German President Joachim Gauck has highlighted the mass deaths of Soviet soldiers captured and interned by the Nazis during World War II. He said Germany had failed to adequately remember them.
Gauck said "more than half" of the 5.3 million Red Army soldiers captured by Adolf Hitler's regime after it turned on Stalin's Soviet Union in 1941 succumbed to disease or hunger in Nazi hands or were murdered.
He laid a wreath on Wednesday while addressing 20 ambassadors from former Soviet counties and Western allies at Holte-Stukenbrock, a Soviet cemetery of honor in northern Germany, near a former Nazi prisoner-of-war site, where captured Red Army soldiers were forced to live in holes dug in the ground.
He also unveiled a stone plate engraved with the names of 900 dead who have been identified.
That site Stalag 326 Senne, held 300,000 captured Soviet troops between 1941 and 1945. An estimated 65,000 of them died because of what Gauck described as "merciless treatment" by the Nazis.
"They succumbed miserably to disease, they starved to death, they were murdered," he said, and urged present-day Germans to openly acknowledge that "millions of soldiers of the Red Army lost their lives during Nazi internment."
Investigations into the Nazis' mass murder of six million Jews across Europe had overlain examinations of other Nazi crimes, Gauck said, amounting to what he termed a German "shadow" in recollecting wartime atrocities.
"Just as the Jews, the Sinti and Roma were selected out, humiliated and murdered, [and similarly] the handicapped and homosexuals, so too were the peoples of eastern Europe defamed as inferior," Gauck said.
Freed at war's end, Soviet soldiers faced renewed internment and even death as they returned home to Stalinist accusations of desertion and having been traitors, Gauck added.
Not wanting to remember
A practice of not wanting to remember had emerged in Germany post-war during the expansive policies of the Soviet Union and communist rule in former East Germany, he said.
He also thanked Soviet and Western allies for forcing Nazi Germany's capitulation 70 years ago, which officially will be marked by Western nations on May 8, and on May 9 by Russia.
Gauck said the-then German Wehrmacht armed forces readily carried out Hitler's orders and became guilty of "severe and the worst crimes" in Soviet eastern Europe.
"Unlike the [battlegrounds in the] West, the war in the East was planned from the very start by the National-Socialist (NS) regime as an ideological war, a war of "extermination and eradication," Gauck said.
Soviets bore main burden
The Soviet Union, with 30 million dead, bore the brunt in defeating Hitler's regime.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is to pay respects on Thursday at Volgograd in Russia.
Chancellor Angela Merkel is due to lay a wreath with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Sunday, a day after Moscow's main remembrance parade.
Post-war image propagated
Until 1999, when an exhibition on war-time Wehrmacht crimes toured Germany, former functionaries had propagated the image of a "clean" Wehrmacht.
Holte-Stukenbrock and the former Nazi prisoner-of war camp Stalag 326 lie within a 116-square-kilometer Sennelager military zone now used by NATO troops for training. It is administrated by British forces based in nearby Paderborn.
The former camp was liberated by American troops on April 2, 1945.
ipj/bw (epd, dpa, AFP)