German leader at SS massacre site
Published 04/09/2013 | 15:16
The presidents of Germany and France have visited the scene of the largest massacre in Nazi-occupied France nearly 70 years ago.
The trip by Germany's Joachim Gauck to the south-western town of Oradour-sur-Glane is the first by a serving German leader.
On June 10, 1944 - four days after the Allied D-Day landings - an SS armoured division herded hundreds of civilians into barns and a church, blocked the doors and set fire to the town. A total of 642 men, women and children died. Only six people survived.
French president Francois Hollande and Mr Gauck joined hands inside the church's ruins.
Oradour-sur-Glane remains a phantom village, preserved as a memorial of the massacre.
The visit aimed to underscore French-German postwar reconciliation, and the importance of remembering Nazi atrocities that included the slaughter of millions of Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies and others during the Holocaust.
"We can today only understand with difficulty how 'totally normal men' became unscrupulous murderers," Mr Gauck said. "And it happened here in Oradour, in the middle of Europe, and so many other places."
Only six people survived. The two leaders were joined by one of them - 90-year-old Robert Hebras - who they assisted during a visit to the blown-out wreckage of the church, noting the remains of a charred baby carriage inside. Mr Hebras' voice cracked with emotion as he explained what happened.
But even now, the fallout from the massacre lives on: Six men from the fanatical SS "Das Reich" division that was responsible for the massacre have been under investigation in Germany for almost two years on possible charges of murder or accessory to murder.
Mr Gauck alluded to the pain that some in France feel because the case remains unresolved. "When I look today into the eyes of those who have been marked by this crime," he said, "I can say I share your bitterness over the fact that the murderers have not been brought to justice - that the most serious of crimes has gone unpunished."