Thursday, May 7, 2020

German History and the Month of May

By Michelle Shocklee

May is such a pleasant month--flowers blooming, baby birds hatching, sunshine without the heat of summer. But the month of May has become a time in history--German history in particular--that doesn't foster warm, pleasant feelings.

RMS Lusitania (undated AP Photo)
May 7, 1915

By early 1915, a threat to British shipping began to emerge out of Germany. U-boats, or submarines, were being used to attack naval vessels. As they achieved  more successes, U-boats began to attack merchant vessels as well. Desperate to gain an advantage on the Atlantic, the German government decided to step up its submarine campaign. On February 4, 1915, Germany declared the seas around the British Isles a war zone. Beginning on February 18, Allied ships in the area would be sunk without warning. Efforts would be taken to avoid sinking neutral ships, but there were no guarantees.

Painting of sinking RMS Lusitania
The RMS Lusitania, a luxury liner, was scheduled to leave NYC on May 1, headed to Liverpool. In an interesting move, the German Embassy issued a warning to all passengers contemplating passage on the Lusitania. It appeared in 50 US newspapers, including New York. It read:

NOTICE! Travelers intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that travelers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.
Washington, D.C. 22 April 1915

Benito Mussolini, Prime Minister of Italy
Despite the danger, the Lusitania embarked on its voyage. On May 7, a German U-boat torpedoed and sank the British liner off the southern coast of Ireland, killing 1,198 people including 128 Americans, out of the nearly 2,000 on board. In the aftermath of the sinking, the German government tried to justify it by claiming in an official statement that she had been armed with guns, and had "large quantities of war material" in her cargo. They also stated that since she was classed as an auxiliary cruiser, Germany had had a right to destroy her regardless of any passengers aboard, and that the warnings issued by the German Embassy before her sailing relieved Germany of any responsibility for the deaths of American citizens aboard.

May 22, 1939

In May of 1939, Italy and Germany agreed to a military and political alliance, giving birth to the Rome-Berlin Axis.
Mussolini coined the nickname “Pact of Steel” (he had also come up with the metaphor of an “axis” binding Rome and Berlin) after reconsidering his first choice, “Pact of Blood,” to describe this historic agreement with Germany. He saw this partnership as not only a defensive alliance, protection from the Western democracies, with whom he anticipated war, but also a source of backing for his Balkan adventures. Both sides were fearful and distrustful of the other, but in September 1940, the Pact of Steel would become the Tripartite Pact, with Japan making up the third constituent of the triad. World War II became the deadliest military conflict in history. An estimated 70–85 million people perished, which was about 3% of the 1940 world population.

May 1945
General Alfred Jodl, Hitler’s military advisor, controller of German High Command and chief of the Operations Staff (center), signs the document of surrender (German Capitulation) of the German armed forces at Rheims in General Eisenhower’s headquarters. He is joined by Major Wilhelm Oxenius (left) and Hans Georg von Friedeburg, Admiral of the Fleet (right). Photo by Keystone/Getty Images
On May 7, 1945, Germany officially surrendered to the Allies, bringing an end to the European conflict in World War II. General Alfred Jodl, representing the German High Command, signed the unconditional surrender of both east and west forces in Rheims, France, which would take effect the following day. As a result, May 8 was declared Victory in Europe--VE--Day, a holiday still celebrated by many European countries. While this is certainly a day to celebrate, one can't help but think of all the lives lost through the long years of war.

(Pictured are the remnants of the German Army in Prague surrendering to Allied forces.)

As someone who has German roots, I'm thankful the evil powers of Germany's past are long gone. I hope to visit that beautiful country someday...and I think I'll go in May!

Your turn: Have you visited Germany? Tell me about it!

Michelle Shocklee is the author of several historical novels. Her work has been included in numerous Chicken Soup for the Soul books, magazines, and blogs. Married to her college sweetheart and the mother of two grown sons, she makes her home in Tennessee, not far from the historical sites she writes about. Visit her online at or visit her Amazon page

Releasing 9.8.20; Available for PREORDER!

Sixteen-year-old Lorena Leland’s dreams of a rich and fulfilling life as a writer are dashed when the stock market crashes in 1929. Seven years into the Great Depression, Rena’s banker father has retreated into the bottle, her sister is married to a lazy charlatan and gambler, and Rena is an unemployed newspaper reporter. Eager for any writing job, Rena accepts a position interviewing former slaves for the Federal Writers’ Project. There, she meets Frankie Washington, a 101-year-old woman whose honest yet tragic past captivates Rena.

As Frankie recounts her life as a slave, Rena is horrified to learn of all the older woman has endured—especially because Rena’s ancestors owned slaves. While Frankie’s story challenges Rena’s preconceptions about slavery, it also connects the two women whose lives are otherwise separated by age, race, and circumstances. But will this bond of respect, admiration, and friendship be broken by a revelation neither woman sees coming?



  1. Thanks for the post. I've never been to Germany, but people who have been there tell me how beautiful the countryside is.

  2. I have German roots as well through both paternaland maternal great-grandparents. I've also been to Germany. I went with our church choir on a concert tour of Germany, Austria and Switzerland in 1995. We landed in Frankfort and then boared a bus for Ludwigvanschafen. From there we toured Munich, Augsburg, and Rothenburg ob der Tauber. We also took a cruise down the Rhine River. It's a beautiful country. We visited Martin Luther's church gave a concert there in Augsburg. Two of my most treasured possessions are a nutcracker and a carved angel I bought in Rohenburg. Beautiful churches and very friendly people. You do need to go if you every get the chance. It's reqlly stepping back in time to another world in so many parts as well as being as modern as New York city in others. I learned some of the German language as we sang some of songs in German, but have forgotten most of it now.

    On another note, I remember well that date in 1945. I was a month shy of my 9th birthday, and my grandparents were so glad the war there was over and two of the family would be coming home. That was a terrible time in our history.

    1. Martha, your travels sound lovely! What an amazing childhood memory of that day in 1945!