German president visits site of Nazi massacre in France
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French President Francois Hollande and Germany's Joachim Gauck paid a historic visit to the ghost village of Oradour-sur-Glane on Wednesday, where 642 people were killed in a 1944 Nazi massacre. Gauck is the first German leader to visit the site.
France’s President François Hollande and his German counterpart Joachim Gauck paid a landmark visit to the French village of Oradour-sur-Glane on Wednesday, where 642 people were killed in 1944 by Nazi troops, in one of the worst massacres on French soil during World War II.
Today, the village, in the central Limousin region, is a ghost town where the ruins from the war have been preserved as a memorial to the victims, thanks to state funding.
Gauck’s visit was the first of a German leader, a decision praised by Hollande.
“You have made the choice (to visit the site), it honours you, and at the same time it forces us, once the past has been acknowledged, to go boldly into preparing the future,” Hollande said at a joint press conference on Tuesday.
“It was a taboo, nobody talked about it”
The Oradour massacre, as it is known, remains a touchy subject that has left a deep scar in France.
At 2pm on June 10, 1944, close to 200 German soldiers of the SS “Das Reich” division surrounded the village and rounded up its population on one of the main squares in what residents thought it was a routine identity check.
The men were separated into six groups and moved to different barns while women and children were gathered in a church. Within minutes, the men were all shot and burnt to death. The German army then set fire to the church and mowed down the women and children as they tried to escape the burning building.
In all, 642 people were killed, including 246 women and 207 children. Only six people survived.
Historians say it is still unclear as to why the small and tranquil village was targeted. It was not known as a stronghold for the resistance, but was on the path of SS troops making their way to Normandy on a mission to wipe out resistant fighters.
“While this could seem like an outburst of uncontrolled violence, it was in fact carried out methodically and perfectly controlled,” said historian Jean-Luc Leleu from the University of Caen.
Until this year, the event was only mentioned twice by a German leader: ex-chancellor Gerhard Schröder, once in 2000 in Berlin, and in 2004 in Caen.
For a long time, “it was a taboo, nobody talked about it,” said Claude Milord, 61, head of the Association for families of victims which has 405 members today and who lost about 20 relatives to the massacre.
“[Gauck’s visit] is a major event,” he added. And while a few survivors were reluctant at the idea, “everyone here is now preparing to welcome the German president.”
Milord compared today's visit to the historic handshake between former president François Mitterand and ex-chancellor Helmut Kohl in a memorial service for fallen soldiers at Verdun in 1984.
A symbol of Franco-German reconciliation
Gauck told reporters on Tuesday he had accepted the invitation to visit the site with “a mixture of gratitude and humility,”
“The Germany that I have the honour of representing is a different Germany from the one that haunts their memories,” he added, referring to Oradour’s surviving population.
But “reconciliation” is a word Claude Milord wouldn’t rush to use. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” he said, “the most important thing is that Germany officially claims responsibility for the massacre.”
The visit does, however, represent an opportunity to renew ties. “Time has passed and what seemed impossible to older generations makes sense for ours,” said Milord.
“It’s our generation’s responsibility to rebuild our relationship with Germany, something our parents weren’t able to do.”
“Village of Martyrs”
In 1999, French president Jacques Chirac inaugurated a memorial museum which includes items recovered from what is known in France as the “Village of Martyrs.”
The museum, which Hollande and Gauck visited on Wednesday, includes watches stopped at the time the owners were burnt alive, glasses melted from the heat of the fire and other personal items.
Hollande and Gauck were accompanied by two of the three living survivors, including 88-year-old Robert Hebras. The three men held hands in silence as they entered the church were the women and children were murdered.
Hebras was 19 at the time of the massacre. He survived after being buried under the corpses of others who had been machine-gunned.
“I was consumed by hatred and vengeance for a long time,” he told AFP, adding that Gauck’s visit came at an opportune time. “Any earlier would have been too soon,” he said.
Such resentment towards Germany was fueled by the failure to bring war criminals to justice.
In 1981, authorities in East Germany arrested and prosecuted Heinz Barth, a former SS Sergeant and platoon commander whose soldiers were among those who shot the men of Oradour-sur-Glane. Barth was sentenced to life in prison, but was released in 1997. Barth died in 2007 at the age of 86.
Germany reopened a war crimes case into the attack in 2010. Prosecutors eventually identified 12 members of the regiment who were still alive after trawling through files of the Stasi secret police in the former communist East that came to light after German reunification in 1990.
A case has since been opened against seven of them. The other five have already served sentences in France.
But more than justice, Milord says he wants a lesson to be learnt, alluding to the current situation in Syria. “The Oradour massacre must not be forgotten; the old village must be preserved and seen as a lesson, so that we avoid another Oradour.”