On a day laden with symbolism, President Joachim Gauck became the first German leader to visit Oradour-sur-Glane, a village in west-central France where SS troops massacred 642 people on June 10th, 1944.
The village has been a ghost town ever since, deliberately preserved in a desolate state as a memorial to those who died on one of the darkest days of World War II.
The most poignant stage of Wednesday’s visit came after Gauck, French President Francois Hollande and survivor 88-year-old Robert Hebras entered the church in which the women and children of the village were killed with toxic gas before the church was set on fire and their bodies burned.
Hebras, whose mother and sisters perished that day, was briefly overcome with emotion as he explained what had taken place.
Hollande stepped forward to take his hand, Gauck placed a comforting arm around his shoulders and the three men then stood, hand-in-hand, in silence for several moments.
The apparently spontaneous gesture of the three men reflected what Gauck had said he hoped his visit would achieve.
“I want to reach out to the victims and tell them: I am at your side,” he said. “I am 73 years old, I was born during the war, I was steeped in the discussion of our guilt…I will tell the victims and their families: We know what was done.”
During his visit, Gauck was also at pains to reassure people like Hebras that Germany is a changed country. “The Germany that I have the honour of representing is a different Germany from the one that haunts their memories,” he said.
Some 205 children were among victims of the atrocity, which left deep scars in France.
After the war, General Charles de Gaulle, who later became president, decided that the village should not be rebuilt but remain a memorial to the barbarity of Nazi occupation. A new village was built nearby.
In 1999, then French president Jacques Chirac dedicated a memorial museum which includes items recovered from what became known as the “Village of Martyrs”.
They include watches stopped at the time the owners were burnt alive, glasses melted from intense heat and other personal items.
Wednesday’s events were redolent of a 1984 commemoration in which then French president Francois Mitterrand and former German chancellor Helmut Kohl joined hands while attending a memorial service for fallen soldiers at Verdun.
The Battle of Verdun (February-December 1916) claimed the lives of more than 700,000 soldiers and came to symbolise the horror of war for both the Germans and the French.
Hollande and Gauck were both due to make speeches and visit the village square, where the residents were rounded up by German troops ostensibly to have their identity papers checked. The women and children were then locked up in the church while the men were taken to a barn where machine guns waited.
Hebras, who was 19 at the time of the massacre and is one of three living survivors, escaped death as he was buried under the corpses of others who were machine-gunned.
“I was consumed by hatred and vengeance for a long time,” he said, adding that Gauck’s visit came at an opportune time. “Any earlier would have been too soon. We must reconcile with the Germans.”
Germany in 2010 reopened a war crimes case into the attack when a historian discovered documents implicating six suspects in their 80s. The suspects, aged 18 and 19 at the time, allegedly ordered the inhabitants to assemble in the village square.
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 been opened against seven of them. The other five have already served sentences in France.
Gauck, a former East German human rights activist, has already paid two visits to the sites of Nazi mass killings in Europe; the Czech village of Lidice near Prague in 2012 and the Italian hamlet of Sant’Anna di Stazzema in March this year.