As I walk up the first road, I think of Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann, the 2nd Panzer Division’s battalion commander. In June 1944, his division had been rushing northward to repulse the D-Day landings, but their progress was hindered by constant attacks from the French Resistance. Frustrated by the delay, Field Marshal Hugo Sperrle issued orders allowing drastic reprisals against any French partisans caught attacking German forces. Diekmann might have thought that people from Oradour-sur-Glane were involved in the kidnapping of his close friend, Maj. Helmut Kämpfe. Or maybe he had mistaken the village for Oradour-sur-Vayre, a well-armed Resistance stronghold only twenty miles away. But then again, maybe innocent Oradour-sur-Glane was chosen for reprisal because its inhabitants would not put up a fight.
Some, like eight-year-old Roger Godfrin, did manage to turn and run. Godfrin climbed through a window in the back of the school, fled, and then played dead when a soldier shot at him, not uttering a sound even when the soldier kicked him. But as I pass one of Oradour’s three schoolhouses I think of the children who didn’t escape. By the bakery is an oven and a sign reading, “Here were found two burnt corpses.” One of them was an infant.
Few objects survived the fires. As I walk by the houses, I notice that typically, the only reminder that a family once lived there is a cast-iron sewing machine. There are many burned and rusted sewing machines. A few old signs also managed to outlast the blazes; one advertises automobiles. Just down the road is the garage that was owned by Hubert Desourteaux, where some of the male villagers were taken before they died. Among the signs from long ago are contemporary ones, in French, that identify the burnt-out structures. The one at the garage reads, “Here is a place of torment. A group of men were murdered and then burned by the Nazis. You should remember this.”
Halfway through the village, I come to the church where the women and children were killed. There are bullet holes in the sign at the entrance, and the brass bell from the tower is now lying on the ground, melted from the heat of the fires.
How could anyone have done this? Even the SS, known for its ruthlessness, did not normally kill non-Jewish civilians indiscriminately in the west. When Sylvester Stadler, the commander of Diekmann’s regiment, found out about the massacre, he recommended that Diekmann be court-martialed. Gen. Heinz Lammerding, Das Reich division commander, concurred, but since experienced officers were urgently needed at the front—and since Resistance activity in the area had quieted down noticeably after the killings—the matter was not pursued.
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