VERDUN, France — In solemn ceremonies Sunday in the forests of eastern France, French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel marked 100 years since the Battle of Verdun, determined to show that, despite the bloodbath of World War I, their countries’ improbable friendship is now a source of hope for today’s fractured Europe.
The 10-month battle at Verdun — the longest in World War I — killed 163,000 French and 143,000 German soldiers and wounded hundreds of thousands of others.
Between February and December 1916, an estimated 60 million shells were fired in the battle. One out of four didn’t explode. The front line villages destroyed in the fighting were never rebuilt. The battlefield zone still holds millions of unexploded shells, making the area so dangerous that housing and farming are still forbidden.
With no survivors left to remember, Sunday’s commemorations were focused on educating youth about the horrors and consequences of the war.
The main ceremony took place at a mass grave where, in 1984, then-French President Francois Mitterrand took then-German Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s hand in a breakthrough moment of friendship and trust by longtime enemy nations.
“This gesture said more than any words,” Merkel stressed in her speech at the Douaumont Ossuary, a memorial to 130,000 unidentified French and German soldiers.
She said the dead of Verdun were “victims of bigotry and nationalism, of blindness and political failure” and the best way to commemorate them is to bear in mind “the lessons that Europe drew from the catastrophes of the 20th century — the ability and willingness to recognize how necessary it is not to seal ourselves off but to be open to each other.”
Merkel added that “the common challenges of the 21st century can only be dealt with together.”
Hollande has called for the “protection of our common house, Europe.” He warned that the “time needed to destroy it would be much shorter than the long time it took to build it.”
Amid rising support for far right parties and divisions among European countries over how to handle refugees, he said Europe’s role is “to fight against terrorism, fanaticism, radicalization” and at the same time to “welcome populations who are fleeing massacres.”
About 4,000 French and German children re-enacted battlefield scenes to the sound of drums amid thousands of white crosses marking the graves —falling on the ground in a moving evocation of death, and getting back up as a symbol of hope, in a ceremony conceived by German filmmaker Volker Schloendorff.
Hollande and Merkel rekindled the flame of remembrance and gave each other a hug inside the Douaumont Ossuary.
They spent the entire day together. In the morning, he welcomed his German counterpart under heavy rain at the German cemetery of Consenvoye, near Verdun, where 11,148 German soldiers are buried. They laid a wreath, accompanied by four German and French children, and walked side by side for few minutes in the cemetery, sharing an umbrella.
After lunch, they were visiting the newly renovated Verdun Memorial. The museum, which reopened in February, immerses visitors in the “hell of Verdun” through soldiers’ belongings, documents and photos, and from its new rooftop, they can observe the battlefield.
“The visit follows the steps of the soldiers. First reaching the front, moving into shell holes, fighting, surviving on the front line, the daily life,” said historian Antoine Prost.
Verdun has become a common place of remembrance because “it’s a place of massive death equivalent for the French and the Germans,” Prost added.