It was meant to be a historic event and became a deeply moving day: German President Gauck and French President Hollande held each other in a long embrace in Oradour, site of a massacre perpetrated by the Nazis in 1944.
Many picket fences are still standing. But the gray, faded garden gates haven't been moved in decades - in 69 years, to be exact.
June 10, 1944, was a normal day, children returned from school, tell their mothers about their day and ask what's for lunch. But this isn't a normal day. The SS-division "Das Reich" has reached Oradour-sur-Glane, and the men of the Nazis' elite paramilitary organization killed almost the entire population of the village in western France.
"Why here?" German President Joachim Gauck asked while walking through Oradour with his French colleague Francois Hollande and survivors of the massacre on Wednesday, the second day of his France-visit.
But there isn't a logical reason. The Nazis in Oradour simply wanted to demonstrate their power and spread terror on that day in June. The SS wanted hostages. The village's mayor offered to sacrifice himself, but they didn't allow it. The women and children are taken to the town's church and burnt to death alive. Those who tried to escape the flames were shot. The village's men were herded into barns and shot. Then, the SS searched the entire village for witnesses. Most of them were found and killed. The houses were burnt down.
"Oradour was one loud scream; I still hear it today," Hollande said.
An important moment of friendship
The presidents' walk along the ruins of Oradour was the most important point on the agenda of Gauck's three-day visit to France. The event was broadcast live on French television for three hours, and in Germany, media interest was great as well.
Even Gauck himself didn't expect such great sympathy and interest. To him, it showed that his decision to visit this place of past horrors as the first leading German politician was the right one. For Gauck, it was a gesture of reconciliation. He said he had come to Oradour humbly, adding that the trip brought up many emotions for him, presidential as well as personal ones.
Joachim Gauck was born in 1940 and said it was hard for him that after 1945 "you had to hate yourself for being German" because of what earlier Germans had done. Now in his old age, he said he represented a country "one can stand by." Hollande said in his speech in Oradour that the visit was an "extraordinary event" and praised the dignity with which Gauck and Germany today face the country's barbaric Nazi past.
The two presidents get along well. They openly speak about the political differences in their countries. That's why their friendship can withstand differences of opinion as well, both politicians said. The main test at the moment is Germany's decision not to intervene in Syria while France has called for military action after a chemical weapons attack in Damascus at the end of August.
Gauck explained in France that Germany had to act differently because of historical and legal reasons. The day before the trip to Oradour, Hollande repeated that the situation wouldn't calm down as long as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was in power.
In Oradour, in front of history's ruins, the French president explained why he considers a reaction so important. The "scream of Oradour," according to Hollande, isn't just a symbol, but a promise not ignore screams elsewhere in the world when people are massacred.
"Unacceptable things cannot be quietly accepted," Hollande said. ""e owe that to the victims of Oradour."
A different Germany
Gauck signed the book for honorary guests on Oradour's cemetery and wrote that he assured people that "there is a different, a friendly Germany now that displays solidarity." It's obvious how important Gauck's words are, especially in this place and for people all over France. Gauck became familiar with the dark chapter of the German Nazi-regime from his own autobiography and that gives his words an added persuasiveness and emotion.
Positive pictures from Oradour
Hollande also has a personal connection to the past events. For several years, he was mayor of Tulle, a city 100 kilometers away from Oradour. Here, the same SS-unit had hanged 99 men the day before the massacre in Oradour. Hollande talked about the annual silent march in Tulle and the "women who put up garlands on the balconies where the bodies of the killed men hung."
The hand holding, followed by the embrace the presidents shared with a survivor became the symbolic pictures for the day in Oradour. Later, the presidents embraced again for many seconds, holding on to each other.
Many killers got away
Oradour left many wounds in France. Among the perpetrators were 14 men from the French Alsace region who had been forcefully recruited. They were convicted after the war, but later, French parliament voted for amnesty, giving in to pressure from the Alsace representatives. As a result, 20 communities around Oradour entered an administrative strike against orders from Paris for many years. Hollande said the reconciliation process took decades.
Gauck talked about the bitterness he shared with many attendees of the event - bitterness about the fact that most of the German murderers weren't brought to justice. "That is my bitterness. I'll take it back to Germany with me and I will talk about it in my country," Gauck promised. He said he would not be silent.
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