BERLIN – Millions of Germans experienced the fall of Nazi Germany 70 years ago Friday as total defeat. Today, most Germans view it as liberation from 12 years of tyranny.
In a symbol of the shift in perception, the German Parliament plans a special session Friday to reflect upon "a day that stands for a new beginning, and the double liberation from war and Nazism."
A poll released last week showed 89 percent of Germans now think of the end of the war as liberation, with only 9 percent calling it a defeat. That compares to 35 percent who saw the Nazi fall as a defeat a decade ago. The Forsa institute poll of 18 to 85 year olds had a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.
In marking the end of the war in Europe, Chancellor Angela Merkel has already paid tribute to Nazi victims in a ceremony at the Dachau concentration camp near Munich; on Sunday she will lay a wreath on the tomb of an unknown Red Army soldier buried in Moscow. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier left Thursday to take part in ceremonies in Volgograd, formally Stalingrad, where the Soviets won a decisive victory over the Nazis in a turning point of the war.
The change in perception has not come overnight.
A groundbreaking moment came when then-West German President Richard von Weizsaecker's referred to Nazi Germany's defeat as a "day of liberation" in a speech marking the 40th anniversary of the war's end in 1985. When Weizsaecker died in January, Merkel said the comment was "a necessary, clear statement that was significant for our German self-image."
Another important landmark came in 2004, when then-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder marked the 60th anniversary of Col. Claus von Stauffenberg's failed attempt to kill Hitler with a briefcase bomb by calling him and his co-conspirators heroes — erasing any perception of them as traitors as they had been labeled by the Nazis.
Schroeder was the first chancellor with no personal memory of the war himself. And only one member of Merkel's Cabinet — Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble — was born by the war's end.
Merkel in her video message this week stressed that her generation still had an historical obligation to fulfill.
"We Germans have a special responsibility to deal attentively, sensitively and skillfully with what we did in the Nazi era and what long-lasting wounds and concerns there are in other countries," she said. "I fully understand that."
German President Joachim Gauck, meanwhile, has said that paying tribute to Soviet soldiers would be at the center of his commemorations marking the events of May 1945 — although the former pastor from communist East Germany acknowledged that memories of the Soviet army are "ambivalent."
"On May 8, 1945, we were liberated — by the people of the Soviet Union, though not only them," he told the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung in an interview Saturday. "We owe them gratitude and respect. And that is the case regardless of the fact that the Soviet liberators ensured, as occupiers in eastern Germany after the war, a lack of freedom, repression and persecution."
The war remains so central to modern Germany that there is no danger of it being forgotten in Germany, even if perceptions have changed, said Berlin Free University historian Paul Nolte.
He noted how the French Revolution more than 200 years ago still plays a role today in French political discourse, and that the U.S. Civil War ended 150 years ago but remains part of the American racism debate today.
The Nazi era will be a decisive part of Germany's history, "long into the foreseeable future," he said.
"Even when it lies 200 years in the past."
Kirsten Grieshaber and Geir Moulson contributed to this story.