The Silesia region of Central Europe encompasses an area mainly in modern-day Poland, with small parts in the Czech Republic and Germany. A land rich in natural resources, it’s one of the world’s largest producers of coal, and minerals such as iron, lead, copper, silver, and gold have been found within its borders. Limestone and marble have also been quarried from its rocks. So it’s no surprise to learn that many of the cities within the area, such as Wroclaw and Katowice, are important industrial centers for the continent.
It’s also no surprise that the Germans, upon the outbreak of World War II, needed to have the area under their control.
The Silesia region was one of the first annexed by Germany in the early days of the war, swallowed up during the invasion of Poland and the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia. And, when the Soviets began to advance from the east, it was also one of the areas the Nazis fought hardest to keep.
The battle for Silesia began in January 1945, when the 1st Ukranian Front, led by Marshal Ivan Konev, clashed with German forces in the region. The Soviets understood the importance of securing the area in order to deal a major blow to the German supply line, thus crippling the production of essential equipment and ammunition. But there was also a bigger reason for the taking of Silesia, one which both Soviet and Nazi forces recognized: the territory lay directly between the Allies and the heart of the German empire, Berlin.
In the waning days of the war, therefore, Silesia became ground zero for the Soviet advance and the German resistance. The fighting was fierce and intensely personal. The Soviets, already wary of their American counterparts, were determined to be the first to reach Berlin; the Germans, sensing defeat, were fighting not only for their pride, but for their very lives. Rumors of Russian barbarity were never far from their ears, even on the field of battle.
The battle lasted for months, with both sides gaining and losing ground in various skirmishes, all through the winter and early spring of 1945. In mid-April, Soviet forces (though not those still fighting in Silesia) entered Berlin. A week later, Hitler committed suicide in his bunker under the city streets, leaving the leadership of the Reich to Karl Dönitz, who worked quickly to ensure a peaceful surrender with the Allies in hopes of saving what remained of the German people and their countryside.
On May 8, 1945, Germany signed the letter of unconditional surrender in Reims, France. Celebrations broke out across the world. In England, Churchill partied with the royal family at Buckingham Palace, which was lit up with floodlights for the first time since the outbreak of war. Above St. Paul’s Cathedral, a giant “V” of light was projected into the sky. In France, crowds of people flooded the street. French, British, and American flags all waved from beneath the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower. In the United States, the celebration was more subdued because of the lingering war in the Pacific, but crowds still gathered in the streets of New York and Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles. Trumpets blared and newspapers were flashed all marking, if not the end, at least one end.
But in Silesia, the fighting raged on.
Soviet leader Joseph Stalin refused to accept the surrender at Reims, saying that the Soviet signing party, General Ivan Susloparov, was not authorized to sign the document, which had been altered from the one Stalin had previously approved. The surrender, in his opinion, was therefore null and void; the Soviets, it seemed, were still at war.
A fresh round of skirmishes broke out in the Silesia region. Confusion and violence created an explosive mix, and over 600 Soviet soldiers died before a new surrender–this one approved by Stalin–was signed in Berlin late on May 8 (which was early morning May 9 in Moscow). Only then were the Soviets willing to finally lay down their arms and celebrate, an entire day–and 600 more casualties–later than the rest of the world.
To this day, ceremonies and services take place each year on May 8 to commemorate V-E Day…except in Moscow, which still maintains the actual date of surrender as May 9.