Europe on Friday marked 70 years since the defeat of Nazi Germany with sombre ceremonies overshadowed by modern day threats, such as the war in Ukraine and Islamic extremism.
The Victory Day commemorations in Europe were muted compared with Moscow’s planned display of its military might at a parade Saturday, which is being snubbed by Western leaders over the crisis in Ukraine.
In Britain, the anniversary provided a chance for a show of national unity after a dramatic general election which returned David Cameron’s Conservatives with an outright majority and left the opposition in tatters.
Flanked by his trounced rival, Labour leader Ed Miliband, and his former deputy, Liberal Democrat chief, Nick Clegg, Cameron laid a wreath at the Cenotaph war memorial in London. Both Miliband and Clegg had quit shortly before the ceremony over their parties’ drubbing.
Putting the politics to one side, the country fell silent for two minutes at 1400 GMT, marking the moment when wartime prime minister Winston Churchill made his historic speech announcing the end of the conflict on May 8, 1945.
– Restored “warbirds” take flight –
In Washington DC, dozens of American war planes that helped the Allies to victory took part in a flypast.
Thousands of people gathered to watch the restored “warbirds” fly in formation down the Potomac River, past the Lincoln Memorial and over the National Mall, the nation’s symbolic front lawn.
Poland had opened the Victory Day celebrations with a midnight ceremony in northern Westerplatte, where the first shots of the war were fired on September 1, 1939 as Nazi forces swept across the border.
In France, President Francois Hollande laid a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
“We didn’t experience the war, we see it as a far-off reality, sometimes abstract, even though it is not so far from us, in Ukraine, further still in the Middle East,” he warned.
At home, France is also threatened by terrorism, racism and anti-Semitism.
“There are still causes which should spur us on,” Hollande said, four months after jihadist attacks in Paris, in which 17 people were killed.
– Allied troops ‘saved world’ –
US President Barack Obama also marked the anniversary, expressing solidarity with Europe and hailing the victorious Allied troops as a “generation that literally saved the world.”
“For over five years, brutal fighting laid waste to an entire continent. Mothers, fathers, children were murdered in concentration camps. By the time the guns fell silent in Europe, some 40 million people on the continent had lost their lives,” Obama said in a radio address.
On a visit to Paris, US Secretary of State John Kerry, whose mother was born in France, also laid a wreath under the Arc de Triomphe.
Kerry used the occasion to send a message to Moscow.
“Together we stand firm with the people of Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression,” he said.
Victory day is celebrated across Europe on the day Germany surrendered, ending WWII in Europe.
Russia and former Soviet states mark the anniversary on May 9 due to a time lag, during which the surrender became effective.
The war in the Pacific ended on September 2, when Japan surrendered after the US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Historians believe between 40 and 60 million people were killed in WWII, half of them civilians.
Ukraine, locked in a brutal conflict with pro-Moscow rebels, for the first time broke with Russia to mark May 8 as a “Day of Memory and Reconciliation”.
Kiev also changed the term it uses for the conflict, from the “Great Patriotic War”, as Moscow calls it, to the “Second World War.”
Russians Communists marked the anniversary with a controversial tribute to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, unveiling a bust of him in the city of Lipetsk, 500 kilometres (310 miles) south of Moscow, and a plaque to him in the city of Simferopol in Crimea, which Russia seized from Ukraine last year.
– Germany’s ‘dark past’ –
Germany marked its “liberation” from the Nazis in a joint session of parliament where speaker Norbert Lammert hailed the willingness of the country’s neighbours to forgive.
“Today we remember the millions of victims of an unprecedented annihilation campaign against other nations and peoples, against Slavs, against the Jews of Europe,” he told the session, which was attended by Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Joachim Gauck.
German newspaper Die Welt hailed the changes in the country: “In a few decades a free society has been established. Children and grandchildren endeavour to understand this dark past.”
Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Thursday laid a wreath at the site of the Battle of Stalingrad in Russia as part of commemorations to mark the defeat of Nazi forces in WWII.