A visibly emotional German president laid a wreath Friday at a monument in northwestern Greece to villagers massacred by German soldiers during World War II, at the end of a three-day visit that combined political talks with efforts to bring closure to wounds from the German wartime occupation of Greece.
Joachim Gauck expressed "shame" at the 1943 atrocity at Ligiades, where Nazi troops executed dozens of villagers, including months-old babies, in reprisal for a partisan attack: "With shame and pain I ask the families of those murdered for forgiveness in Germany's name."
The German president emphased: "I pay my respects to the victims of the monstrous crimes mourned here and in many places across Greece."
He was accompanied by Greek President Karolos Papoulias, a resistance fighter as a teenager who comes from the nearby town of Ioannina.
Anti-German sentiment has increased in Greece in recent years, as Berlin – the largest single contributor to Greece's bailout – has been one of the most ardent proponents of austerity measures imposed in return for billions of euros in rescue loans.
That resentment has fuelled growing calls for Germany to pay Greece reparations for the brutal 1941-44 occupation and restitution for a forced wartime loan to Germany.
After the wreath-laying ceremony, about a dozen people at Ligiades unfurled a banner reading "reparations and justice," and chanted "justice, justice."
In a speech in honor of Gauck Thursday night, Papoulias said he could not understand the German government's refusal to discuss Greek reparation claims. Germany insists the issue was laid to rest in the 1960s with a repayment which it considers to have settled all claims – a position Gauck stood by.
An official assessment of what sum Greece could demand is pending. But pro-reparations activists quote the sum of $223 billion, about half the financially distressed country's national debt. Papoulias said the issue "casts a pall" over the two countries' relations.
Separately, Greece's largest Jewish community, in the northern city of Thessaloniki, said last week it has taken Germany to Europe's top human rights court seeking the return of a massive ransom paid to Nazi Germany to free thousands of Jewish slave laborers. Despite the payment, those who had been press-ganged into construction projects across Greece were sent to Nazi death camps.
Berlin has rejected that bid too.
About 96 percent of Thessaloniki's 50,000 Jews perished in the camps.