Instead, she is the leader of Germany, which at the time of D-Day was controlled by Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and would eventually be defeated by the Allies, in part because of the D-Day invasion.
Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas and the father of the White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, suggested in a tweet that the event must be “awkward” for Merkel, given that the ceremony commemorates an event that “broke the back of Nazi Germany.”
But Merkel is likely to be long past feeling awkward about D-Day commemorations. And the meaning of commemorative events like those in Europe this week has changed. They tend to no longer symbolize military victory as much as the need for alliances and understanding.
Fifteen years ago, on the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings, her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, became the first German chancellor to participate in an event marking the anniversary. Schröder had been invited by French President Jacques Chirac, marking the first time such an invitation had been extended.
German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was not invited to the 50th anniversary ceremony in 1994, even though a decade earlier, Kohl, then leader of West Germany, had held hands with French President François Mitterrand at the site of the 1916 battle of Verdun to symbolize reconciliation after two world wars.
Schröder’s spokesman told reporters that the German leader was “very pleased” to accept the invitation, which came the year after France and Germany had marked 40 years of national reconciliation in January 2003. Though some veterans’ groups expressed concern, others welcomed it.
Germans themselves were glad to be included.
“Of course, D-Day was a liberation for us,” Dieter Clausen, a retired sales director in Munich, told the Guardian in 2004. “And if the Allies want Schröder there, then he should go. That’s fine by us.”
Merkel, who was born 10 years after D-Day and spent most of her childhood in communist-controlled East Germany as the daughter of a pastor, attended as chancellor in 2014. Leading a country that had become a model for much of Europe since she took over, Merkel was seen as someone to emulate.
“That was astonishing, to see all the winners of the Second World War, and to see the loser and the country which was responsible for all this — and she’s the leader, everyone wants to talk to her!” Dirk Kurbjuweit, a biographer of Merkel, told the New Yorker that year.
By 2019, some even seemed to forget what side Germany was on during the war — on Wednesday, a Twitter account associated with the British royal family seemed to suggest that Merkel was representing one of the “allied nations that took part in D-Day.”
As chancellor, Merkel has continued the practice of seeking reconciliation for past German aggression, a tradition that dates at least to West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, who dropped to his knees in Warsaw in 1970 during an event honoring victims of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Last year, Merkel became the first German chancellor to visit Compiègne, the site of the German surrender after World War I in 1918, since Hitler demanded that the French surrender there in 1940.
Merkel’s presence at events in November to mark 100 years since the end of World War I was overshadowed, however, by Trump, who did not appear at some events — in part because of complaints about security and weather too rainy for a flight.