France is a pretty country full of pretty little villages. But Oradour- sur-Glane is not pretty.
On June 10, 1944, the 2nd Waffen SS Panzer Division Das Reich, 1st Battalion, stormed this village in the Limousin region of southwestern France, sealed off every exit, and then systematically dragged every man, woman, and child to the village square for what they termed an “identity check.” They separated the men from the women and children, shooting anyone who resisted. Then they killed the women and children in the church by asphyxiating them with a smoke bomb. Those who did not die quickly enough were shot. In other buildings, they mowed down the men with machine guns. The Nazi troops trampled over the prostrate bodies, shooting at close range any who moved; then they burned the buildings and bodies. Oradour-sur Glane had been wiped out.
Wiped out, but not forgotten. Just a few months later, France was liberated, and when Gen. Charles de Gaulle visited the site he declared that Oradour-sur-Glane should be left as it was. The ruined village remains unreconstructed today, its burned buildings and rusted automobile remnants serving as a memorial to the victims.
Though Oradour-sur-Glane is well known among the French, not many tourists are aware of it. You’ll find few American honeymooners there; nor will you see the typical youth hostel crowd. What I did see were busloads of French students, for whom a visit to Oradour is a rite of passage. Like them, I started my visit at the Centre de la Mémoire, a museum featuring displays on the rise of Nazism and a short film. Most of the information is in French but some of it, including the film, is translated into English.
The museum is informative, but the destroyed village speaks for itself. A large sign reading “SILENCE” greets visitors at the entrance to the town. Even the nervous French students obey this command; we are too shocked by what we see to talk.
The streets of Oradour-sur-Glane are lined with building after burned-down building. There are roofless stone structures with broken-down walls, wires hanging limply from leaning telephone poles. Charred car remains, their metal frames twisted, tires burned off, and insides burned out, litter the ground.
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 con temporary 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.
Justice was not done after the war either. Though the remaining members of the 1st Battalion were put on trial by the French for war crimes, many of the soldiers were from Alsace, a border region that had changed hands between France and Germany numerous times in the past. At the end of the Second World War, the French regained control of Alsace. In an effort to bond Alsatians back to France, the government granted amnesty from war crimes prosecution to any Frenchman who had fought for the Germans, and the 1st Battalion Alsatians were released from prison. A walk into Oradour’s cemetery reveals that the victims’ relatives, as a protest against the government, have deliberately not allowed the victims’ remains to be buried in the official crypt.
As I walk out of the ruined village, still silent, I think again of the six hundred forty-two people who were killed and then burned. Two hundred five were children.
Then I notice that one of the French boys in the still-silent group of school children ahead of me has vomited on the floor of the restroom. By seeing the actual ruins of war, perhaps he and his class mates, like me, have been affected more deeply than by seeing the typical statues and monuments. I know I will never forget what I saw at Oradour-sur-Glane.
Originally published in the July 2008 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.