Last week marked the seventieth anniversary of D-Day; I'm sure you heard about it. Another 70th anniversary that probably didn't get much publicity outside of France took place four days later in a little village in the Limousin. The opening paragraph of Sarah Farmer's book, Martyred Village, tells the brief yet complete story of what happened:
Among German crimes of the Second World War, the massacre of 642 women, children and men of Oradour-sur-Glane by SS soldiers on June 10, 1944 is one of the most notorious. On that Saturday afternoon, four days after the Allied landings on Normandy, SS troops encircled the town of Oradour in the rolling farm country of the Limousin and rounded up its inhabitants. In the marketplace they divided the men from the women and children. The men were marched off to nearby barns and shot. The soldiers locked the women and children in the church, shot them, and set the building (and then the rest of the town) on fire. Those residents of Oradour who had been away for the day, or had managed to escape the roundup, returned to a blackened scene of horror, carnage, and devastation.
To this day nobody really knows why and the story of the massacre and its aftermath, like many in wartime France, involves some unpleasant realities for the French. The destruction of the town and its inhabitants is thought to have been part of the wider German policy of terrorizing civilians to discourage them from helping the resistance, or the maquis, as they were known. But, although the maquis had been active in the Limousin, they hadn't had a presence in Oradour. Locals we talked to in nearby Rouchechouart believe it might have been mistaken for Oradour-sur-Vayres, less than 20 miles south. According to local legend, the SS troops involved (the Der Fuhrer regiment of the Das Reich division) left for Oradour from a Rouchechouart cafe and, believing the town to be relatively prosperous, it presented a good target for looting. Whatever the reason, when they left almost every inhabitant of the town was dead and the buildings were burning.
Exacerbating the overall senselessness of this atrocity is this part of France, even today, is populated mainly by sheep and cows. It was and is off the beaten track and was little affected by the war. It had no military significance and the survivors of Oradour claimed they never saw a German soldier before June 10, 1944.
After the liberation, efforts to track down and punish those responsible were thwarted by the fact that at least half the people involved were subsequently killed in Normandy. That the criminals included Alsatians further complicated things and added to the postwar divisions and recriminations associated with collaboration.
Steps were taken almost immediately to preserve the ruins as they were as a memorial to those slaughtered. It didn't make sense to most people to rebuild the town since almost every resident was now dead. After DeGaulle visited the site in March 1945, the efforts were assured and the town was declared a historic monument in 1946. The French government awarded the victims the Croix de Guerre in 1947 and the Association Nationale de Familles des Martyrs d'Oradour-sur-Glane was awarded the croix de la Légion d'honneur in 1949.
Some of the perpetrators were finally brought to trail in Bordeaux in 1953 and the results satisfied no one. Some of the surviving SS troops turned out to be out of reach of French authorities in East Germany, who refused to hand them over. And in the interests of postwar reconciliation, efforts to produce the others met with resistance so they tried the only ones they could get their hands on. Those 21 former SS troops, the highest ranking being a sergeant, included 7 Germans who had already been in French custody and 14 Alsatians - citizens of France.
In Alsace, which had been forcibly annexed into the Reich in 1940, there was outrage that these men were being prosecuted in the first place. All but one were malgré-nous (translated as against our will) who had been conscripted into the Wehrmacht and transferred to the SS. When the verdicts were finally handed down, one German who had proved his absence was acquitted, the sergeant and an Alsatian volunteer were sentenced to death and the rest were given prison sentences of varying degrees, none longer than 12 years. Shortly after the sentences were passed, the National Assembly, citing a desire for national unity and reconciliation, passed a law declaring amnesty for the Alsatians. It was the people of the Limousin's turn to be outraged. The Oradour survivors gave back their croix de guerre, their croix de la Legion d'honneur and the plaque General DeGaulle placed in the village cemetery in 1945. They refused to invite anyone from the government to commemorations for over 20 years.
Anyone visiting Oradour-sur-Glane hasn't just happened upon it. It is not on any major tourist route or near any major attractions. 89% of the visitors are French and the rest are almost all Dutch and British on their way to Dordogneshire. Cynthia and I have been there twice. Both times the weather was rainy and cold so we had the place nearly to ourselves. An original planner of the site said that one of their goals would be to preserve the ruins in a way that the visitor "will have been given the opportunity to feel the invisible presence of the houses' inhabitants." This is exactly how it feels. And despite knowing that almost all of the household items and other objects have been deliberately placed (included a car presented as being where the local doctor left it) doesn't detract from the feeling. The bullet marks in the church are all too real. Cynthia's blog post on our visit conveys the feeling of the place a lot better than I can.
I would urge everyone visiting France to make an effort to visit Oradour-sur-Glane. This didn't happen all that long ago and apart from the 12 years of the Third Reich, Germany's always been considered one of the most civilized places on earth. There's still some value in remembering all this.
There's a lot of information on the web about Oradour, including a site in English and an English Wikipedia entry that has some information on the aftermath and efforts to punish the criminals. Here are a couple of moving videos in English from YouTube, another good source.