May 8, 2024: what is the story behind this public holiday which commemorates the Victory of 1945?

MAY 8.

May 8, 2024: what is the story behind this public holiday which commemorates the Victory of 1945?

MAY 8. What do we celebrate on May 8? Why is this day a holiday? A quick update on the origins and history of this non-working day, but also on the process of the commemorations.

[Updated May 6, 2024 at 4:03 p.m.] In France, the 128th day of the year or 129th, in the case of a leap year as is the case this year, causes one of the "bridges" of the month of May (with May 1st or Ascension), making it possible to considerably extend the weekends of employees, the self-employed or civil servants. In 2024, May 8 falls on a Wednesday and is exceptionally followed by Thursday May 9, a public holiday this year due to the moving date of Ascension.

Traditionally, during the official ceremony of May 8, the President of the Republic Emmanuel Macron walks up the Champs-Élysées of Paris in the morning then lays a wreath of flowers under the Arc de Triomphe before rekindling the flame of the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Find out everything about the history, process and meaning of this public holiday.

On May 8, 1945, at 3 p.m., the bells tolled to mark the end of World War II in Europe. General de Gaulle himself announced the German capitulation in a radio address. Throughout France, scenes of joy accompany May 8 and 9, which are exceptionally public holidays to celebrate the defeat of Nazi Germany. There then remained German soldiers in France (around the ports of Dunkirk, Lorient and Saint-Nazaire, in particular). The question of commemorations arises very quickly. Government and veterans are hesitating between establishing a single date – intended to celebrate the victories of 1918 and 1945 – and setting up a ceremony specific to the Second World War.

Law No. 46-934 of May 7, 1946 sets May 8 (if it is a Sunday) or the Sunday following this date for the commemorations of the 1945 victory. May 8 was until then associated with the feast of Joan d'Arc (see below). It was in 1953 that May 8 really became an established public holiday, in the same way as November 11, regardless of the day of the week on which it fell. In 1959, a decree seeking to limit the number of non-working days sent the French back to work. And in 1975, the President of the Republic, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, removed all official character from the date. His gesture seeks to mark Franco-German reconciliation, but irritates many veterans. It was ultimately François Mitterrand who restored May 8 to its public holiday character. Law No. 81-893 of October 2, 1981 adds this day to the list of non-working days in the labor code. This day is not celebrated in Britain, the United States or Germany.

The event that gave rise to the "May 8 public holiday" occurred on May 8 in the year 1945: an act of capitulation of the armies (land, sea, air) of the Third Reich, formalized in the HQ of the allied forces, in Reims. There was located, in the middle of the Second World War, the General Staff of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe. The establishment has since given birth to Roosevelt High School and its Surrender Museum. But why did Germany admit defeat to Europe and not to the world? The German high command preferred to deal with the Western allies rather than the Soviets because of the possible fate of the German prisoners.

May 8 was adopted as the day to commemorate Germany's surrender in World War II. However, the reality is much more complex. Firstly because this event only marks the end of the Second World War in Europe, the conflict continuing for four more months in the Pacific, between Japan and the United States. Then because different acts of capitulation were signed at different times between May 7 and 9, depending on the temporal referent chosen.

In any case, the beginning of May 1945 marked the collapse of the Third Reich. On April 30, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his chancellery bunker, while Soviet soldiers were in Berlin. Joseph Goebbels tries to make contact in order to sign an armistice. Unable to establish a link with the Allies and refusing an unconditional capitulation, he killed himself along with his wife and children on May 1. The next day, the Battle of Berlin ended with the capitulation of German general Helmuth Weidling and the men responsible for defending the capital. From May 4 to 6, all remaining Nazi forces (in the Netherlands, Northern Germany, Denmark, Bavaria, Breslau) surrendered to the Allies. Herman Göring, the highest living Nazi dignitary, surrenders to American authorities on the German-Austrian border.

There are two surrender documents: The first surrender on May 7 in Reims and the second surrender on May 8 in Berlin. Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz was named Reich President by Hitler in his will. At the head of a provisional government of the Reich, he tried to negotiate a series of partial surrenders to the Western allies, in order to be able to continue the fight in the east against the Soviet troops. The Americans refuse to compromise. German general Alfred Jodl, sent by Dönitz, signed the capitulation on May 7 at 2:41 a.m. This historic moment took place in a room at the Technical and Modern College of Reims, which was then the headquarters of the allied forces.

