In this episode, we’ll learn about historical events that happened this week in history as they were depicted in Band of Brothers, Operation Finale and Amazing Grace.
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Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.
May 8, 1945. Berchtesgaden, Germany.
An American soldier flips through a photo album filled with carefully mounted black and white photos. As the camera shows the pictures inside, it’s not super close to the album yet but we can see there are two men standing side-by-side posing for the camera. The photo next to that is of a huge crowd of people lined along a street. On the street are more people in a formation; it looks like a military parade of some sort, and massive mountains provides an impressive backdrop.
The soldier turns to the next page and we can see more photos of people. There seems to be a Nazi swastika in almost every photo. In this photograph, there are people sitting around a dinner table. In the middle is Hitler. Could this photo album belong to Hitler?
Outside, we can hear the voices of some other soldiers as the camera cuts to them.
They’re listing off names of Nazi leaders who sound similar: Hitler, Himmler, Goering, Goebbels.
A couple other soldiers make their way outside to join the three who are sitting down on the balcony. It looks like a luxurious place, with huge stone arches and on the other side we can see massive, snowcapped mountains in the background that look similar to those in the photo album. It’s the kind of natural view that no photograph can do it justice.
One of the two soldiers who just walked up is Damien Lewis’ character, Richard Winters. A soldier who was already there grabs a bottle of wine and shares it with Winters, offering him a drink. It’s obvious the men are relaxing and enjoying the beautiful scenery.
But Winters, who is the senior officer of the group, has some news to share with the other men. He unfolds a piece of paper and reads it to them:
“Effective immediately. All troops stand fast on present positions.”
He pauses and looks up at the three soldiers who are relaxing, each one with their own bottle of wine. One of them, Ron Livingston’s character, Lewis Nixon, is laying back on a chair. He puts his hands behind his head in a very relaxed manner and smiles, “Standing fast.”
A chuckle bursts out. Winters laughs, too.
Then, he asks if the men want to hear the rest of the news. “Ready for it?”
They continue laughing and nod their heads.
Winters simply says, “German army’s surrendered.”
Everyone looks up at him, including Nixon, who pulls his hands out from behind his head. Winters points at Nixon, “I’ve got a present for you.”
In the next scene, we see Winters driving an Army Jeep with Nixon in the passenger seat. They’re going through a forested area, pulling up to an elegant-looking house that has half of it blown apart. We can see the same, beautiful snowy mountains in the background, providing a stark contrast to the green trees in the foreground.
Nixon asks what the place is, to which Winters replies it’s Hermann Goering’s house. They hop out and go inside. A couple other American soldiers were there at the house and Winters leads the four men down some stairs into a massive wine cellar. Nixon is speechless as he looks around.
Winters has some voiceover explaining the contents, saying 10,000 bottles of the world’s finest liquor, wine and champagne helped “Easy Company” mark the day the war in Europe came to an end. Then, in the scene, Winters says it to the other three: “Happy VE Day.”
One of the men turns to Nixon and asks, “VE Day?”
Nixon explains, “Victory in Europe.”
This sequence comes from Band of Brothers, the 2001 HBO miniseries, and it’s depicting an event that happened this week in history: The end of war in Europe during World War II, commonly known as VE Day, on May 8th, 1945.
At least, it’s depicting one version of how American soldiers learned of the news. It’s obviously not showing us what happened to trigger VE Day.
That would be the unconditional surrender of the German Army, which actually took place the day before on May 7th. But, let’s back up a little more to get some historical context for the end of the war and the events that led up to the surrender.
On Sunday, June 22nd, 1941, the Germans launched what would end up being the largest military operation in human history when they invaded the Soviet Union. It was a move that came as a complete surprise to the Soviets because prior to the attack, the two nations had signed a non-aggression pact.
This was the start of an Eastern Front of fighting for Germany.
For the next three years, the Soviets had managed to slow down, stop, and push the Germans back. Near the end of 1943 and throughout 1944, the Soviets launched offensives of their own along the Eastern Front. They drove the Germans back from Estonia and Latvia to the north all the way through Ukraine, Bulgaria and Hungary.
