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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