BERLIN – A neo-Nazi march in Berlin was stopped by thousands of anti-fascist demonstrators on Sunday after a tense standoff that overshadowed Germany’s ceremonies marking the end of World War Two in Europe 60 years ago.
Berlin police said 6,000 demonstrators opposed to the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) crowded into streets around Alexanderplatz square where 3,300 right-wing extremists gathered to protest what they called a German “cult of guilt”.
Eager to prevent the violence that flares when leftists try to stop far-right marches, authorities ordered the NPD to stay at Alexanderplatz behind a buffer zone of barricades and police. Two hours later the NPD decided to abandon the march.
Anti-Nazi demonstrators cheered when police announced on loudspeakers that the march was cancelled.
“With peaceful means, the public showed these Nazis who were trying to glorify the greatest genocide in history will never again have any role in Germany,” said Juergen Trittin, a minister in Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s government.
Holding one of their biggest rallies ever — thanks to constitutional free speech guarantees — the far-right then stayed at the Alexanderplatz square, where there were some scuffles with leftists who got close to barricades.
Police arrested 42 people — 32 leftists and 10 rightists — for throwing bottles or using the outlawed “Hitler salute”. There was also one firebomb thrown at the neo-Nazis.
Most Germans see May 8, 1945 as a day of liberation. The motto of the anti-Nazi rally borrowed the word for “Thanks” in Russian: “Spasibo — We say thank you.” Some carried banners reading “Fascism never again” and “War never again”.
The NPD had wanted to march through the Brandenburg Gate, a symbol of unification, and past a new Holocaust memorial.
“This was not a day of ‘liberation’ but a day of defeat for Germany and it’s nothing to celebrate,” said NPD leader Udo Voigt. “Almost every German has relatives expelled from the east or a grandfather who was killed. We’re here to mourn the millions of Germans killed in the war,” he told Reuters.
The extremists with shaven heads and black clothing were required to pass through tight police screening to the rally.
In a speech in parliament, President Horst Koehler said most Germans were relieved “and numbed” when the war ended.
“There are unfortunately incorrigibles still among us who want a return to the racism and right-wing extremism,” Koehler said. “But they don’t have a chance.”
“We feel disgust and contempt for those guilty of these crimes against humanity who dishonored our country,” he said.
Celebrations across Europe
Across Europe, there were ceremonies marking the end of the war in Europe on Sunday and Monday. U.S. President George W. Bush said in a speech in the Netherlands the lesson of the war was that democracy brought peace.
Commemorations to mark the end of the war that cost at least 50 million lives worldwide were also taking place in London, Paris and Washington. The war in the Pacific ended three months later and the Allies mark Victory over Japan on Aug. 15.
In Paris on Sunday, President Jacques Chirac laid a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier under the Arc de Triomphe, before leaving for Moscow to celebrate the war victory.
Prince Charles led low-key commemorations in Britain, laying a wreath at the national war memorial in London. Britain plans bigger events later in the year to mark the end of the war.
Chirac, Bush and dozens of other world leaders including German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder will join President Vladimir Putin for the celebrations in Moscow on Monday.
The Allies agreed to celebrate victory on May 9, 1945, but reporters broke the news of Germany’s surrender prematurely, prompting mass rejoicing on May 8. The Soviet Union kept to the agreed date and Russia still marks victory in Europe on May 9.
In Poland on Sunday, there was sober reflection on how the war divided the continent as well as the millions killed.
Prime Minister Marek Belka told a ceremony in Warsaw: “We want to believe that truth will be spoken about the heroism of the war years but also of the betrayal of the postwar years.”
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told his cabinet: “Sixty years after the end of the worst war in human history, one cannot underestimate the importance of the victory to the entire world and particularly to the Jewish people.”