(cc) image from fintbo.
(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
On this date in 1944, four days after the Allied invasion of Normandy, an SS battalion from the 2nd SS Panzer Division massacred almost the entire village of Oradour-sur-Glane in west central France, slaughtering in all 642 people.
You can read all about this hecatomb and its aftermath on this very thorough and impressive website dedicated to the atrocity, from which much of the information in this account is drawn.
The tiny village, which you could walk through in all of ten minutes, had been the victim of mistaken identity.
Twenty miles away was a somewhat larger town with a similar name, Oradour-sur-Vayres, which was known for its Resistance activity. Adolf Diekmann, commander of the SS battalion, had been informed that the French Resistance had captured an SS officer (possibly the kidnapped Waffen-SS Sturmbahnfuhrer Helmut Kampfe, who had been executed by the Resistance earlier that same day) in Oradour-sur-Vayres and decided reprisals were needed, but he got the two villages mixed up and went to Oradour-sur-Glane instead.
When the SS arrived in the village at lunchtime, they ordered all the inhabitants to assemble in the fairground to have their papers checked. Everyone had to come, including children and the sick. Six people who were not residents but happened to be in the village at the time were also sent to the fairground.
Twenty villagers who had some compelling reason to avoid the Nazis, or merely had a bad feeling about the whole thing, hid or left the village as soon as the SS division showed up. These twenty survived. One seven-year-old boy, Roger Godfrin, was spotted and shot at, but survived by playing dead. He was the only survivor in his family, and the youngest survivor from the town.
The women and children were locked in the village church, and the men were lead to barns and sheds where the machine guns were set up. They were shot in their lower bodies and legs, in order to prolong their deaths. One of the men, who’d lost a leg in World War I, supposedly cried out, “Those bastards! They have cut my other leg off!”
After the shooting, as the men of Oradour-sur-Glane lay helpless, the SS men locked the sheds and set them on fire.
Only six men were able to escape. They hid in some rabbit hutches for several hours before attempting to escape the village. Five of them made it, but Pierre-Henri Poutaraud was spotted later that day and shot dead. The SS man who shot him then tethered a horse to Poutaraud’s outstretched hand.
In all, 190 men were killed.
The SS division then went back to the church, set off a smoke bomb inside it, and set the building on fire. Anyone who tried to get out of the church was machine-gunned. One woman cried out that she was German, not French, and begged to be released, but the SS shoved her back into the flames.
47-year-old Marguerite Rouffanche was able to slip out the back window, and another woman followed her with her seven-month-old baby, but all three of them were shot and only Marguerite survived, hiding in a garden for more than 24 hours until help arrived. Her two daughters were killed. (Marguerite refused to leave Oradour after the massacre. She remained there for the rest of her ninety-one years and is now buried in the village cemetery.)
The church fire and shootings claimed the lives of 247 children and 205 women.
Children from the village’s girl’s school, in the 1942-1943 school year. All of these girls were killed in the massacre.
Unbeknownst to the Nazis, there were several Jews living in the village, among them five children between the ages of eight and fifteen. Twelve of them were killed. In the case of a Jewish family called Pinede, the parents decided to present themselves for inspection but told their three children to hide. The children survived; their parents did not. One of those three Jewish survivors was still alive as of 2004.
Several days passed for the 26 survivors were permitted to bury their dead. Only 52 of the bodies could be identified; the other ones were burned too badly to be recognizable.
Collective punishment in reprisal for the actions of others was par for the course in Nazi-occupied Europe, and Adolf Diekmann had directed his unit to commit a number of mass shootings. Even so, he didn’t have authorization for the bloody events at Oradour-sur-Glane and his commanding officer requested for a court-martial, saying, “I cannot allow the regiment to be charged with something like this.” Field Marshal Erwin Rommel supposedly volunteered to preside over the court-martial himself.
But before that could happen, the war took care of Diekmann: he was killed on the Normandy front on June 19, hit in the head with shrapnel, a mere nine days after his last atrocity. The front, in fact, took care of most of his unit: only 65 of the 200 members survived the war.
In 1953 in Bordeaux, a military tribunal convened to hear the case against the surviving members of the 2nd Panzer Division. Only 22 of them were present in the courtroom; the others were in East Germany, which refused to extradite them. All but one said they’d been conscripted into the SS; one of them admitted he’d joined voluntarily to fight Communism.