Meanwhile, on the western side of Europe, the Allies landed in Normandy on D-Day: June 6th, 1944. What followed was a lot of hard fighting for months as the Allies pushed their way through France, Belgium, Holland and into the Germany.
So, essentially, Germany was being pushed back on both sides.
On March 22nd, 1945, the Allies crossed into Germany on the Western Front. A little over a week later, on April 2nd, 1945, the Soviets drove the Germans back through Austria on the Eastern Front. Both sides continued to push, on April 16th, the Soviets made their way to Berlin.
That same day, the Americans started attacking the German city of Nuremberg. They captured it four days later, on April 20th. Meanwhile, the British started attacking another major German city, Hamburg, on April 18th.
With Soviet explosions getting closer, Adolf Hitler knew the end was near. He committed suicide in his Berlin bunker on April 30th, 1945.
This sparked a change in leadership as well as suicides by other Nazis such as Joseph Goebbels on May 1st. It also was the start of surrenders by German generals and armies. On May 2nd, the Germans in Berlin surrendered to the Soviets. That same day, some other German armies surrendered to the Allies. German forces in Denmark, Netherlands, Bavaria and more surrendered in the following days.
Then, at 2:41 AM on the morning of May 7th, 1945, General Alfred Jodl officially signed an unconditional surrender for all German forces to the Allies and they were to cease active operations the following day. On that same day, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel also signed another document of unconditional surrender.
At 3 PM on May 8th, Winston Churchill had a radio broadcast to announce the end of the war in Europe. Here is that speech:
[ CHURCHILL AUDIO ]
Back to Band of Brothers, though, the series is correct to show that the 101st Airborne was at the Bavarian home of Hitler in May of 1945.
If you want to see their experiences on the screen, you can find that starting at about 13 minutes into the final episode of the miniseries.
And we did a huge deep dive into the historical accuracy of the entire series which you can find over at basedonatruestorypodcast.com/bandofbrothers. Part 3 of that is where we cover the events on and around VE Day.
May 11, 1960. Argentina.
The sun is almost gone now as darkness fills the sky. There’s just enough light left in the day to show a simple building silhouetted against the sky. The building is completely dark, though, because there’s no lights outside. The only artificial light in the shot is the yellow glow of lights coming from inside the house, but it’s not powerful enough to spill into the outdoors.
The camera pans over to show a couple other artificial lights. We don’t have to see the vehicle to know these are car headlights. The car slowly makes its way down the road before stopping underneath a dim streetlight. Inside the car, we can see a man and a woman.
Then, the camera cuts to another car. This one has people inside, but at the front of the car a man is raising the hood and propping it up. Maybe something is wrong with their car. We can see better inside the car now, and there are what looks like three people inside the car, one in the passenger seat and two in the backseat.
The fourth man who raised the hood is tinkering with the engine.
Another man on a bike rides by. In Spanish, he asks if they need help. The man working on the engine politely declines the offer for aid.
There’s no light left in the sky anymore as the camera cuts to a scene just ahead of a bus pulling up to a bus stop. There are a few scattered streetlights, but overall the scene is still very dark and hard to see as the bus stops near a sign and one of the streetlights.
At the same time, one of the men gets out of the car and starts walking toward the bus. He pauses. The bus has continued driving now, and it doesn’t look like anyone got out when it stopped.
The four men are starting to get panicked. Does he know? He must know. But his wife and kids are still home, he wouldn’t leave without them would he? He’s done it before—we should leave. Now!
They all look at each other, clearly trying to figure out what to do. From a distance, the man and woman in another car look on. They, too, seem to be wondering why no one got off the bus, although there’s absolutely no dialogue from them.
Just then, another bus rumbles down the same street the other one just left. Like the bus before it, this one stops at the same place, its brakes screeching slightly as it does. From the dim light inside the bus, we can see some movement. The bus pauses for a moment, then continues on. After it passes, we can see a solo man standing there. He’s reaching for something in his pocket. A flashlight. Makes sense, it’s still very dark.
