The Oradour-sur-Glane massacre: life and death of a French village

Oradour-sur-Glane-Bundesarchiv

Oradour-sur-Glane, photograph from Bundesarchiv

On the 10th of June 1944, four days after D-Day, the SS regiment Der Führer, belonging to the division Das Reich, quartered in south-eastern France, is getting ready to leave for Normandy to fight the Allied landing. Nearby stands the quiet village of Oradour-sur-Glane. The SS first surround it and then proceed to gather the inhabitants on the fairgrounds. Those too frail or elderly to move quickly are shot on the spot. Soon the men, in groups of  thirty or so, are taken to various locations within the village, while the women and children are locked into the church.

The men are machine-gunned, at leg level. Some are still alive when the piles of bodies are covered with straw and set on fire. Then the SS turn their attention to the women and children.

A box of explosives is detonated within the church, but the roof does not collapse as expected. So the SS come in with machine guns and hand grenades to finish the job. Again they spread straw on the bodies of the dead and wounded alike, and set them on fire. The whole church is ablaze. A woman, Madame Rouffanche, whose daughter lies dead by her side, clambers over the corpses, seizes a step ladder used to light candles and manages to climb out from a window, the stained glass of which has been blown off. She falls three yards but is unhurt. She realizes she is followed by another woman, who throws her baby to her through the broken window and jumps in turn. All three flee, but the infant’s cries attract the attention of the SS, who mow them down. The baby and its mother are killed. Madame Rouffanche, with only a bullet wound, crawls away and hides in a nearby garden. Of the hundreds of women and children locked in the church, she is the sole survivor. But her husband, her daughter and sons, and her infant grandchild have all perished in the massacre.

The SS can now turn their attention to the thorough looting of the village. In particular they pillage the wine store and celebrate this glorious day by emptying bottles of champagne at the sound of  an accordion. They leave late that night, after setting whatever remains of the place on fire. They will come back two days later, to bury bodies in an attempt to at least partially erase the traces of the massacre.

What happened to the murderers? Many, including the commanding officer, are killed in Normandy during the following weeks. Alsatians who had been forcibly enrolled into the SS, are sentenced to prison terms after World War II but later pardoned. Obersturmführer (Lieutenant) Heinz Barth is sentenced to death in absentia by a French Court, but manages to hide in what is then East Germany under a false identity. He is finally caught in 1981, receives a life sentence and is paroled in 1997, with a pension as “war victim”. The strangest turn of all is that some Nazi apologists and other revisionists have claimed that the massacre was fully justified by the presence of Résistance fighters within or near the village.

Here is an excellent montage of photographs of Oradour, before, after and today. WARNING: it briefly shows gruesome pictures of charred bodies.

Why did I post this? Not to nurse stale hatreds, but to fulfill a devoir de mémoire, a duty of memory. Atrocities such as these still happen across the world, though we, ensconced in the comforts of our sheltered lives, may find it convenient to ignore them.

Souviens-toi, as they say in Oradour. Remember.

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10 Comments to “The Oradour-sur-Glane massacre: life and death of a French village”

  1. Hi Catherine,

    I’m a french citizen, musician and I recently worked with one of my friends Pascal Lemoine on a video clip about Oradour-sur-Glane. I found your post (even if this is an old one) and I wanted to share this film with you as we are all concerned by this duty of memory!
    I hope you will enjoy this video. Our aim was to propose a new vision of this massacre to try to move the young people and make them feel more concerned about such tragedies.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WWJoSyG0QV0&feature=g-high-u

    Don’t hesitate to leave a comment!
    Cheers,
    Jean-Christophe
    (PS: I wrote in English for of your english speaking readers but I know that you were born in France :))

  2. N Patterson says:

    Your memorial presentation was beautifully photographed and arranged for maximum effect! It will hopefully to be an inspiration for humanity “to do better” in times of war.

  3. Don, both the Omaha Beach Cemetery and the Pointe de Hoc are places of extraordinary natural beauty, in addition to their historical significance. I included them in my first novel, Mistress of the Revolution, to introduce my heroine to the wonder of Normandy seascapes. They have an uplifting, not mournful feel to them, in spite of the horrendous death toll on D-Day. Both places have been granted in perpetuity to the United States, and they are American territories.
    Oradour is another thing altogether. There we are faced with evil. About your comment re: women, they still made up more than 10% of the Resistance troops. Still not a shadow of an excuse for the wholesale, indiscriminate, gratuitous massacre of innocents. Peering into the minds of the perpetrators is indeed a terrifying experience. God have mercy on them, as you say.
    I wish you a great trip to France!

  4. Don B. says:

    I intend to visit, finally, the Normandy area of France this May to visually educate myself of the D-Day Invasion. I will visit the American Cemetery and Point De Hoc and other historical sites. I had thought about going to Oradour but after viewing the short video, know that I cannot do it. I would not be able to walk among those ruins and try to comprehend the madness that occurred there. I cannot understand how humans can treat other humans in this way. Even if it was a site for possible Resistance fighters, the women and children would not be a part of it. May God have mercy on the souls of the soldiers that committed these acts.

  5. Ken Driver says:

    One of these days I will visit this village once I retire.
    My grandfather fought the Germans at the Somme and elsewhere in France and thank God he survived the slaughter.
    It makes me proud to think that my father who was in RAF Bomber Command, flew over Germany and more than once his aircraft attacked and bombed the hell out of several German Military barracks. My mother also served in the RAF during WW2 and I also served in the RAF for over 27 years.

    Let use never forget that evil begets evil.

  6. Penny Klein says:

    Thank you for this Catherine. I had wondered if you would do
    something for D Day. I am glad you chose this. In my culture, it is a
    more than a duty to remember, (Hebrew infinitive Zachor).

  7. Thanks for the link, Richard! It is not complete, though. For instance, in the days that followed D-Day, 250 political prisoners were massacred by the SS in the jail of Caen:
    http://clioweb.free.fr/camps/fusilles.htm

  8. Richard says:

    First, thanks for the link. Second, these photos are a catharsis for me in my journey to overcome my traumatic shock. There are still things which I will not view. Any tyranny is hateful and the SS where among the most hateful of all. Hate means you would rather see someone dead: it is a real and perhaps necessary ingredient in combat. Oradour was not combat it was revenge. Revisionist can never justify this any more than people my age can justify Mai Lai.

    There were many massacres at this time perpertrated at the same time. Canada suffered as well from the SS. 20 Cnadian Soldiers captured were executed at the Abbaye Ardenne by the SS.

    A short list of massacres inflicted by the SS in western France may be found at
    http://members.iinet.net.au/~gduncan/massacres.html

    I my poor French…

    Oradour!
    J’ai froid au coeur, quand je pense à que vous avez donné France, votre sang, votre libertie, votre vie. Je ne vous oublierai pas.

  9. Yes, Matterhorn, and from the perpetrators’ standpoint, a horrible crime.

  10. Matterhorn says:

    What an appalling tragedy!

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