Locked Down on V-E Day, Europe Celebrates World War II Liberation

PARIS — There were no poignant handshakes with veterans. Military parades were canceled. Wreaths were laid, but with appropriate social distancing.

European nations commemorated the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II on the continent in novel ways on Friday, with ceremonies and public events now paused. Citizens were encouraged to honor the day — a national holiday in some places — at home. And while closeness may have marked previous commemorations, distance, masks and hand sanitizers played a part in the celebrations this year.

Seventy-five years ago in Berlin, German military officials signed the instrument of surrender, ending nearly six years of conflict in Europe that saw hundreds of millions face occupation, forced displacement and persecution. Estimates vary, but at least 70 million people died globally in the war, which continued in Asia for a few more months, an overwhelming majority of them civilians. Among them were the six million Jews and millions of others killed systematically by the Nazi regime, many of them in concentration camps across Europe.

On May 8, 1945, tens of thousands of people filled the streets of Britain, France and other victorious European countries. For others, in Poland, the Baltic States and countries of Eastern Europe, the date marked the beginning of another period of domination, this time by the Soviet Union.

On Friday, the places that once erupted in joy, like the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris or Trafalgar Square in London, remained mostly empty. The World War II veterans who are thanked by leaders every May 8 in emotional moments broadcast on national television were forced to stay home. The coronavirus pandemic has killed nearly 120,000 people across Europe, mostly from older generations.

In Britain, the national moment of remembrance included the jets of the Royal Air Force’s Red Arrows flying over Buckingham Palace in London. People paused for a two-minute silence, and at home they were invited to stand and raise their glass in a toast as the BBC broadcast a speech from Winston Churchill, the wartime prime minister.

A speech from Queen Elizabeth II will be broadcast at 9 p.m., exactly 75 years after her father, George VI, addressed the nation at the same hour. It will be the queen’s second address since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, weeks after she urged Britons to pull together even as they were forced to maintain their distance.

Among the heroes that Britain celebrated was Capt. Tom Moore, 100, who served in India and Burma during World War II, and who last month helped raise 30 million pounds, or about $37 million, for the country’s National Health Service.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron oversaw commemorative ceremonies in Paris, without the crowds that usually gather to watch, and without the French leader’s traditional walk up the Champs-Élysées to review troops.

The handful of participants — ministers, politicians and military officials — stood conspicuously far apart as the national anthem rang out underneath the Arc de Triomphe, where Mr. Macron laid a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier. After writing some words of tribute, Mr. Macron sanitized his hands.

Mr. Macron had been scheduled to attend a victory parade in Moscow on Saturday, but the Russian authorities canceled the event. The French president also called upon his fellow citizens to hang the national flag from their windows and balconies to celebrate while staying at home.

In Germany, a full state ceremony was canceled, but Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier laid a wreath in memory of the victims of war and tyranny. “There is no end to remembering,” Mr. Steinmeier said at the Neue Wache memorial in Berlin. “There is no redemption from our history.”

Berlin itself, for the first time, declared May 8 a holiday. While Friday was a normal work day in the rest of the country, there has been some push to make the day a national holiday. This year, Esther Béjarano, a concentration camp survivor and the head of the International Auschwitz Committee, a group of survivors, wrote an open letter to Mr. Steinmeier and Ms. Merkel pressing that case.

A May 8 holiday would be “an opportunity to reflect on the great hopes of humanity: freedom, equality, fraternity — and sisterhood,” she wrote. Online, her petition has gathered more than 100,000 signatures.

The day has also taken on new meaning as the continent faces the coronavirus crisis. On the ruins of Europe’s bloodiest modern conflict were laid the foundations of the European Union, which now faces its worst recession.

Many saw parallels between the two eras, as Europe prepares for the prospect of deep turmoil.

Nicholas Soames, Churchill’s grandson and a British former lawmaker, said the coronavirus might have brought generations and families together for the first time since World War II. “I think that is an added poignancy in the 75th anniversary year, that we should find ourselves drawn together by a terrible threat,” he said of the pandemic, in a conversation with Britain’s ambassador to France, Edward Llewellyn.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was hospitalized for weeks after contracting the virus, said the country was now engaged in a struggle that “demanded the same spirit of national endeavor.”

“We can’t hold the parades and street celebrations we enjoyed in the past, but all of us who were born since 1945 are acutely conscious that we owe everything we most value to the generation who won the Second World War,” he said.

But as leaders celebrated those who saved Europe 75 years ago, historians said that in such times of uncertainty, they, too, would be judged for their response to the current pandemic.

“We might forgive our leaders’ frequent and self-serving language of war and their invocation of Churchill in 1940 if only it is accompanied by some of that wartime spirit that reset and expanded the boundaries of the possible,” the Canadian historian and Oxford University professor Margaret MacMillan wrote.

At the wreath-laying ceremony in Berlin, Mr. Steinmeier urged for more unity across the European Union, arguing that the spirit of solidarity that helped defeat Nazi Germany was now needed to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. In recent days, various political figures across Europe have warned that the union would not survive the challenges posed by the coronavirus if the member countries did not address it together.

“For us Germans, ‘never again’ means ‘never again alone,’” Mr. Steinmeier said at the ceremony. “If we don’t hold Europe together, including during and after this pandemic, then we are not living up to May 8.”

Aurelien Breeden contributed reporting from Paris, and Christopher Schuetze from Berlin.

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