden letters across the top said in Russian: "Glory to the Red Army." If you only knew Berlin, you would know how inconceivable it is for such things as that to be in Berlin. There were red-brown pillars all along the way at intervals. The only legend on them was, again in gold letters, "1945."

It was a great day for the Russians, having conquered Berlin, put an end to the sacrifice and suffering—and the Russians know sacrifice and suffering. Also it was V-E Day, which is just plain V-Day to Russians. They met the leaders of their allies and the leaders of the enemy as victors in the enemy's own capital.

We met Zhukov early in the afternoon yesterday. He invited the official Allied delegation to his rooms to discuss procedure. We correspondents weren't supposed to go; but, only slightly ashamed, we went. I admit that American reporters are a nosy, persistent lot.

Zhukov is a hard man to see. He doesn't like personal publicity. A British correspondent with us said that he had spent two years trying to get a glimpse of Zhukov in Moscow, but never had. We were intent on seeing him, so we tagged along behind Sir Arthur Tedder.

Zhukov, Russia's and perhaps the world's leading military commander, was a surprise. All the close-up photographs you've seen of him were taken before the war. He hasn't been photographed because he hasn't let himself be photographed for many years. The classic picture of him which appeared on the cover of Life some time ago shows a young man with a face almost brutal in its hardness, with coal-black hair and a haircut just about as close as Stalingrad was. The Zhukov we met was an older man. His hair is steel gray. He has a lantern jaw and an extremely high forehead. He's short, heavyset, and his back is as straight as a ramrod, but he still did not like publicity.

He looked embarrassed when we crowded in. He accepted a present from Marshal Tedder, General Eisenhower's invasion flag, but his first words, translated by an interpreter who stood at his side, were that this was intended to be a private meeting between the Allied General Officers and Marshal Zhukov. We promptly filed out of the room.

Negotiations and discussions of the wording of the surrender document went on all afternoon. In a separate room, Keitel became bitterly impatient. He told an American interpreter: "This is just like the Russians; one waits and waits and nothing comes out of it." The Russians, meanwhile, sent him and his delegation a supper of vodka and wine and chicken and caviar and fresh strawberries.

At an occasion so fraught with import as this, it's odd how many strange little things can happen. The Russians had no British or American flags with them. They had to make them on a spur of the moment out of what they cold. Red cloth they had aplenty. But for white they had to use bed sheets, for blue they had to use satin cloth, made in Germany for women's dresses.

I almost made history. To type out the official German translation of the capitulation terms, our delegation asked to use my German typewriter bought in Berlin years ago, but I had left it in the airplane. If I had only brought it with me, Germany would have surrendered to my "type."

At eleven-thirty at night we were called into the dining hall. Marshal Zhukov entered first, then Marshal Tedder and General Spaatz and then we. Tedder sat at the right hand of Zhukov and Spaatz on the left. The last two to enter were "Keitel and company." His two colleagues were properly undemonstrative, but Keitel snapped to attention and saluted the high table, holding his swastika-adorned Field Marshal's baton out towards them. The other Germans wore only military decorations. Keitel also wore the Nazi golden Party badge, which had been presented to him by Hitler.

Keitel was presented with the articles of surrender. Hardly reading them, he shrugged his shoulders and placed his hands on his hips in a blunt expression of disgust. No pen to sign with had been placed before him. Zhukov said nothing and did nothing, nor did anyone else. Finally, Keitel pulled out his own fountain pen and signed with it.

Friedeburg and Stumpff followed him. Then Keitel began really to play showman. He suddenly discovered that he had not read the document until after he had signed it. He began to gesticulate and twist back and forth in his chair, and to rant at Friedeburg who apparently was trying to make him keep quiet. Rumor immediately spread that the Field Marshal was going to withdraw his signature.

The faces of the Russians turned perilously sour. I edged from my place on the far side of the room, around to a position behind Keitel. He was arguing with an American interpreter. The new document, he protested, said that the Germans must not only surrender but also yield up their arms. He insisted that he must have an additional twenty-four hours to inform his troops that they had not only to surrender but to give up their arms. The brow of Zhukov, about ten yards away, looked like a gathering storm.

The American interpreter told Keitel to explain his case to the Russian interpreter. Keitel did. He also asked the Russian to request of Zhukov the twenty-four hours' reprieve.

The interpreter went to Zhukov. Zhukov gave no answer. He didn't alter his expression. He acted as though he hadn't heard a thing. Keitel, then, let the world hope, with the last gesture of Prussianism, slammed his portfolio shut on the already signed documents, arose, saluted stiffly, and marched out of the room. He was followed by Stumpff and Friedeburg and their aides.

Then, with victory complete, we dined at midnight. We had caviar and salami, beer, French fried potatoes, a wine cake, and strawberries. Four long tables were overflowing with food. There were speeches and toasts with vodka, white wine, red wine, and Russian champagne. I can't tell you how many toasts there were to the Allies and to Stalin and to San Francisco. I lost count after twenty-four toasts and white hot vodka.

Zhukov, the silent, became expansive. He made twelve speeches, through the time I was able to count. He seemed to be happy as a kid on Christmas Day. He embraced General Spaatz. After one toast he turned his glass upside down in front of Marshal Tedder to show that he had downed it all in one gulp and that the Marshal do likewise. He toasted Roosevelt and did not mention Truman. He allowed at least a thousand snapshots to be taken of him. And Zhukov, the inaccessible, stayed in our presence for hours until four o'clock in the morning. Before he left he even consented to sit down at my table and autograph a hundred-mark note I wanted to keep as a souvenir.

At six o'clock this morning, when we headed back to Tempelhof airfield, we were each presented with a bottle of wine, a bottle of vodka, and two tins of caviar in the name of Marshal Zhukov.

All over Berlin last night, similar celebrations were going on. The news was read out as soon as it was released. There was dancing and there was singing in Russian in the half-destroyed restaurants and beer halls that are still there in Berlin.