German president visits France WWII massacre site

President Gauck and President Hollande hold hands with survivor Robert Hebras - Pictures courtesy France Television

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German President Joachim Gauck has become the first senior dignitary from his country to visit Oradour-sur-Glane in France, where 642 people were killed by Nazi troops in June 1944.

The ruins of the village are preserved just as they were after the massacre.

President Gauck said that he had accepted a French invitation to visit the site with "gratitude and humility".

More than 200 children were among the victims of the World War II atrocity that left deep scars in France.

After the war Gen Charles de Gaulle - who later became France's president - ordered the village not to be rebuilt but instead remain a memorial to the evils of Nazi occupation. A new village was built nearby.

'Symbol of reconciliation'

"I want to reach out to the victims and tell them: I am at your side," President Gauck told Europe 1 radio ahead of the visit.

"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.'"

Mr Gauck said on Tuesday that he would not refrain from making the point to others during his visit that "the Germany that I have the honour of representing is a different Germany from the one that haunts their memories".

Oradour-sur-Glane has been left untouched since 1944, as Sophie Raworth reports

He was joined in Oradour-sur-Glane by his French counterpart, Francois Hollande, and together they visited the village square, where residents were rounded up by Nazi troops ostensibly to have their identity papers checked.

They also walked around a church where women and children were incarcerated before it was set on fire. The village's men were taken to a barn where they were shot with machine-guns.

The two presidents were accompanied by two of the three living survivors, including 88-year-old Robert Hebras.

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He was 19 at the time of the massacre, and survived because he was buried under the bodies of other men who had been shot.

"I was consumed by hatred and vengeance for a long time," he was quoted by the AFP news agency as saying.

At a joint news conference on Tuesday, Mr Hollande praised Mr Gauck's decision to go to the massacre site as a symbol of Franco-German reconciliation.

In 2010, Germany reopened a war crimes case into the attack when a historian discovered documents implicating six suspects who were now in their 80s.

Prosecutors said 12 members of the SS-Panzer Division "Das Reich" - which had spent three years on the Russian front before being deployed to the Normandy battlefields to fight Allied invasion forces - were suspected of involvement in the massacre.

The reason for the mass killings is unclear. One theory is that the Nazis sought to avenge the kidnapping of one of their officers, but another is that Das Reich troops were angered by what they believed was theft of a large amount of gold by villagers.

President Gauck, a former East German human rights activist, has paid two other visits to the sites of Nazi mass killings in Europe - the Czech village of Lidice, near Prague, and the Italian hamlet of Sant'Anna di Stazzema in Tuscany.

In 1984, French President Francois Mitterrand and former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl joined hands while attending a memorial service for fallen soldiers at the World War I battlefield of Verdun.

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