However, this signature was not to the taste of Stalin, who regretted the absence of high-ranking Soviet representatives during this signing. A second capitulation was organized on the evening of May 8 in Karlshorst, near Berlin. This time, it was the Supreme Commander of the Red Army, Georgy Zhukov, who presided over the signing. It was Wilhelm Keitel, supreme commander of the German armed forces, who signed the capitulation. It comes into effect at 11:01 p.m. on May 8. In Moscow time, this time corresponds to May 9 at 01:01 in the morning. Today is May 9 which is celebrated as the day of German surrender in Russia.

The date of VE Day of May 8, 1945 corresponds to the end of the Second World War in Europe, with the outright surrender of the German armies to the Allies. The Victory of May 8, 1945 gives rise to an annual commemoration, which will be attended by the President of the Republic, at 10 a.m. in Paris. On the program: wreath laying at the foot of the Parisian statue of General de Gaulle, then a walk up the Champs-Elysées, before a tribute in front of the tomb of the unknown soldier under the Arc de Triomphe. The sun will be out this May 8, 2024 with nearly 20 degrees expected in Paris.

Officially, the name of the holiday for May 8 is “Victory of 1945.” The use of the word armistice, as in the expression "armistice of 1945", which is found on some calendars, is not correct. Indeed, an armistice is an agreement signed by governments. It ends an armed conflict in time of war, but does not end the state of war. It was this type of document that was signed on November 11, 1918 in the Rethondes wagon, starting a ceasefire and the negotiations that would lead to the Treaty of Versailles, signed by Germany and the Allies. In 1945, it was indeed a capitulation of the Third Reich. In fact, it is a pure and simple surrender of a belligerent, the end of the fighting and the state of war. Hence the name "victory of 1945" and not "armistice of 1945".

May 8 is also an essential day of remembrance in Franco-Algerian relations. It was in fact on May 8, 1945 that the massacres of Sétif, Guelma and Kherrata began, in an Algeria then colonized by France. The drama begins on May 8. A demonstration by Algerian nationalists, demanding the independence of their country, is organized on the sidelines of a procession celebrating the victory of the Allies. They are demanding in particular the release of their leader - Messali Hadj - leader of the PPA (Algerian Popular Party), imprisoned by the French authorities. These demand that demonstrators carry neither weapons nor the Algerian flag.

During the demonstration, in the city of Sétif, a young Muslim scout brandished an Algerian flag in the heart of a neighborhood largely populated by a population of European origin. The police try to remove the flag and shooting breaks out between demonstrators and police. A 26-year-old young man, Algerian flag in hand, is shot dead by a police officer. Panic and confusion increase as indigenous Muslims and populations of European descent exchange gunfire. The death toll exceeds 20 on each side. In Guelma, the police shoot, killing a demonstrator. In the countryside, riots against populations of European origin broke out: 102 people were killed. The government, led by General de Gaulle, sent the army there. The repression – which lasted until May 22 – was terrible: summary executions, bombing of villages, ceremonies of “submission” to the French flag. The official toll established by the French authorities shows 1,000 deaths. In reality, the toll would be five to ten times higher according to historians.

May 8 is also the date of Joan of Arc’s feast day. It was in fact on May 8, 1429 that an army, led by Joan of Arc, managed to deliver the city of Orléans, besieged by the English. Each year, the Johannine festivals of Orléans celebrate this event, culminating with a grand parade through the streets of the city center on May 8. The Centre-Val de Loire region and the city's town hall requested in 2015 the integration of these festivities into France's intangible heritage, before considering a request for classification by Unesco.

On a different note, May 8 is also a key day for the French nationalist right. At the beginning of the 20th century, the far-right, led by Action Française, organized its rally on May 8 in front of the statue of Joan of Arc in Paris. In the 1970s, the National Front participated in these processions, before taking leadership. It was also Jean-Marie Le Pen who decided to move this annual event from May 8 to May 1 in 1988: it was then a question of holding a meeting to influence the period between the two rounds of the presidential election. . Since then, the rally organized by the National Front continues to be held on May 1. Other far-right groups continue to march on May 8.