Europe and the United States mark 75 years since the end of WW-II on Friday in a somber mood as the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of elaborate ceremonies even as Berlin declares an exceptional holiday for the first time.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel will join President Frank-Walter Steinmeier in laying wreaths at Neue Wache — the country’s main memorial to the victims of war and dictatorship, followed by a speech by the president.
Unlike elsewhere on the continent, 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 workday in Europe’s biggest economy.
The city of Berlin has however declared a one-off public holiday to remember the day 75 years ago when the war that claimed over 50 million lives came to an end in Europe.
Today marks 75 years since the guns fell silent at the end of the war in Europe. Whilst we are currently engaged in a new, collective struggle in 2020 and are unable to commemorate together as a unit, we pay tribute to the service and sacrifice of the entire WWII generation. pic.twitter.com/rPOpGZPAD1
— MVS Northumbria (@MVSNorthumbria) May 8, 2020
The move has prompted some to call for the date to be made a permanent public holiday, touching off a heated debate in Germany.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas declined to wade into the discussion on Friday, saying it was not “the essential issue”.
“What’s important is that this day is properly understood in Germany as a day of liberation and a day that can actually be celebrated,” Maas told public broadcaster ZDF.
‘Day of complete defeat’
Firmly rejecting the idea of giving prominence to the anniversary, the leader of Germany’s far-right AfD party, Alexander Gauland, argued 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. The end of WW-II.
Gauland, who has described the Nazi period as a mere “speck of bird poo” in Germany’s otherwise glorious past, immediately drew fire.
Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews, said Gauland’s view of May 8 was typical of “neo-Nazis“.
Read more: The day Hitler lost the Second World War
“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.
President Steinmeier had originally called a state ceremony to mark May 8, the end of WW-II — the first since 1995 — but the event before the Reichstag building has had to be scaled down to prevent transmission 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 an invisible enemy that has sickened more than 3.7 million worldwide.
With veterans already at an advanced age, organizers of marches had deemed it too risky for them to attend events even in countries which have begun to ease lockdown measures.
Russia had originally planned a huge military display on its May 9 Victory Day, with world leaders including France’s President Emmanuel Macron on the guest list.
But now only a flypast will take place over the Red Square, as the country becomes Europe’s new hotspot of coronavirus infections.
President Vladimir Putin will lay flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier memorial, before making a TV address which will not only touch on the war, but is also expected to chart out the country’s next steps on battling the virus.
Elsewhere, COVID-19 continues to make its presence felt.
In the US, President Donald Trump and his wife Melania will join a wreath-laying ceremony at the World War II memorial in Washington, DC.
The US Department of Defense will hold an online commemoration thank WWII veterans that will be streamed on Facebook and Twitter.
In the Czech Republic, where a lockdown has been completely lifted, politicians will be arriving at 10-minute intervals to lay wreaths on Prague’s Vitkov Hill, to minimize contact.
Ceremonies across France have been drastically scaled-down, although Macron will still be attending an event on the Champs-Elysees.
In Britain, street parades by veterans have been cancelled.
Queen Elizabeth II will make a televised address to the nation at 9:00 pm (2000 GMT), the same time that her father, king George VI, gave a radio address marking VE day in 1945.
Her son and heir, Prince Charles, will also read an extract from the king’s diary from the day, which covers the royal family’s appearances on the balcony of Buckingham Palace as massive crowds celebrated in the streets below.
That evening, the future queen — then known as Princess Elizabeth — and her sister Margaret were given permission to leave the palace and join the festivities.
Have we learned anything from WW-II
The end of WW-II has taught many people different things.
Some learned about the willpower of humans and what it means when one’s homeland is invaded.
Others discovered humanity’s limitations, such as whether one can push their moral boundaries to serve their country despite the pressure of their own values.
Personally, the lesson I take away from that historical event is that you – or a nation – can still wear your scars proudly and learn to shake your enemy’s hand.
There is no winning side in the war. Both sides lose countless people on the battlefield and in the communities. Whilst the history books are written from the winner’s perspective there are always two sides to tell, not to mention countless other stories that are never relayed.
But we can’t let the actions of our predecessors hold us back from being a country that prides itself on acceptance of other cultures.
Just because our troops fought against another nation’s doesn’t mean we should abandon all hope of a future alliance with that country.
Australia has both a proud and sad history in the small-time since Federation. We have participated, directly and indirectly, in several major wars, with World War II being one of the biggest of them all. Yet in the 70 years since the war-ending atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, what have we really learned?
Many people today refuse to acknowledge the atrocities that were committed during those dark days. Instead, we should show compassion to those who are injured in wars, we should take pride in the spirit raised to join together in union and we should remember those who died for our future.
These are some of the results that can be drawn from the end of WW-II, but what actually lies ahead? Only time can answer this!
AFP with additional input from GVS News Desk