On a day for remembering war and celebrating peace, world leaders converged Monday in Europe, gathering on a bright morning at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, where World War II victors had danced for joy, and later on a rainy evening in Berlin, where the Nazi regime had surrendered in ruin.
The 50th anniversary of victory in Europe was celebrated by tens of thousands of people across the Continent in ways big and small but nowhere as poignantly as in Paris and Berlin, in consecutive ceremonies attended by French President Francois Mitterrand, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and dozens of other international leaders.
In Paris, on a day celebrated as a national holiday, 10,000 leaders, war veterans and other dignitaries watched a military parade in which the flag of democratic Germany joined the colors of the Allied powers. A jet flyover sent a stream of red, white and blue smoke - the French national colors - down the famed Avenue des Champs Elysee.
Although no public holiday was declared in Berlin, where the halfcentury-old memories still stir controversy, bells of the city’s churches tolled for 15 minutes.
At the Schauspielhaus theater, a downtown concert hall constructed from wartime ruins, Vice President Al Gore, Mitterrand and German President Roman Herzog - joined by British Prime Minister John Major and Russian Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin - preached unity.
“We gather to celebrate a triumph of good over evil, a victory not of any one nation nor of any one people, but a victory of the human spirit,” Gore said. “It is fitting that we commemorate this victory here in Berlin, gathered now as friends and allies.”
Herzog said it is healthy for his country to debate whether the end of World War II marked a victory for Germans oppressed by the Nazi dictatorship, as most Germans believe, or a bitter defeat. And, in surprisingly frank remarks, he suggested it was both.
“Germany unleashed the most terrible war there had ever been and it experienced the most terrible defeat that one could imagine,” Herzog said.
But the spirit of reconciliation in Berlin was perhaps best exemplified by Mitterrand - the retiring, 78-year-old French president who had seen both sides of the war, belonging to the collaborationist Vichy regime before joining the Resistance.
Recalling his time as a prisoner of the Nazis, Mitterrand said that, even then, he saw many of his guards beginning to resist Nazi ideology.
“The enemy of yesterday is the friend of today,” declared Mitterrand, who has in his 14 years as president forged closer ties between France and Germany. V-E Day, he said, “was a victory of Europe over itself.”
Although Europe’s calendar has been filled with World War II commemorations, beginning with the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landing a year ago, many cities took time again Monday to remember the end of that war.
In London, where world leaders had gathered Sunday for ceremonies, Queen Elizabeth II and the 94-year-old Queen Mother appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace on Monday, as they had done 50 years earlier to share the nation’s relief at the end of the war in Europe.
In Rome, under one of the original Roman gates of the city, Domenico Corcione, the government defense minister, dedicated a war memorial to the 87,000 Italian soldiers killed in what, for Italy, became a war to liberate the country from occupying Nazis and Italian Fascists.
In Reims, east of Paris, where the German surrender was signed at the Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force under Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, 45 American and British members of that unit gathered with their families.
Alan Reeves, a retired political scientist from San Francisco who worked as a French interpreter and investigator during the war, said from Reims: “To be perfectly honest, it’s hard to remember back 50 years. I recall it was a mixed bag. We still had a war against Japan to fight, after all.”
But he said he had been deeply touched by his return to France. “I’m not a super-religious man,” said Reeves, 73. “But I’ll tell you my gut feeling. I still feel that Ike is up there somewhere watching over us. I just feel he’s still with us.”
As most of Europe basked in the memories of victory, commemorations in Poland - where World War II started in September 1939 - took a bitter turn when President Lech Walesa delivered a scathing speech to Parliament.
Criticizing the Allies for abandoning Poland after the war by handing it over to the Soviet Union, Walesa declared that V-E Day should be remembered as the day when “the door to liberty was shut” and five decades of Communist enslavement fell upon Eastern Europe.
“For Poland, the struggle for independence did not end in May, 1945,” he said. “It lasted a halfcentury longer.”
But elsewhere the day’s message was of reconciliation. Gore recalled that Eisenhower said the success of the war effort wouldn’t be known until the 50th anniversary of V-E Day. If, Eisenhower had said, Germany is a stable democracy, “then we will have succeeded.”
“As a young American born after World War II,” Gore added, “I wish to report to Gen. Eisenhower: Mission fulfilled.”
MEMO: The Spokesman-Review offers readers a chance to hear the historic words and music of the last months of the war in Europe. If you have a Touch-Tone phone, call Cityline at 458-8800, categories 1150-1170.