To further complicate matters, 15 of the defendants present were actually French nationals of German descent, from Alsace-Moselle, and 14 of them claimed they’d been drafted against their wishes.
(After they conquered France, Germany declared inhabitants of Alsace to be German citizens whether they wanted to be or not, and drafted the region’s men. The conscripts were known in France as Malgre-nous, meaning literally “despite ourselves.”)
In addition, eight of the French defendants had been under the age of 18 when they were drafted into the SS, making them minors under French law. Many French people, including some of the survivors of Oradour-sur-Glane, viewed the Alsatian conscripts as fellow-victims of Nazi Germany and didn’t believe they should be held responsible for their actions.
Most of the defendants were cagey.
They implicated each other, but not themselves, admitting to some specific offenses but denying other, far more serious ones. One man, for example, said he’d been part of an execution squad that shot 20 men, but insisted he’d only helped load the machine guns and hadn’t personally shot anyone. Another said he hadn’t been in Oradour-sur-Glane at all, but was stationed as a sentry outside the village to prevent escapes. Only one of the defendants had admitted to killing anyone at all prior to the trial.
Twelve members of the victims’ families came to watch the trial proceedings, including an eight-year-old girl whose father and grandfather had been killed. Marguerite Rouffanche was ill at the time of the trial and very weak, but she showed up anyway and testify about her experience. Roger Godfrin, the little boy who played dead, also testified.
The tribunal’s judge demanded the defendants view photographs of the charred corpses of the victims, saying, “Let them look at the glorious work of the valiant Third Company of Der Führer Regiment.”
When the prosecutor summed up the case, he referred to the defendants’ evasive statements and said, “You might as well say despite the heaps of ashes and ruins, that the massacre never took place. But the people of Oradour are dead.”
The tribunal deliberated for thirty-two hours before returning its verdicts. One of the defendants was able to prove he hadn’t been in Oradour-sur-Glane the day of the killings, and was acquitted. The rest were convicted.
The 46 members of the SS unit who hadn’t shown up for trial were sentenced to death in absentia, as was one of the German nationals and one of the French. The others got various prison sentences, mostly between five and eight years, none exceeding twelve years. The Germans tended to get longer prison terms than the French. In addition, the Germans were prohibited from residing in France for at least twenty years.
Survivors of the Oradour-sur-Glane massacre.
No one in France was happy with the tribunal’s ruling: some said the sentences were too harsh, others, too lenient. In the face of widespread protests from the Alsace area and threats to secede from France, the French National Assembly passed a bill granting amnesty to all Malgre-nous (at a vote of 319 to 211, with a whopping 83 abstentions) and 13 of the 14 Frenchmen were released only eight days after the verdict was rendered. (One of them, the one who had volunteered for the SS, got no sympathy from anyone and no such leniency.)
Germany was upset, saying it was unfair to pardon the French SS but not the Germans. But within five years, everyone had been freed. No one was actually executed.
In 1981, East German authorities tracked down Heinz Barth, a second lieutenant in the 2nd Panzer Division, and put him on trial in their country for his role in the Oradour-sur-Glane Massacre.
He never tried to deny his participation in the attack, and used the old “just following orders” defense, saying, “In war one acts harshly and with the means available.” Barth admitted he helped round up the village men and personally shot fifteen times into the crowd. He also acknowledged responsibility for the deaths of nearly 100 people in Czechoslovakia.
Barth was convicted in 1983 and sentenced to life in prison. In 1991, still behind bars, he was awarded a pension as a “war victim” because he’d been wounded in Normandy in August 1944 and lost a leg. The resulting howls of protest led the government of a newly reunited Germany to pass a law stripping convicted war criminals of their pensions.
Barth was released from prison in 1997, and managed to finagle his war pension back somehow. He died of cancer ten years later, at the age of 86.
Marguerite Rouffanche died in 1988. Her fellow-survivor Roger Godfrin died in 2004.
The survivors of Oradour-sur-Glane created a new village after the war, but the burned-out ruins of the old village remain, with rusted cars, sewing machines, bicycles and other personal items lying in plain sight on the street, a grim testimony to what happened there nearly seventy years ago.