German President Joachim Gauck has honored the victims of France's worst atrocity during Nazi occupation in the Second World War. He is the first German leader to visit the hallowed town of Oradour-sur-Glane.
Germany's head of state joined French President Francois Hollande in the small town of Oradour-sur-Glane to remember the 642 men, women and children whose lives were extinguished by Nazi SS troops in 1944, just days after the Allied invasion in Normandy.
The two leaders and survivor Robert Hebras, 88, held hands in a moving tribute in the town's church, the scene of the atrocity.
For reasons that remain unknown, SS troops rounded up residents in the village on June 10, 1944, and demanded their identity papers.
The soldiers then locked women and children in the church and led the men to a barn. During the massacre that followed troops gassed and then set fire to the church and machine-gunned the men, leaving all but six inhabitants dead. They subsequently burned the village to the ground.
"We can today only understand with difficulty how 'totally normal
men' became unscrupulous murderers," Gauck said in his speech at the memorial ceremony.
"And it happened here in Oradour, in the middle of Europe, and so many other places."
Hebras was 19 at the time and lost his mother and sisters in the massacre.
Before the ceremony began, he said the symbolic visit came at the right time.
"I was consumed by hatred and vengeance for a long time," Hebras told news agency AFP. "Any earlier would have been too soon. We must reconcile with the Germans."
Frozen in time
Oradour-sur-Glane lies some 25 miles (40km) northwest of the central French city of Limoges.
At the end of the Second World War, General Charles de Gaulle, who later became president, decreed the village should remain untouched, thus freezing the site in time as a reminder of the atrocity.
President Jacques Chirac opened a memorial museum in 1999, where items recovered from the victims - such as watches stopped at the time of the attack - are on display for public viewing.
In the 1950s, some 60 men faced trial for the massacre, but were released shortly after. Over half a century later, German authorities reopened a case into alleged suspects involved in the mass killing, thanks to the recovery of files, which had been in the possession of East German officials prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The discovery implicated six suspects, currently in their 80s.
German President Gauck has made similar visits to two other Nazi massacre sites since serving as head of state, a largely ceremonial role. In 2012, he travelled to the Czech village of Lidice near Prague and, earlier this year, to the Italian town of Sant'Anna di Stazzema.
The last prominent visit by a German leader to a French war site took place in 1984, when former Chancellor Helmut Kohl accompanied then President Francois Mitterand to Verdun, where over 700,000 soldiers perished in the longest single battle of WWI.
The German president's visit came a day after he met with Hollande and Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault in Paris. It also coincides with the year-long celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Elysee Treaty, which reestablished friendship between France and Germany.
kms, ph/ccp (AFP, AP, dpa)