The Coronavirus Crisis

V-E Day: Europe Celebrates A Subdued 75th Anniversary During COVID-19 Pandemic


A 93-year-old veteran of World War II observes a moment of silence at the Cenotaph war memorial in London, where British residents — like much of Europe — marked a subdued 75th anniversary of V-E Day.
Daniel Leal-Olivas, AFP via Getty Images

A 93-year-old veteran of World War II observes a moment of silence at the Cenotaph war memorial in London, where British residents — like much of Europe — marked a subdued 75th anniversary of V-E Day.

Updated at 5:02 p.m. ET

It was supposed to be a day of parades, a vast party that would transcend borders and bring generations together, not unlike the spontaneous euphoria that swept through victorious European allies when Nazi Germany finally surrendered.

But instead of a mega-event, leaders in London, Paris, Moscow and other capitals, observed the 75th anniversary of V-E Day at a diminished level Friday due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

French President Emmanuel Macron led a small ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe, looking out over an empty Champs-Élysées.

Because of health risks the disease poses to older people, many veterans of the war were forced to avoid travel and keep their distance at public gatherings.

"The veterans are of course getting older every year and this is probably one of the last great anniversaries that could have taken place with their presence," as FRANCE 24's James André reports.

Russian President Vladimir Putin had hoped to invite President Trump and other world leaders to attend a splashy commemoration in Moscow. Instead, he spoke to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson by phone, discussing how their countries had overcome the Nazis in 1945 — and how the international community is fighting the coronavirus today.

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Queen Elizabeth II, who was 19 on the first V-E Day, addressed the U.K. at 9 p.m. local time Friday, invoking the memory of her father's speech to the country as peace began in the European theater. Perhaps also invoking measures against the coronavirus, she said of people of the day, "They risked all so our families and neighborhoods could be safe."

"We remember from our homes and our doorsteps," Elizabeth said, "But our streets are not empty. They are filled with the love and the care we have for each other."

The Royal Family also issued an earlier recording of the queen recalling the celebrations of an Allied victory in Europe. "I remember lines of unknown people linking arms and walking down Whitehall, all of us just swept along on a tide of happiness and relief," Elizabeth says in the BBC recording.

"I think it was one of the most memorable nights of my life," the queen said.

Military flyovers were one of the only large-scale celebrations that could take place safely. At ground level, remembrances were smaller than they've ever been — and much smaller than the events that had been planned to herald a landmark anniversary.

The United Kingdom remains under lockdown, but some neighborhoods put on socially distanced block parties. In the town of Weybridge, outside of London, neighbors strung Union Jack bunting around their yards and cooked cheeseburgers on the grill. Andy Muskett, a professional DJ, wore desert military camouflage and blasted World War II-era tunes, including "We'll Meet Again," as a couple danced on the sidewalk.

"Britain has been raided so many times by the Vikings, by the Romans and I think it was a case of showing that we stand together," said Muskett, referring to the battle against the Nazis. "We won't be taken over."

Around the corner, George Scarrott, 82, sat in a lawn chair flanked by his family and recalled the Blitz that began in 1940, when the German Luftwaffe bombed Britain, hoping to set the stage for an invasion across the English Channel.

"I remember the Blitz because every day the sirens would go and we would spend the day or the night-time in a shelter in the back garden," recalled Scarrott, who was a toddler at the time. "I was that young to not know fear, but ... my mum must have gone through hell thinking about her children."

Political leaders have invoked Britain's famous wartime resolve as they urge the country to stay home and battle the coronavirus. But some in the neighborhood said some younger people were being undisciplined as they headed out to meet up with friends.

"I think our generation is significantly softer than the queen's generation," said Emma-Jane Nutbrown, who is in her thirties. "We're being brats about staying indoors and all we're having to do is sit on our sofas and watch Netflix."

In Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel led a somber ceremony honoring the victims of war and marking widespread liberation from the Nazis.

Noting that COVID-19 has made everyone celebrate V-E Day alone, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier suggested that in some ways, the circumstances are appropriate to a remembrance of 1945. From his speech:

"On that date the Germans really were alone. Germany had suffered military defeat, political and economic ruin, and moral collapse. We had made enemies of the entire world.

"Today, 75 years later, we are forced to commemorate alone, but we are not alone! That is today's good news. We live in a vigorous and well-established democracy, in a country that has been reunified for 30 years, at the heart of a peaceful and united Europe. We are a trusted member of the international community and reap the fruits of cooperation and partnership around the world.

"We Germans can definitely now say that the day of liberation is a day of thanksgiving!"

In Washington, President Trump and first lady Melania Trump participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at the World War II Memorial.

Trump saluted as "Taps" was played, with seven World War II veterans looking on along with Defense Secretary Mark Esper and current military service members.

Trump then briefly spoke of the veterans (from a distance) and walked around the memorial, which is ringed with pillars that mark each U.S. state's role in the war effort — and especially the lives that were lost in the struggle.

"Here we mark the price of freedom," a large engraving at the memorial reads.

In Brussels, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg marked the anniversary by honoring the millions who died in the war — and those who hope to prevent similar conflicts by serving in the military today.

"NATO was founded five years after the end of World War II — in the famous words of its first secretary general, to 'keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down,' " Teri Schultz reports for NPR's Newscast unit. "West Germany became a member in 1955, joined by East Germany after the two countries unified in 1990."

Despite the jubilation over Germany's surrender, the world remained in a precarious state on May 8, 1945. In the Pacific theater, a bloody conflict was still being waged against Japan. And tens of millions of soldiers and citizens had died – including millions of Jews in the Holocaust.

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