Rome–Starting Monday and running through May 9, much of Europe commemorates Victory in Europe Day, the moment when, in 1945, Nazi Germany formally surrendered and ended World War II. It’s a continental-wide observance.

In the United Kingdom, V-E Day falls this year on May 3. In Denmark and Netherlands, Liberation Day is May 5. In much of the rest of Europe, the date are either March 8 or 9, and goes by names like Victory Day, Memorial Day or Victory over Fascism Day.

The United States observes Memorial Day, at the end of May, for all soldiers who died in American wars and, in November, Veterans Day for all who served in the armed forces.

As for the WWII losers, Germany dedicates the sixth Sunday before Christmas, “to remember the dead of two wars, both those at the front and at home, and remember the victims of violent regimes.”  Nazi occupation of Italy ended on April 25, 1945, and that’s when the Italians observe the war’s end. Japan commemorates its 1945 surrender on August 15 and calls it “the day for mourning of war dead and praying for peace.”

But back to Europe. This holiday is a reminder of why contemporary Europe is so war-averse (the often bellicose UK notwithstanding). I think it is hard for Americans to understand the depth of destruction and death that overtook the continent, from the Atlantic into Russia. Countries were in ruins. Hunger, disease, refugees were on the move, war crimes uncovered, and reprisals and bitterness lingered far beyond V-E Day.

I can think of few better ways to observe V-E Day than by viewing a documentary called “The Decent One.” This is not the battlefield version of the war; it deals not with D-Day and the Battle of Stalingrad.

Film poster for “The Decent One,” based on letters by SS chief Heinrich Himmler

“The Decent One” is a German-Austrian-Israeli film made last year. The movie is mostly based on letters written by Heinrich Himmler, commander of the ferocious SS and an architect of the Holocaust, to his wife and his daughter and juxtaposes them with footage of the war in all its horror. It also uses documents, photos and letters that cover Himmler’s early life and the march of  Germany to Nazi totalitarianism and its second destructive conflict of the 20th Century. The passages are read by actors.

Reviewers found the addition of sound effects to the documentary film clips overbearing. I rather was focused on the contrast between Himmler’s laconic accounts of his life and wartime activities with the dramatic images of the rise of the Nazis, creation of Himmler’s paramilitary SS, the suppression of opponents and homosexuals, the massive persecution of Jews (he calls them the “sub-humans”) and the war itself and its climax.

Himmler is obsessively methodical–the letters are numbered. He and his family banter about getting a country house some day and his shipments of chocolates home.  Himmler’s daughter called the Fuhrer “Uncle Hitler.” The letters are sprinkled with anti-Semitic remarks. Details of the mass killing that he ordered up as SS chief aren’t detailed to the family. At one point Himmler tells his wife, “I can’t always be as good as  you want me to be.”

Himmler (l) shakes hands with Hitler

As Himmler unleashes death squads in East Europe and fills mass graves with the executed, he writes, “Despite all the work, I am doing fine and sleep well.” In a speech, he acknowledges that Jews must be exterminated, but reassures his audience that German officers, soldiers and generals are all “decent.” He comes off as the epitome of  what Hannah Arendt described as, “The banality of evil.”

Himmler killed himself by chewing a cyanide pill in British custody, also in May, 1945.

You can view “The Decent One” here.

A brief account of war’s end.

 

 

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