From Gdansk to Dachau: Europe marks 70 yrs since WW2 victory

Europe marked the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II on May 8th with commemorative events across the continent.

The ceremonies kicked off in the Polish port city of Gdansk, known as Danzig in German, where the first shots of the deadliest conflict in history were fired on September 1, 1939.

The sky over the Baltic Sea was lit up by a salute fired from 21 guns at the Westerplatte peninsula in Gdansk late on Thursday night.

Poland initially organized the event as an alternative for Western European leaders, who decided to boycott Moscow's Victory Day Parade due to the dispute with Russia over the conflict in Ukraine.

However, most of European leaders opted to attend WWII commemoration events in their home countries.

Poland's President Bronislaw Komorowski (front L) and officials attend a ceremony to commemorate the anniversary of the end of the World War Two, at the WWII Westerplatte Memorial in Gdansk, north Poland May 8, 2015 (Reuters / Rafal Malko)

The Gdansk ceremony was attended by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, European Council president Donald Tusk, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko and heads of several Eastern European nations, including Lithuania, Bulgaria, Estonia and Romania.

The UN leader praised the “collective effort” and bravery that led to the “ultimate triumph” over the Nazi threat.

“The terrible long years of World War II were a time of unspeakable atrocities, of lost faith and lost humanity. The war took a heavy toll on many countries, including all those represented here, and particularly on their youth,” Ban is cited by the UN website.

In Paris, French President Francois Hollande and US Secretary of State John Kerry laid wreaths on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe.

French Republican Guards surround French President Francois Hollande's car on their way to attend a ceremony marking 70 years since the victory over Nazi Germany during World War Two, at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France, May 8, 2015 (Reuters / Loic Venance)

According to Hollande, the victory in World War II 70 years ago represented the “victory of an ideal over a totalitarian ideology.”

“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… There is also terrorism which can strike us, racism, anti-Semitism. There are still causes which should spur us on,” the French president said.

200 beacons were lit across the UK to remember the 55 million lives that were lost during the war.

Earlier in the day, a two-minute moment of silence was observed and wreaths were laid at the Cenotaph in London’s Whitehall by re-elected British Prime Minister, David Cameron, and Duke of York, Prince Andrew.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon (L-R) stands with, Northern Ireland Executive Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster, SNP MP Angus Robertson, former Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, and Prime Minister David Cameron, as they line up to pay tribute at the Cenotaph during a Victory in Europe (VE) day ceremony in central London May 8, 2015 (Reuters / Stefan Wermuth)

In Germany May 8 isn’t considered a holiday, but the country’s MPs from Bundestag and Bundesrat still met on Friday for joint observances.

Bundestag President Norbert Lammert said that the end of the WWII in Europe “was a day of liberation" for Germany.

“On May 8, a war was ended that a German regime had begun with criminal intent,” Lammet is cited by Deutsche Welle.

During the session, the speakers paid tribute to the Soviet Army and the Allied forces which defeated Adolf Hitler’s regime.

German president, Joachim Gauck, laid a wreath at a military cemetery in Lebus dedicated to Soviet soldiers killed fighting Nazis.

A Mass was held at the infamous Dachau concentration camp, where 32,000 people died according to official documents, but where thousands more were killed unofficially.

Ukraine celebrates Victory Day with Europe, not Russia

For the first time in 70 years, Ukraine celebrated the end of World War II on May 8, the same day as Europe, but one day ahead of Russia.

The new holiday, entitled the Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation, is seen by the country’s leadership as a symbolic change marking Ukraine’s break with its Soviet past.

"On May 8, for the first time, the people of Ukraine will join the European tradition to commemorate the victims of World War II. The very next day in Moscow, under the pretext of the Great Victory, the aggressor's army will brandish its lethal might in front of the world,” Petro Poroshenko, Ukrainian president, said.

The country has also adopted the red poppy as a symbol in memory of war victims, as many countries in Europe have.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (C) gestures as he stands with veterans of the Ukrainian insurgent army (UPA) after commemorative parliament session marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the World War Two in Kiev, Ukraine May 8, 2015 (Reuters / Valentyn Ogirenko)

The St. George Ribbon, which used to be a traditional symbol of Victory in the USSR, was dropped due to its use by eastern Ukrainian militias, which have been fighting the Kiev government for over a year.

Russia has repeatedly denied unsubstantiated claims by Kiev and the West blaming Moscow for supporting the rebels with arms and manpower.

On May 8, 1945 Nazi Germany signed an unconditional surrender, marking the end of the war in Europe. The document was signed at 22:43 CET – or 00:43, May 9 Moscow time.

The global conflict continued for another three months, however, until the surrender of Japan in September 1945.