German Rites, Protests Mark Solemn Day

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Germans have commemorated the defeat of Adolf Hitler with a candlelight vigil, church services and wreath-laying ceremonies for the victims of war and Nazism. But several thousand neo-Nazis demonstrated to denounce what they called the "cult of guilt" they say was imposed on the nation after the Nazi defeat. Kyle James reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

To find out how Germany is marking the 60th anniversary of the end of the war, we go to Kyle James in Berlin.

KYLE JAMES reporting:

In 1945, much of Berlin was in ruins, as this British newsreel reported at the time.

(Soundbite of 1945 newsreel)

Unidentified Man #1: The Brandenburg Gate near the Tiergarten is the heart of the city. Victorious Russian troops walk through the rubble where the Nazis made their last stand.

JAMES: Now 60 years later the scene at the Brandenburg Gate on the anniversary of Germany's capitulation couldn't have been more different. The city held a street festival celebrating six decades of democracy and the downfall of the Nazi regime.

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing in German)

JAMES: On a stage next to the gate, musicians perform and elderly eyewitnesses recounted what it was like to live through the end of the war. Twenty-two-year-old Tobias Zeiman(ph) says marking it like this is important.

Mr. TOBIAS ZEIMAN: In our history, in the German history, the day is a very, very huge day because we were free. And so I really think that we shouldn't forget that date, the 8th of May. We should have events and days like that in hundred years.

JAMES: On Saturday night there was a candlelight vigil in Berlin. An estimated 25,000 people formed a chain of light that snaked through the city. On Sunday, political leaders attended an ecumenical church service. Officials laid wreaths at memorials, and the German president, Horst Kohler made a special speech before parliament. For some Germans, like Michal Pomm(ph), all this attention about an event that happened before they were even born was a little excessive.

Mr. MICHAL POMM: (Through Translator) I had nothing to do with the war, and sometimes I think it's all a little overdone, all this talk about the war, the Nazis and the Jews. You should, of course, never forget it, but we should be paying attention to other things, like hunger, Iraq, Sudan. These things are more important today.

JAMES: But for others it's taken 60 years for the war's deep wounds to heal. Hans Mautenbach(ph) was a member of the Luftwaffe during the war; he's 84 today.

Mr. HANS MAUTENBACH (Former Luftwaffe Member): (Through Translator) I've finally been able to put some distance between the war and myself, but at the beginning it was very hard. In the past I couldn't watch anything about the war on television because all Germans were depicted as bad. For years we were always called Nazis or Communists, but for the most part now that's changed.

JAMES: And while Germans, especially younger ones, say they're no longer ashamed of being who they are, the war has left its mark on the nation's psyche. While Americans eagerly and often express their national pride, for most Germans, like Albert Eckart(ph), it's more complicated.

Mr. ALBERT ECKART: I wouldn't say I'm proud to be German. I am really proud to be European, as somebody who grew up in Bavaria, who lives in Germany and who is proud to be in the European Union. I think the Nazi past is most important for my problems to say, `I'm proud to be German.'

JAMES: There is a small number of Germans who are militant in rejecting what they call a cult of guilt.

Unidentified Man #3: (German spoken)

JAMES: About a half-mile away from the democracy festival, more than 3,000 neo-Nazis gathered. They don't see this day as an anniversary of liberation but of defeat and occupation. The neo-Nazis had planned to march through part of the city's center, but police called it off. They feared clashes after some 10,000 anti-Nazi protesters gathered to block the march route.

Germans will have another commemoration on Tuesday when they inaugurate the vast Holocaust Memorial here. For NPR News, I'm Kyle James in Berlin.

(Soundbite of music)

LUDDEN: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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