On VE Day under shadow of virus, world marks 75 years since end of WWII

Ceremonies, parties and parades cancelled; Berlin declares one-off public holiday on the anniversary; Trump to be joined by elderly veterans for wreath-laying commemoration

Pipe major Andy Reid of The Scots Guards plays his pipes on the cliffs of Dover, southern England on May 6, 2020 as two Spitfires from the battle of Britain memorial flight fly over him during a posed picture to commemorate the 75th anniversary of VE day (Richard Pohle / POOL / AFP)
Pipe major Andy Reid of The Scots Guards plays his pipes on the cliffs of Dover, southern England on May 6, 2020 as two Spitfires from the battle of Britain memorial flight fly over him during a posed picture to commemorate the 75th anniversary of VE day (Richard Pohle / POOL / AFP)

The world will mark 75 years since the end of World War II in a sombre mood Friday as the coronavirus pandemic forces the cancellation of elaborate ceremonies.

Chancellor Angela Merkel will join President Frank-Walter Steinmeier in laying wreaths at Neue Wache — Germany’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 work day in Europe’s biggest economy.

The city of Berlin has however declared a one-off public holiday this year to remember the day 75 years ago when the war that claimed over 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.

‘Day of complete defeat’

Firmly slapping down the idea of giving prominence to the anniversary, the leader of the far-right AfD, 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.

AfD Federal Chairman Alexander Gauland delivers a speech during the official beginning of the far-right Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD) state election campaign in Arnstadt, Germany, on September 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Jens Meyer)

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.”

“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 first since 1995 — but the event, which was to have taken place in front of the Reichstag building has had to be scaled down to prevent transmission of the coronavirus.

Too risky

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 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 in battling the virus.

Elsewhere, COVID-19 continues to make its presence felt.

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.

Children and staff at Breadsall Primary School in Derby, England, exercise social distancing during a VE Day lunch party to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe, May 7, 2020 (Danny Lawson / PA via AP)

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.

A vast crowd assembled in front of Buckingham Palace, London, on VE Day, May 8, 1945, cheers the Royal Family as they come out on the balcony, centre, minutes after the official announcement of Germany’s unconditional surrender (AP Photo/Leslie Priest)

That evening, the young queen — then known as Princess Elizabeth — and her sister Margaret were given permission to leave the palace and join the festivities.

However, eight World War II veterans — the youngest of them age 96 — will join US President Donald Trump at a wreath-laying ceremony to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe. Their hopes to mark the day in Moscow were dashed because of the coronovirus pandemic.

This May 6, 2020, photo shows the World War II Memorial in Washington (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

White House officials described the veterans as “choosing nation over self” by joining Trump at the World War II Memorial ceremony.

“These heroes are living testaments to the American spirit of perseverance and victory, especially in the midst of dark days,” said White House spokesman Judd Deere.

The veterans joining Trump include Gregory Melikian, 97, of Phoenix, who sent the coded message to the world that the Germans had unconditionally surrendered.

Timothy Davis, director of the Greatest Generations Foundation, which helps veterans return to the countries where they fought, said the US soldiers were originally slated to travel to Moscow for a commemorative event. He said that with international travel out of the question during the pandemic, the veterans talked to him about trying to commemorate the day in Washington.

“Of course, we presented to them the risk we are facing,” Davis said. “They said it doesn’t matter Tim” and asked him to press ahead, saying they viewed the commemoration as “a blessing to all who fought, died and served in World War II.”

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