The Night Wolves biker club, Russian nationalists close to Vladimir Putin, arrived at Berlin's Soviet War Memorial on Monday to commemorate the WWII victory. There were mixed feelings in the crowd, as Ben Knight reports.
After several weeks, 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles), and no little controversy, the Night Wolves arrived at their destination on Monday: the Soviet War Memorial on June 17 Street in central Berlin - a stone's throw from the city's traditional victory arch: the Brandenburg Gate - today, as every day, festooned with crowds of tourists.
The Russian motorcycle club - whose leader Alexander Zaldostanov is said to be a friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin - roared to a halt just in front of one of the Red Army's T-34 tanks that flank the memorial, and promptly began posing for dozens of triumphant photos.
Hundreds of people had already gathered around the Brandenburg Gate and the Memorial to commemorate the 71st anniversary of the capitulation of Nazi Germany to the Allies, but once the Night Wolves arrived, it became their show.
Many people applauded from the side of the wide boulevard, while the photographers and TV cameras rushed over to line up shots of the bearded men dressed in leather with cotton bandannas, and draped in Russian flags with black and orange St George's ribbons, a Russian military symbol that - in recent years - has often been seen on the battlefields of eastern Ukraine.
Support - but not total
Many of the onlookers - a mixture of nationalities from many of the countries that made up the Soviet Union - carried photos of their grandparents who had fought in the Red Army, and - geo-political tension or not - saw nothing in the Night Wolves' presence beyond a show of solidarity for fallen soldiers.
"Nationalists are not a bad thing - Nazis are bad, chauvinists are bad," said one Russian, who had traveled from Bavaria to visit Berlin's Soviet war memorials. "A nationalist is just someone who loves his nation, like a patriot. I saw a US military convoy in Bavaria recently - Germany is still under occupation - but the press is silent about that."
"Seventy years ago, 40 million Soviet citizens* lost their lives so we can walk beneath this sky in peace today," he added. "If the Soviet Union had not made those sacrifices, Germany would certainly be very different today. And the German people should be very grateful - mainly to the Soviet people - that they can live in the country they do today."
Diverse shows of nationalism
But others there were much less comfortable allowing the Night Wolves and the Russian presence to take over the commemoration of the date that Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allies. Among the crowd was a solitary man holding a large Ukrainian flag - a Berliner named Stefan Lauter, who, he said, had many Ukrainian friends. He pointed out that the first Soviet troops to meet their US Allies on German soil (at the town of Torgau, on April 25, 1945) were Ukrainian - and he was there to show his solidarity with the people of Ukraine.
"I'm really surprised that even though there are 10,000 Ukrainians living in Berlin, that I'm the only one with a Ukrainian flag," he told DW. (In fact, the Ukrainian embassy had held a separate commemoration, with Ukrainian Red Army veterans, at the memorial on Saturday).
He didn't have much time for the Night Wolves. "I would've liked to have seen the German government find much clearer words and actions against them," he said. "It's purely a propaganda operation for Putin and the aggressive foreign policy of Russia - which we all know about."
But, he added, he had nothing against people coming from Russia to commemorate fallen soldiers. "Maybe they have ancestors who fought in the Red Army in war," he said. "But I would have preferred it if they'd closed the borders for these gentlemen," he said, pointing to the Night Wolves.
Another Ukrainian in the crowd, Michael Greuss, said he had come to show his "deep gratitude" to the Soviet soldiers who had fallen to liberate Germany - but he also had a caveat: "I think it's very important on a day like today not to let yourself be fooled by Russian propaganda - but to say May 9 doesn't belong to Putin, it doesn't belong to the Russians, it belongs to all the peoples of the Soviet Union. I think it's highly problematic that many people instrumentalize it."
*The exact number of Soviet casualties in World War II are disputed. Most Western scholars estimate between 14 and 29 million. In 1993, the Russian Academy of Sciences put the number at 26.6 million, but many ordinary Russians believe it was closer to 40 million.