German soldiers paraded down the famed Champs Elysees on Thursday, the 205th anniversary of the French Revolution, riding armored vehicles through the city for the first time since 1944 in a grand though controversial gesture of French and German reconciliation.
The 200 German troops, part of a new, five-nation Eurocorps commanded by German Gen. Helmut Willmann, joined 7,000 marchers in the annual military parade, passing in review before French President Francois Mitterrand, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and other visiting dignitaries.
"I felt a lot of emotions," Mitterrand, a Resistance leader during the 1940-44 Nazi occupation, said later. "But, most of all, I was happy that we are able to choose between the past and the future, and that we choose the future."
Mitterrand had invited Kohl and the Eurocorps to the annual Bastille Day festivities in hopes of ending, once and for all, the legacy of bitterness stemming from World War II. But the decision was sharply criticized by many in France, where it touched off emotional opposition from those who find it difficult to forgive the four-year Nazi occupation of this country.
German officials were deliberately not invited to commemorations last month of the 50th anniversary of the Allied D-day landings in Normandy.
But Mitterrand said the parade on Bastille Day--which marks the storming of a notorious prison, an event that launched the revolution against the monarchy--was the proper occasion for closing the book on the past.
The young German soldiers from the 294th Panzer Grenadier Battalion paraded as part of the Eurocorps contingent, made up of soldiers from Germany, France, Spain, Belgium and Luxembourg. The force will not be fully operational until October, 1995, officials say.
The Germans roared down the broad avenue, from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde, in armored vehicles bearing a black-and-white military cross that closely resembles the Iron Cross of World War II. A French military band played Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," the official Eurocorps anthem, as the multinational units arrived at the reviewing stand.
Thousands of onlookers lined the avenue on a warm, overcast day and greeted the procession with loud applause, an ovation repeated for two other crowd favorites, the French Foreign Legion and the Fire Brigade. Jet fighters sailed over the wide avenue, leaving trails of smoke in the blue, white and red colors of the French flag.
For most in France, especially those born after the war, the goodwill gesture was welcome. Recent opinion polls indicated that about two-thirds of the French public supported the invitation.
But many older French, especially those who had relatives killed by the Nazi war machine, grumbled. They said they see these German soldiers not as symbols of a future unified Europe but rather as descendants of a regime that nearly succeeded in stealing France from the French.
French Adm. Philippe de Gaulle, son of the late president and leader of Free France during the war, said he was opposed to the spectacle. "This is neither the place nor the date," he said.
The opposition cut across party lines, from the Communist Party to former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing to at least one minister in the current conservative government.
Charles Pasqua, minister of the interior and a former Resistance fighter, joined those arguing that it was too soon. "This is the 50th anniversary of the liberation," he said. "Next year would have been a better choice."
Mitterrand, 77, who was wounded and taken prisoner during the war, said he sympathized with Pasqua and remembered his own "profound sadness" when the Germans marched into Paris.
"But today, I feel joy at the thought that half a century has been enough to resolve the problems of two world wars," Mitterrand said. Pasqua and others were "thinking of the past," he added. "I am thinking of the future. We must think of Europe and we must prepare a united Europe. We can't spend our time lamenting the past."
Kohl appeared to be sensitive to the feelings of many in Europe during this year of World War II anniversaries. In a move welcomed by many in France, Kohl brought with him to the parade Thursday three sons of Germans executed for their links to the failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler in July, 1944.
Among the sons was Manfred Rommel, 65, the mayor of Stuttgart. His father, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, whose military genius was respected on both sides of the war, was forced to commit suicide by Hitler when his ties to the plotters were revealed.
Kohl said the invitation to appear here, half a century after the Nazi soldiers were driven from the city in defeat, was "a great gesture" and proof of French-German friendship and European cooperation. "Now, we are together, and that is fantastic," he said after the parade.
In an interview with the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper this week, Kohl recalled that "the last time German soldiers walked down the Champs Elysees, they were prisoners, they were spat and sworn at." As for those who opposed the German presence, Kohl said: "Those who don't understand how things have changed can't be helped."
But, for many of the old French Resistance fighters, the memories of the Nazi occupation are still as fresh as yesterday.
Four days after seizing Paris on June 14, 1940, the German army rolled down the Champs Elysees, as victorious French armies had for two centuries before; they goose-stepped down the street every day at noon during the occupation. The Allies arrived on the shores of Normandy on June 6, 1944, and Paris was liberated Aug. 23, 1944.
"I still have in front of my eyes the images of the Germans marching down the Champs Elysees in 1940," said Adam Raisky, an elderly man who wore a yellow star on his vest as a reminder of the Jews killed in World War II. "In my head, I can still hear the noise of their boots."
M. Laurent, a nurse in the French Resistance during the war, boycotted the parade this year. "I'm not going to watch it," she said. "It is scandalous. It makes me feel sick."
Times staff writer Marjorie Miller in Bonn contributed to this report.