(London) — Europe was marking the 75th anniversary of the surrender of Nazi Germany to Allied forces following six years of war in a low-key fashion Friday due to coronavirus lockdown restrictions across the continent.
The big celebrations planned have been either cancelled or scaled back dramatically and people across Europe have been asked to mark the moment in private.
There will be no mass gatherings, no hugging or kissing, but that day of liberation is being remembered from Belfast to Berlin. For the few surviving World War II veterans, many living in nursing homes under virus lockdowns, it’s a particularly difficult time.
Up and down the U.K., people have been getting into the spirit of VE Day, which for this year has been designated as a public holiday.
Many are dressing up in 1940s attire, while bunting has been displayed outside homes, including at 10 Downing Street in London that houses the prime minister’s office. People are also being encouraged to go out onto their doorsteps to sing Dame Vera Lynn’s iconic wartime anthem, “We’ll Meet Again” — which has added resonance now as families and friends are separated by coronavirus lockdowns.
People gathered in a socially distanced way on the hills of London to marvel at the Royal Air Force’s Red Arrows. The nine planes flew in formation above the River Thames and let loose their red, white and blue smoke to mark the colors of the Union Jack.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who lit a candle Thursday evening by the grave of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey in remembrance of those who gave their lives, wrote to veterans, describing them as “the greatest generation of Britons who ever lived.”
Prince Charles and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, led the country in a two-minute silence at the war memorial on the grounds of Balmoral Castle in Scotland. Charles laid a wreath of poppies on behalf of the nation. At the U.K.’s main memorial on Whitehall in central London, traffic ground to a halt as people observed the silence.
The tributes will continue through the day. The victory speech of Britain’s wartime prime minister, Winston Churchill, will be broadcast on BBC Television.
Queen Elizabeth II, at 94 a World War II veteran herself, will speak to the nation at 9 p.m., the exact time that her father, King George VI, addressed Britons 75 years ago.
Unlike Britain, Victory Day is a traditional public holiday in France, but it was clearly far more somber this year with the country under strict lockdown to counter the spread of the coronavirus.
Small ceremonies were allowed at local memorials as the government granted an exception to restrictions following requests from mayors and veterans.
President Emmanuel Macron led a small ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe. He laid a wreath and relit the flame of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, atop a deserted Champs-Élysées Avenue in Paris.
Macron was accompanied by former presidents François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, each carefully observing social distancing. Macron used a hand sanitizer after signing the official register.
Macron also laid a wreath at the statue of one of his predecessors, Charles de Gaulle, the general revered for leading the French Resistance from London after France had fallen in 1940.
The president has urged people to display flags on their balconies to honor the resistance fighters and the Free France forces.
Although VE Day is a very different occasion in Germany, it’s considered a day of liberation too.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other top officials laid wreaths at the memorial to victims of war and violence in Berlin, standing in silence as a trumpet played on an empty Unter den Linden boulevard.
“The corona pandemic is forcing us to commemorate alone – apart from those who are important to us and to whom we are grateful,” President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said. He recalled that, on May 8, 1945, “the Germans were really alone,” militarily defeated, economically devastated and “morally ruined.”
“We had made an enemy of the whole world,” he said in a nationally televised address, adding that 75 years later “we are not alone.”
Steinmeier underlined Germans’ responsibility to “think, feel and act as Europeans” in this time of crisis and to confront intolerance whenever it emerges.
“We Germans can say today that the day of liberation is a day of gratitude,” Steinmeier said. “Today, we must liberate ourselves – from the temptation of a new nationalism; from fascination with the authoritarian; from distrust, isolation and enmity between nations; from hatred and agitation, from xenophobia and contempt for democracy.”
“If we don’t keep Europe together, in and after this pandemic, we will prove not to be worthy of May 8,” he said.
Merkel spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone and the two agreed the war is a reminder of the need for “close cooperation between states and people to preserve and encourage peace and understanding.” Russia, which was then part of the Soviet Union, saw tens of millions of casualties during the war. It marks VE Day on Saturday.
In Poland, VE Day elicits mixed emotions as the country, which suffered massively during the war, was then subjugated by the Soviet Union and remained part of the communist bloc until 1989.
At a wreath-laying commemoration at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw, President Andrzej Duda described VE Day as a “bittersweet anniversary.” Six million of Poland’s 35 million people were killed, half of whom were Jewish.
Duda lamented the fact that thousands of Polish troops who had fought alongside Allied forces were not allowed to march in the 1946 Victory Parade in London for fear of straining British relations with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.
World War II began on Sept. 1, 1939, when Adolf Hitler’s Nazi forces invaded Poland.
Sylvie Corbet in Paris, Geir Moulson in Berlin and Monika Scislowska in Warsaw contributed.