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German Chancellor to Attend D-Day Commemorations for First Time This Year - 2004-06-05

When, on Sunday, the leaders of the countries that fought Nazi Germany in World War II commemorate the 60th anniversary of the D-day landings that eventually led to Hitler's defeat, they will be joined for the first time by a German chancellor. Gerhard Schroeder's presence signals that the enemies of 1944 have finally reconciled.

French President Jacques Chirac says the reason he invited Mr. Schroeder to take part in Sunday's ceremonies was to stress what he described as the community of values that unite democracies and transcend yesterday's rivalries. Mr. Schroeder, himself, has repeatedly stated that the D-Day landings led to the liberation of Germany, as well as France, from Nazi tyranny, and that the date symbolizes freedom, rather than victory or defeat.

How times have changed. Only 10 years ago, the French refused to invite then-German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, because his presence could have offended the aging allied veterans who survived D-Day.

Some veterans still object to the German leader's presence. But others are more forgiving, saying many German soldiers were only doing their duty and fought bravely.

Mr. Schroeder will keep a low profile Sunday. He will go to a British cemetery to pay homage to Commonwealth and German soldiers lying side-by-side. But he will avoid the biggest German graveyard in the area, because many of the 21,000 soldiers buried there were from the Nazis' hated SS units.

For many years, Germans viewed D-Day as a calamitous defeat. But public opinion polls over the past 15, or so, years show that Germans are becoming comfortable with the idea that they, too, were liberated by allied troops.

Mr. Schroeder told a French interviewer this week that the D-Day landing was not only the turning point of the war, but also the starting point for European integration.

A video presentation at the big German cemetery extols the need for reconciliation and understanding. The soldiers' graves, says a plaque, are the greatest preachers of peace. That fits into the deep streak of pacifism that has developed in Germany over the years, which made it one of the most outspoken opponents of the Iraq War.

Wilhelm von Landsberg, who, as a young German officer fought the allies in Normandy, sees the 60th anniversary of D-Day as a chance for veterans like himself to get together with their former enemies. But he also says it represents a reminder of war's futility.

"I hope it will be a very good possibility to remember and to warn," he said.

In France, too, the presence of a German leader at the D-Day ceremonies could mean that the country is finally coming to terms with its own past.

After the war, the French wreaked vengeance on young women who had affairs with German soldiers, and on the children born from those liaisons. Such actions were a way of sweeping away inconvenient memories of collaboration with the occupier.

But anti-German bitterness took a long time to go away. Hans Flindt was one of an estimated 40,000 German soldiers who never went home after D-Day. When he was released from an allied prisoner-of-war camp, he stayed on in Normandy and married a local girl. But he told an oral history gathering at the Caen War Memorial that his life in France had not been easy.

"The atmosphere in the beginning was brutal," he said. "There were many who didn't understand. They called us 'krauts.' It doesn't mean very much, unless someone adds the word 'dirty krauts.' "

His wife, Marie-Therese, told how her family disowned her for marrying Hans. The young couple was shunned by neighbors.

"Believe me, it was difficult," said Marie-Therese. "Here I am, married to a German, who only three years earlier was the enemy. Even our daughter suffered from remarks. The kids were never invited to local events."

Hans Flindt gradually made friends by helping his neighbors, and Marie-Therese eventually patched things up with her family.

Chancellor Schroeder says his presence on the invasion beaches Sunday is a sign that Europe is moving on, and is a fresh confirmation that Germany is being treated as a normal nation again.