In fact, we can’t see his face at all, it’s way too dark for that, but we can see the outline of him thanks to a couple of the dim streetlights near the bus stop.
The men in the car notice this. The camera zooms in on one of them who makes a positive identification, “Him.”
We can see the flashlight bouncing slowly as the man carries it while he walks. The men in and around the car contemplate what just happened. Why was there a second bus? And the man on the bike? Something feels off.
Making a decision, one of the men near the car with the hood up starts walking toward the flashlight man. With the rest of the men staying in the car, now we have two men walking toward each other. One, the guy who just got off the bus, is carrying a flashlight. The other is not.
They pass each other silently, then a moment afterward the man from the car turns around to say something. That makes the flashlight man turn around, but it’s only for a moment as flashlight man doesn’t seem to care who the other guy is. But he doesn’t get far. The man from the car jumps into action, putting his gloved hand over flashlight man’s mouth. That muffles his screams.
In the dark shot, his flashlight starts waving around wildly as he’s being abducted. The two men continue to wrestle each other, falling into the ditch by the side of the road. As the struggle continues, flashlight man manages to get a scream out—part of it is muffled, though, as the other man continues to try to keep his hand over his mouth. Another of the men from the car jumps out, rushing to the aid of his colleague.
The camera cuts to inside the building we saw at the beginning of this sequence. Inside is a woman. This must be her home. Even though there’s no dialogue, after the scream outside it’s obvious that maybe she heard something. Right? Maybe. And maybe the guy outside being abducted is her husband. Of course, she doesn’t know that’s happening. But maybe she did hear something, so she starts to investigate.
Back in the ditch, it’s two against one now. The car with the man and woman that we saw at the beginning of this sequence appears, backing up right alongside the spot where the struggle is taking place. The woman gets out, opening the back door as the two men carry the flashlight man and put him in the back.
She gets in alongside the flashlight man, who is still being held by the first guy from the car. He tells her to get the sedative. Then, to flashlight man, the man from the front seat of the car says, “Make a noise and I’ll kill you.”
The car kicks into gear and they drive away, followed shortly by the other car.
This comes from the 2018 movie called Operation Finale and it depicts an event that happened this week in history when Israeli spies managed to find and capture Adolf Eichmann—the Nazi war criminal who was one of the twisted minds behind the Holocaust.
With help from a Catholic bishop, Eichmann escaped to Argentina after World War II ended. That’s where he was in 1960, which is why we see people speaking Spanish in the movie.
Of course, no one really knew the path he took from Europe to Argentina at the time.
We only know that now because while other Allies started the post-war process, one of the things the newly formed country of Israel did was to try and find the Nazis behind the Holocaust.
The movie is correct to show the Israeli Mossad agents capturing Eichmann in secret. Although I only described the sequence in the movie from this week in history, for some more context, after thinking perhaps they knew where Eichmann was, they had to make a positive identification first. That happened in March of 1960.
Once they knew where he was, the next step was to decide what to do. Normally, a criminal would be extradited—we hear about this kind of thing happening all the time. But one reason why so many Nazis like Eichmann went to Argentina was that they tended not to extradite Nazis. That’s a big reason why the decision was made to capture him in secret.
So, in April of 1960, Israel sent spies with the task of capturing him and returning him to Israel for trial.
After some more observations to establish what Eichmann’s routine was, they determined the best time to capture him would be after he took his normal bus in the evening. Just like we see in the movie, though, on the night of May 11th, 1960, he wasn’t on his normal bus. They were about to give up for the day when Eichmann showed up on a bus that came by about 30 minutes or so later.
The movie correctly showed Oscar Isaac’s version of the Mossad agent Peter Malkin as the first to walk up to Eichmann. Malkin asked Eichmann a question, the latter of whom didn’t want to interact with this stranger and continued on. That’s when the struggle ensued.
The agents tackled Eichmann and put him in a waiting car before driving to a nearby safe house they’d set up beforehand.
If you want to watch this week’s event in the movie, check out 2018’s Operation Finale and the actual capture of Adolf Eichmann starts at about an hour and 14 minutes into the movie.
