Oradour-sur-Glane: “a place of endless mourning”

Europe’s collective amnesia about its human atrocities and refugee flows is becoming more pronounced. Here's why it’s vital to remember them.

Ian Bancroft
26 February 2016

Sign at the entrance to the village of Oradour-sur-Glane in France. Credit: Ian Bancroft. All rights reserved.

On 10th June 1944, Nazi forces surrounded and then besieged the village of Oradour-sur-Glane in France, rounding-up and murdering 642 men, women and children. This was one of the largest mass murders by the occupying German forces. It was described by the perpetrators as an “exemplary action”; a surprise attack possibly designed to discourage would-be resistance fighters and their communities. The devastated village, near Limoges, became a permanent monument to the massacre thanks to a decree by French President, Charles de Gaulle, and today stands as a vivid reminder of the horrors of war.

The hilly, forested landscape of Limousin, replete with its isolated farms, provided an ideal setting for resistance fighters, especially as opposition mounted to the Vichy Regime of Marshal Philippe Pétain. Its capital Limoges was ultimately dubbed the “capital of the Resistance”. The memorial centre at Oradour relays some of the remarkable stories of resistance by courageous individuals such as Georges Guingouin—prefect of the Maquis of Limousin, a group of rural guerrillas spearheading the resistance—who was dubbed the “the madman of the woods.”

On 7th June 1944, the Resistance captured Tulle, a village near Oradour-Sur-Glane. The response of the 2nd SS Panzer Division "Das Reich" deployed in Limousin was swift and devastating. In the reprisals that followed, 99 civilians were hung and 149 deported to Dachau. Oradour-sur-Glane, however, was not renowned for resistance activity, unlike nearby Oradour-sur-Vayres, leading some to assert a case of mistaken identity.

Other hypotheses have been advanced for why Oradour-sur-Glane was targeted. Helmut Kämpfe, a major in the Waffen SS, was captured by the Resistance on June 9th, and subsequently found dead—either executed upon Guingoin’s orders or killed whilst trying to escape. The attack on Oradour-sur-Glane is therefore deemed by some to have been an act of revenge for Kämpfe’s death. Whatever the motive, the despicable crimes committed in Oradour bore all the hallmarks of the Nazi’s vicious campaign on the Eastern Front, where most of the soldiers involved had already left their mark.

Today the tram tracks with their overhead power lines still guide visitors down the main street—past the Avril Hotel, Denis’s wine store and the Beaulieu workshop—towards Champ de Foire (Oradour’s fairground), where the car of Doctor Desourteaux has sat abandoned for over seventy years. Here the village’s male population was rounded-up to be executed. A little further on, beyond the Girls' school and Desourteaux's garage, is the roofless Catholic Church where some 450 women and children were slain. The ferocity of the killings was such that fewer than ten per cent of the victims’ bodies could be identified. Amongst those victims were 25 Spaniards who had sought sanctuary from the Civil War, along with those displaced from Alsace and Lorraine.

Every building in the village had been torched. Plaques on the ruined buildings recall the functions they once served—as a bakery, a school or an epicerie—along with the names of their owners. Remnants of sewing machines, bicycles, boilers and clothes racks, plus burnt out cars and other machinery, provide man-made reminders of ordinary village life. Oradour-sur-Glane is a nurtured ruin: not abandoned to nature, but preserved to ensure the broken fragments that can tell their story to future generations.

Despite the preservation of memory, there is a strong sense that justice has never been served. A 1953 military tribunal in Bordeaux found only 20 defendants guilty, with Eastern Germany preventing the extradition of other perpetrators. Fourteen of those were French nationals of German ethnicity from Alsace, all but one of whom claimed that they been forcibly recruited by the Nazis. The uproar in Alsace and the pragmatism of post-war reintegration led the French parliament to grant amnesties to those Alsatians recruited against their will, sparking furious protests in Limousin. By 1958 the remaining defendants had been released. General Heinz Lammerding who ordered the attack was never extradited.

Seventy years on, in January 2014 the state court in Cologne charged 88 year-old Werner Christukat, 19 at the time, with the murder of 25 people and being an accessory to murder of hundreds more. Though Christukat conceded to being in the village at the time, he claimed that he had not been directly involved. The case was eventually dropped in December 2014 due to a lack of evidence. Whilst further reinforcing the sense that justice continued to elude the victims of Oradour, this served as another important reminder of how Europe pursues the perpetrators of atrocities committed during the Second World War to this day. 

A sign at the entrance to the village implores visitors to remember. As Second World War survivors become a rare commodity, so the human dimensions of remembrance are increasingly diminished. The generations which conveyed first-hand the pain and suffering of war are gradually falling silent. Whilst their voices have been recorded and transcribed, and their photographs and letters archived, there is an irreconcilable disconnect between these past testimonies of war and Europe’s present reality of rising extremism.

The physical scars of World War Two have healed to such an extent that the successes of the European Union as a peace project are largely taken for granted, with war between its member states largely deemed inconceivable today. As a result, the messages from the past no longer resonate with those of the present and future.

In many respects, war has been sanitised and censored by contemporary media. A certain numbness accompanies images from places such as Aleppo and Homs in Syria, even when drones provide a unique and dramatic bird's eye perspective on the destruction wrought. Even where images touch a nerve—like the photo of a facedown and lifeless Aylan Kurdi who was washed-up on a Turkish beach—their impact is fleeting and hollow. Rarely do they prompt deep and sustained reflections that breed the sort of empathy and understanding that is sorely lacking in today’s Europe.

War itself is displaced, devoid of the context and circumstances out of which it arises and festers. There are perpetrators and victims, and yet the real perpetrators and victims are never present nor acknowledged. Their names and stories are rarely told; they are but statistics for comparison. The personalization of suffering in Oradour-sur-Glane reminds us, not just that we should remember but that we should be attentive as to how we remember.      

Nor does Europe see its own past despite being confronted with the present of others. Despite the victims of this and other tragedies who now arrive daily on its doorsteps, Europe’s collective amnesia about its human atrocities and refugee flows is becoming more pronounced. The continent cares not what or why ‘they’ are fleeing, only how much of a burden ‘they’ will be. Who ‘they’ actually are is of little concern, instead reduced to “migrants”, “opportunists” and worse.

The individual fleeing persecution at home is reduced to being a member of an increasingly derided collective abroad. By contrast, the day-to-day immediacy and simplicity of remembrance at Oradour-sur-Glane helps to foster an empathy which transcends time, thereby helping to nurture feelings which transcend space as well. 

The village lies just over a hundred kilometres from the Cognac birthplace of one of the architects of European unity, Jean Monnet. Tragedies such as that of 10th June 1944 serve as a reminder of the devastation that was once wrought upon Europe, and the importance of the continuing pursuit of justice for victims. Amidst an unprecedented refugee crisis which threatens that very unity, Oradour-sur-Glane is one of the last of Europe’s living remnants of a past that it has been fortunate to leave behind, but which it would be misguided to forget.

Oradour-sur-Glane remains a “place of endless mourning,” and a permanent reminder of the “martyred village”; not just for the martyrs of the village itself, but for all those who perished at the hands of terror, East and West.  

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