German President Gauck and Italian President Giorgio Napolitano held a memorial service in the northern Tuscan town of Sant'Anna di Stazzema on Sunday.
On August 12, 1944, a unit of German SS soldiers murdered over 500 of the residents, mainly women and children, and then burned the village to the ground. The site, which lies on the Italian coast about 115 kilometers (71 miles) northwest of Florence, has long housed a memorial to those victims, but Gauck became the first German president on Sunday to visit it.
"They aren't anonymous victims of an anonymous event," he said. "They have names and faces that we should preserve in our memories."
The Sant'Anna di Stazzema massacre was long forgotten by all but its survivors in decades following the war, until nearly 20 years ago when files detailing the atrocity were found by accident in a metal cabinet in the basement of a Rome military court.
The Italian media later dubbed the finding the "cabinet of shame."
An Italian court subsequently found 10 former members of the 16th SS-Panzergrenadier Division "Reichsführer SS" guilty of crimes against humanity in absentia. It sentenced them to life imprisonment and ordered them to pay compensation to victims. None of the surviving soldiers served their sentences.
Statute of limitations
The long drawn out case eventually led to diplomatic tension. Last October, the Stuttgart state prosecutor discontinued its investigation into the charges, citing a lack of evidence. It had not found enough proof to charge the surviving eight with murder or accessory to murder, which were also the only criminal offenses that still fell under the statute of limitations.
The German court's ruling outraged Italians following the case. Gauck spoke to the injustice felt by Italy and the family members of Sant'Anna victims.
"Here in Sant'Anna, human dignity was spurned and human rights violated," said Gauck.
"It offends our sense of justice when offenders cannot be handed over, when they can’t be punished, because the legal instruments in place do not allow for it."
The German president also praised his Italian counterpart, Giorgio Napolitano, for his work in the Italian resistance and remarked on the miracle of reconciliation nearly 70 years after the massacre.
"In the end, reconciliation is a gift that is given generously and that one can only accept with thanks."
Germany and Italy were allies until fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was deposed in 1943 and Italy sided with the Allies during the war. German troops then occupied Italy until Allied forces drove them out in 1945.
kms/rc (AP, AFP, dpa, epd)