Germany’s president opened a commemoration site for one of the last Nazi massacres of civilians, when more than 1,000 prisoners were shot or burnt to death in a barn.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier said a resurgence of “authoritarian and nationalist thought” underlined the importance of the new memorial at Gardelegen, 150 kilometers west of Berlin.
The site documents the forced march of 1,016 weakened concentration camp prisoners from the Mittelbau-Dora and Neuengamme camps ahead of the American advance in spring 1945 at the end of World War II.
Part of the convoy was herded into a stone barn near Gardelegen on April 13, 1945, where more than 100 Nazi troops — SS officers and Wehrmacht soldiers — mowed them down with machine guns and grenades and then set fire to the barn.
The prisoners were mainly non-Jewish forced laborers from across Europe.
US troops who arrived one day after the massacre forced townspeople to carry wooden crosses to the local cemetery and bury the charred bodies.
The ceremony had been planned for April, on the 75th anniversary of the massacre, but was postponed because of the coronavirus outbreak.
“The massacre here at Gardelegen was one of the last,” Steinmeier said in the presence of two survivors. “The American troops were just a few kilometers away.”
He said the victims “were among the hundreds of thousands of tortured people who thought they had escaped the hell of the camps. Many of them were sent to a new hell, the hell of the death marches.”
“The perpetrators must have heard the people in the barn calling for help, in Russian, Polish, French, Dutch, Hungarian, Italian,” he said.
“It is essential that we remember. That we safeguard the memory of crimes which many Germans, even today, know nothing about,” Steinmeier said, noting that the Nazis “killed until the last minute” of the war.
He expressed regret that so few people faced prosecution for the crimes committed in the final phase of the war, saying it was “shameful” that the main culprit escaped justice.
Gerhard Thiele, a local Nazi party leader, was accused by several witnesses of giving the order to burn down the barn.
He was arrested by the Americans in 1945 but was released for unknown reasons and lived for decades under an assumed name.