Europe yesterday marked 75 years since the end of World War II in a somber mood as the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancelation of elaborate ceremonies, even as Berlin for the first time declared the day a holiday.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel laid wreaths at Neue Wache — Germany’s main memorial to the victims of war and dictatorship.
Unlike elsewhere in Europe, where May 8 is celebrated annually as Victory in Europe Day, the anniversary of Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender to the Allies has always been just another work day in Germany.
However, the city of Berlin declared a one-off public holiday to remember the day 75 years ago when the war that claimed more than 50 million lives came to an end in Europe.
The move has prompted some to call for the date to be made a permanent public holiday, touching off a heated debate in Germany.
Firmly slapping down the idea of giving prominence to the anniversary, the leader of Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, Alexander Gauland, said that the date was too “ambivalent.”
“It was a day of complete defeat, a day of the loss of huge parts of Germany and the loss of the possibility to shape its future,” Gauland told the RND newspaper group.
Gauland, who has described the Nazi period as a mere “speck of bird poo” in Germany’s otherwise glorious past, immediately drew fire.
Central Council of Jews president Josef Schuster said that Gauland’s view of May 8 was typical of “neo-Nazis.”
“The intention is to portray the Germans primarily as victims. I find this distortion of history and relativization of Nazi crimes irresponsible,” Schuster told the daily Neue Osnabruecker Zeitung.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier had originally called a state ceremony to mark May 8 — the first since 1995 — but the event before the Reichstag building had to be scaled down to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Likewise, large-scale parades across Europe have been scrapped, drastically downsized or moved online, as the continent grapples with its biggest crisis since World War II — this time against an invisible enemy.
With veterans already at an advanced age, organizers deemed it too risky for them to attend events, even in countries that have begun to ease lockdown measures.
Russia had originally planned a huge military display on its Victory Day today, with world leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron on the guest list, but only a flyover took place over Red Square.
In the Czech Republic, where a lockdown has been lifted, politicians arrived at 10-minute intervals to lay wreaths on Prague’s Vitkov Hill, to practice social distancing.
Ceremonies across France were drastically scaled down, although Macron attended an event on the Champs-Elysees.
In Britain, street parades by World War II veterans were canceled, but Queen Elizabeth II was to make a televised address to the nation at 9pm — the same time that her father, King George VI, gave a radio address marking Victory in Europe Day in 1945.
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