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Schroeder: D-Day symbol of freedom, not defeat

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said on Tuesday the D-Day landings liberated Germany as well as France from Nazi tyranny and said the date symbolized freedom rather than victory or defeat.
/ Source: Reuters

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said on Tuesday the D-Day landings liberated Germany as well as France from Nazi tyranny and said the date symbolized freedom rather than victory or defeat.

Schroeder will be the first German leader to attend the anniversary in Normandy on Sunday of the invasion that hastened the end of the Nazi regime and World War Two. He told Reuters he wanted to pay tribute to 60 years of reconciliation.

“France was liberated from German occupation and we Germans from the Nazi tyranny,” Schroeder told Reuters in response to written queries ahead of the commemorations in France on Sunday.

“This day is much more than victory or defeat. It has become a symbol of the struggle for freedom, democracy and human rights. It is only right that we Germans take part.”

Schroeder, who was only two months old when Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy, said he was honored at the invitation from French President Jacques Chirac.

“It’s a generous and moving gesture for which I’m very grateful and whose historic importance cannot be overestimated,” Schroeder said. “This invitation shows the post-war period is over and done for good.”

Ex-Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s older brother was wounded in Normandy combat and later died. Kohl revealed this week he had made it clear to France he did not want to be invited -- even though West Germany, and later reunited Germany, was a close postwar ally of the United States, Britain and France.

'Great Honor'
None of Schroeder’s predecessors attended anniversary ceremonies -- in part because some Germans long viewed D-Day as a calamitous military defeat.

Some 132,500 Allied troops stormed ashore on June 6, 1944 to drive German forces out of France. About 8,000 German soldiers were killed on D-Day and some 4.5 million in the war.

But sentiment has shifted in recent decades and most Germans now view the Nazi defeat as their country’s liberation.

A survey published in Der Spiegel news magazine on Monday found 71 percent of Germans believe it is right for a German leader to take part in the D-Day commemoration.

“Personally I regard it is a great honor to be the first German Chancellor to be asked to take part,” Schroeder said.

“I accepted on behalf of all those who over the last 60 years have devoted their energy to reconciliation, forgiveness and cooperation.”

Relations between Schroeder and Chirac have grown close in recent years, especially as both leaders were ostracized by the United States for their opposition to war in Iraq.

“The commemorative events in Normandy will pay tribute to the Allied soldiers who gave their lives for Europe’s freedom,” Schroeder said.

“But the decision to invite the German Chancellor for the first time is also in keeping with the spirit of partnership which Germany has enjoyed on both sides of the Atlantic.”

Schroeder, who had made it clear in 1998 when first elected that he wanted to distance himself from Germany’s turbulent past and pointedly did not take part in ceremonies marking the end of World War One, shed that reluctance to toast ever-closer ties.

“The Allied landing was not only the turning point of the war in the west but also the starting point for today’s Europe,” he said. “The European Union is the best guarantor of peace.”

Schroeder never knew his father, who was killed in combat in Romania at the age of 32, four months after D-Day. He first saw a black and white picture of Corporal Fritz Schroeder in army uniform three years ago and was struck by the resemblance.

“I was born in 1944 so I don’t remember the war,” he said. “But I lost my father, whom I never knew, in the war and thus it touched me in a very personal way.”