And if you want to learn even more about before and after the capture of the notorious Nazi—including what happened after they brought him back to Israel—we covered the true story behind that movie over on episode #162 of Based on a True Story.
May 12, 1789. London, England.
We can hear his words before we see who is talking.
“It is with a heavy heart,” he begins. The camera pans around into a large chamber where many stately men in suits and wigs befitting the 1700s are either standing or sitting, listening to the man speaking. He continues, “…that I bring to the attention of this House, a trade which degrades men to the level of brutes.”
Now we can see the person talking. It’s Ioan Gruffudd’s character, William Wilberforce.
Wilberforce explains that, “I am speaking of the slave trade.”
All the men in the room start to make noise, seemingly disagreeing with the mention. The commotion continues as Wilberforce recognizes the elephant in the room: Namely that people in the room have interests in the Indies, or investments in plantations, or they’re ship owners. In other words, they’re profiting from the slave trade.
While the movie doesn’t mention this outright, it doesn’t really have to because we can see it visually, but it’s probably no surprise that everyone in the room is white.
The commotion is getting louder as Wilberforce continues his speech, trying to appeal to their humanity. People are talking loudly, banging, calling out…none of it really seems to be saying anything, but the closed captioning in the movie describes this as “clamoring.”
The first thing that came to my mind was trying to talk over a busy restaurant.
Basically, it’s not any single person who is stopping Wilberforce from talking, but collectively it’s the hundreds of people in the room who are all making enough noise that Wilberforce has to raise his voice to be heard. Even then, it doesn’t seem to be working. His voice is being drowned out as he tries to plead his position.
Finally, someone in the room calls out for order.
Lord Tarleton, who is played by Ciarán Hinds in the movie, stands up to speak out. He says he can’t believe his ears. Someone from the other side bounces back, “We can hardly believe your mouth!”
There’s scattered laughter among the men.
Tarleton continues, saying that his young friend, Wilberforce, seems to have a long-term strategy to destroy the nation that spawned him. Everyone in the room seems to agree with Tarleton as Wilberforce sits down.
This scene comes from the 2006 movie called Amazing Grace and it depicts an event that happened this week in history: William Wilberforce’s first major speech on abolition to the House of Commons. That was this week in history on May 12th, 1789. Or maybe it was May 13th, in my research there were both dates given by different sources.
Although the movie doesn’t mention this, the speech we hear comes from accounts of the speech because at that time they didn’t transcribe every speech in the House of Commons. With that said, though, the movie’s version of the speech is pretty accurate—albeit much shorter than the actual speech which lasted for about three hours.
But here is the generally accepted version of how William Wilberforce started his speech:
When I consider the magnitude of the subject which I am to bring before the House, a subject, in which the interests, not of this country, nor of Europe alone, but of the whole world, and of posterity, are involved: and when I think, at the same time, on the weakness of the advocate who has undertaken this great cause, when these reflections press upon my mind, it is impossible for me not to feel both terrified and concerned at my own inadequacy to such a task.
But when I reflect, however, on the encouragement which I have had, through the whole course of a long and laborious examination of this question, and how much candour I have experienced, and how conviction has increased within my own mind, in proportion as I have advanced in my labours; when I reflect, especially, that however averse any gentleman may now be, yet we shall all be of one opinion in the end; when I turn myself to these thoughts, I take courage I determine to forget all my other fears, and I march forward with a firmer step in the full assurance that my cause will bear me out, and that I shall be able to justify upon the clearest principles, every resolution in my hand, the avowed end of which is, the total abolition of the slave trade.
The movie was also correct show that Wilberforce’s speech in 1789 wasn’t necessarily received very well. After all, as the movie also correctly depicts, there were many in the British government who profited greatly from the slave trade. It also wasn’t the last of his speeches against the slave trade. But, it was a moment in history that many consider the beginning of the end for slavery in Britain, something that wasn’t fully abolished until August 28th, 1833.
If you want to watch the speech as it is depicted in the 2006 movie called Amazing Grace, you’ll find it starting at about 47 minutes and 17 seconds.
And we did a deep dive into the true story behind that film way back on episode #22 of Based on a True Story.