Berlin — Six decades after the guns went silent, Germans will take to the streets tomorrow in a confusing array of events to mark the end of the conflict that left their country devastated, cratered and divided for decades.
But there is a troubled mood to tomorrow's events.
What, Germans are asking in a heated public debate, are we really observing on what the government has dubbed "Democracy Day," known as V-E Day elsewhere — a liberation? A defeat? The end of fascism, or the collective guilt of the German people? The terrible suffering of German civilians, or the even more unthinkable suffering the Germans inflicted on others?
Gunter Grass, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, caused a stir this week when he argued that most Germans of the Second World War generation, including himself, saw the Allied soldiers entirely as invaders and not as liberators.
"I experienced May 8 in Marienbad, as a 17-year-old dummkopf who believed in the final victory right up to the end," Mr. Grass wrote this week in the newspaper Die Zeit. "So mine was not feeling of liberation, but of total defeat."
But, he said, Germans have since learned to think of the day as a liberation — but it would be wrong to pretend that May 8, 1945, was a victorious German moment.
"When the anniversary of the end of the war is celebrated in fine speeches as a day of liberation, this can only be retrospectively, especially as we Germans did little or nothing for our freedom."
Others have gone further, arguing that it is dangerous for Germans to think of the anniversary as a liberation.
"If the Germans were liberated in 1945 then they cannot have been perpetrators, but rather victims of the regime," argued Hubertus Knabe, curator of a Berlin museum devoted to torture conducted by the East German regime.
"May 8 was a capitulation which brought freedom and democracy," he wrote in the newspaper Welt am Sonntag. "It became a liberation, but it was one against the will of those liberated."
He and thousands of others will attend public ceremonies tomorrow to mark what many Germans simply call "end-of-war day."
But the event will be complicated by a number of competing agendas. The most alarming of these is a march planned by neo-Nazi groups through Berlin's streets.
The German legislature passed a special law this year that prohibits the march from passing through the Brandenburg Gate and in front of the new Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, an austere field of raw stones set to have its official opening on Tuesday.
Nevertheless, the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) predicts it will attract 3,000 supporters to call for "an end to the cult of guilt" after "60 years of lies." The Social Democratic Party has passed out 30,000 postcards urging Berliners to take to the streets and "give the finger to the NPD."
Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder will deliver a speech celebrating democracy to the German legislature during the march, to be broadcast on giant screens all over Berlin in an effort to distract attention from the neo-Nazis.
Most troubling for Germans is the fact that half of their country, along with most of Eastern and Central Europe, was not liberated at all on May 8 but was brutally occupied by the Soviets.
When world leaders meet in Moscow on Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin will be marking the day as a liberation. But leaders of Eastern European states, and many Western officials, prefer to view the day as an invasion, the beginning of a bloody occupation that lasted five more decades and was in some respects more grim than the Nazi occupation.
This view burst into international politics yesterday when the European Union declared that the Second World War's victims included the millions killed by the Soviets during their occupation of Eastern Europe.
"We honour the many innocent victims of past conflicts and those who paid the highest price in defence of freedom and democracy," the EU's Executive Commission declared.
"We remember as well the many millions for whom the end of the Second World War was not the end of dictatorship, and for whom true freedom was only to come with the fall of the Berlin Wall."
U.S. President George W. Bush, who will be in Moscow on Monday, told reporters in Lithuania yesterday that there is "great angst" because "people don't view this as a liberating moment," and promised to remind Mr. Putin of this.
Mr. Schroeder tried to put a diplomatic face on the conflict yesterday by acknowledging the Russian view of May 8.
"Russia, along with allies of anti-Hitler coalition, has liberated Germany and Europe from the rule of Nazi regime," he told reporters. "Russian people had to pay enormous sacrifices."