BERLIN: Europe and the United States mark 75 years since the end of World War II on Friday in a sombre 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 work day 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. 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.
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.
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 intetion is to portray the Germans primarily as victims. I find this distortion of history and relativisation 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 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, organisers of marches had deemed it too risky for them to attend events even in countries which have begun to ease lockdown measures.