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Hollande, Merkel mark Verdun centenary

May 29, 2016

The French and German leaders have attended a series of events to commemorate those killed in the WWI campaign. They used the occasion to urge increased European unity in the face of many challenges.

Frankreich Francois Hollande und Angela Merkel Gedenkfeier zur Schlacht von Verdun
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld

French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday launched a series of events to commemorate the centenary of the longest battle of World War I, which took place near the northeastern French town of Verdun.

In the first of several acts of remembrance, the French and German leaders laid wreaths at the German military cemetery at Consenvoye, just north of Verdun. The remains of some 11,000 German soldiers are buried at the cemetery.

Hollande and Merkel then attended a ceremony in the Verdun town hall. In her speech, Merkel said Verdun stood not only for the "incomprehensible horror and senselessness of war," but also for "the lessons it had taught and the German-French reconciliation."

"Only those who know the past can draw instruction from it and use this to shape a good future," she said, adding that the friendly reception she had received as a German chancellor in the town was "not at all to be taken for granted."

She and Hollande also presented the mayor of Verdun with this year's Adenauer-de Gaulle Prize, which honors those who have contributed to the German-French friendship.

In his remarks, Hollande said that Verdun had not frozen to become a cult of the dead, but always looked to the future to fulfill its mission of peace.

Ten-month battle

Some 3,400 French and German young people created an open-air presentation representing an encounter between the young people who had died at Verdun in 1916, and those living today.

The international ceremony was held at the Douaumont ossuary, where the remains of 130,000 soldiers from both sides are buried. The presentation was choreographed by German filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff.

Also in attendance were European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz. and German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen.

Frankreich Gedenkfeier zur Schlacht von Verdun
A number of events are planned on Sunday in VerdunImage: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld

The newly renovated memorial at Verdun was formally opened by Merkel and Hollande.

The Battle of Verdun, pitting the Germans and the French against one another, lasted for 10 months from February to December 1916, and claimed more than 300,000 lives. They included 163,000 French and 143,000 German soldiers.

The battle was one of the bloodiest of the entire 1914-1918 war but failed to produce a victor.

Cementing the German-French friendship

The cemetery at Douaumont has additional significance as the place where the then West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and former French President Francois Mitterand joined hands during a 1984 commemoration of the battle in a historic symbol of reconciliation between the two nations.

Mitterand and Kohl holding hands
Mitterand (L.) and Kohl: a historic gesture of reconciliationImage: ullstein bild/Sven Simon

Merkel referred to this milestone in her speech at Verdun, saying that it was an image that had "burnt itself deeply into our nations' memories."

Speaking on the eve of the commemorations, Merkel said the fact she was invited to the event this year was a sign of how good German-French relations now were.

She also expressed the hope that Britain would not vote to leave the European Union in a referendum to be held next month.

Germany and France are widely seen as the two leading "motors" of the 28-member bloc, which is currently facing heightened challenges, such as a massive influx of migrants and refugees, and financial crises in several member states.

The potential exit of Britain from the bloc has added to a widespread feeling that EU unity is under threat.

tj/jm/sms/rc (dpa, AFP)