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Schröder: Allied D-Day Soldiers Didn't Die in Vain

Saying Germany had learned its lessons from World War II and successfully mounted a return to the international community, Gerhard Schröder on Sunday closed the final chapter in post-WWII history.

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Chirac (left) to Schröder: The French receive you as a brother

As the first German chancellor to accept an invitation to a D-Day memorial celebration, Sunday marked a historic occasion for Gerhard Schröder. In an event-filled day, he visited a British military cemetery, where he laid a wreath for the Allied soldiers killed in the battle and another for the 322 unknown German soldiers buried at the same spot.

Explaining the decision to join the 60th anniversary victory celebrations in Normandy, Schröder said of Germany: "In Germany, we know who caused the war. We're aware of our responsibility and take it seriously." In many ways, it seemed almost like a celebration of recently improved Franco-German relations.

"The French receive you as a brother," French President Jacques Chirac, who took the initiative to invite Schröder, said. The gesture was followed by an embrace.

United in death

In his speech given at the international peace memorial in the city of Caen, Schröder also sought to underscore what Germany and its erstwhile enemies had in common in World War II.

"German soldiers died because they were sent on a murderous campaign to oppress Europe," he said. "Yet in their death the soldiers on both sides were united -- in the grieving of their parents and wives, brothers and sisters. Their pain unites us all."

Schröder added that the Allies liberated not only France, but also Germany from the Nazis. "No one will forget the terrible record of Hitler's 12-year tyranny," the chancellor said. "My generation grew up in its shadow. My father's grave was found only four years ago. He was a soldier killed in Romania. I never got the chance to know him."

The chancellor said his visit to the D-Day festivities marked the end of the postwar period. "It is not that old Germany of darker years that I am here to represent," he said. "My country has returned to the community of civilized nations. It was a long haul."

"Europe has learned its lesson, and we Germans will certainly not forget it," Schroeder said. "Europe's citizens and its politicians carry the responsibility so that war-mongering, war crimes and terrorism will have no chance elsewhere either."

President Chirac, in his own address, said D-Day "marks above all the renewal of liberty and of democracy on a European continent oppressed under the yoke of Nazi ideology and its murderous madness."

Criticism back home

Schröder's itinerary in France drew criticism from some quarters in Germany. Peter Ramsauer, a member of German parliament with the conservative Christian Social Union party, said the fact that Schröder did not plan to visit the military cemetery at La Cambe, where 21,000 German soldiers are buried, was an "insult" to the mens' widows.

La Cambe remains a sensitive issue in both Germany and France because it is also the site where 5,000 SS soldiers and high officers are buried. Many of them participated in one of the darkest chapters of the war in France: the unexplained decimation of an entire village and the massacre of hundreds of French men, women and children in the village of Oradour-sur-Glane.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer sharply criticized the salvos from the opposition, describing them as "unspeakable attacks on the chancellor" that were intended to "invalidate the historic gesture of the French president and people" to invite the German leader. He added that Schröder would honor the German dead, but "not those who were guilty of the worst crimes," like those responsible for the grizzly Oradour-sur-Glane massacre.

A model of reconciliation

But sorrows like the events at Oradour sur-Glane are painful memories of the past. Once sworn enemies, Germany and France now hold arguably closer ties than any other countries in Europe -- a testament to difficult years of postwar reconciliation.

"I wanted Germany to remember with us those hours when the ideal of freedom returned to our continent," Chirac said on Sunday. "Franco-German reconciliation shows the world that hatred has no future, that peace is always possible."

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  • Date 07.06.2004
  • Author DW staff (dsl)
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  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/59Rk
  • Date 07.06.2004
  • Author DW staff (dsl)
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/59Rk