Updated: Jun 16, 2020
‘Exactly the kind of micro-history relating to Occupation and Resistance that needs to be done, very specific with detailed recognition of place, time and context. […] It is a remarkable social and cultural case-study.’
Professor Rod Kedward
I was never a great linguist at school, but I loved France and I loved its people. My mother was a teacher of History and that was the subject that fascinated me most. My father was also a teacher so we spent long summer holidays in the south of France and it was due to these amazing times - four weeks or more camping and travelling through the country, that my love of all things French began. When I decided to study French at ‘A level’, I knew that it would be a struggle, which it certainly turned out to be, but my mother taught me History and subsequently that was even more terrifying. However it was only right that during those two years I should choose an historical subject for my A level French project. I chose Oradour-sur-Glane, the village in the Haute-Vienne destroyed by the Nazis. As Nazi Germany was one of the major sections of ‘A level’ History, it was a good fit and my parents took me there for the first time in 1993 before I began writing the project and after I had read a limited amount about what had gone on there.
I remember walking into the village through the old entrance, the gates at the top end of the village beyond the post office. The Centre de la Mémoire had yet to be built, and a small cabin at the gates sold books and postcards. Signs told us to ‘remember’ and to ‘compose ourselves’. We bought a guide book which contained the outline to the story and I took pictures, on black and white film, for my project. It was a blazingly hot day. Despite there being a good number of visitors that day, it felt like we were alone. We went to the cemetery and saw human bones through glass windows in coffin-shaped boxes at the base of a monument. My mother, whose speciality was European fascism, remained quiet throughout the visit. In the cool church we saw the melted bell that had fallen from the bell tower, the confessional box where two dead boys had been found, and the remains of a pram. Hundreds of women and children had died there, and somehow you could tell.
I still have my ‘A level’ project, and sometimes still look at the photographs that I took that day. My mother died in 2001 and I know she would have been proud that I wrote a book about the period of occupation in France. She would have been proud that I write at all, but returning to the History discipline after decades spent doing other things including teaching French, would have caused her to grin. My first book, Defying Vichy, came about due to me contacting someone I had interviewed when writing a project on the French Resistance during my year abroad as an undergraduate in 1996. But even during that year I took a friend to nearby Oradour, and during the writing of Defying Vichy I knew that the next topic that I was going to write about had to be Oradour.
In France there are any number of books about the massacre of Oradour-sur-Glane, and in the United Kingdom and the United States several have been written over the years. I have collected so many that my bookshelves groan under the weight of them, but I knew what I was going to write would have to be something different. I noticed that these books tended to focus on the military operations in the area and the chain of events that apparently had led the SS to destroy the village on 10 June 1944. I spent time in the archives going back to the original documentation and witness testimonies trying to forget what I had read in the course of many of the existing texts. I wanted to start from the beginning. I wanted to understand how the story had evolved over the years, and how it all fitted into the ever-evolving and controversial historiography of Vichy France.
It was while reading Hallie Rubenhold’s ground-breaking book about the victims of Jack the Ripper, ‘The Five’ that I realised that what most interested me in the story of Oradour was the people who had suffered, the victims. I decided that anyone who wanted to read about the perpetrators of the crime could look elsewhere. Much has been written about them and I had little to add. My interest is, and always has been, in the occupation period and people’s struggles and choices. My book would, I decided, tell the story of the village of Oradour-sur-Glane, in the context of the time. I would tell the story through the eyes of those who were there. I would tell the story of their lives and their loves. Of the local rivalries, money-making schemes, families and friends. I wanted to know what the village looked like at the moment the troops came. What did people do to have fun, how had life changed under the occupation?
So began a trawl through archives in a bid to understand this large village and its surrounding communities. When the village was preserved under the orders of General De Gaulle it was portrayed as an idyllic representation of rural French life. My research led me to conclude that it was fairly typical of its time, a place with warts and all. I interviewed the few remaining survivors including Robert Hébras, the last escapee of the shootings and I think he was pleasantly surprised when I asked him not about his experiences that day, a story he has told and written many times, but about what life had been like beforehand when he lived in the centre of the village with his parents and two of his three sis
ters. I spoke to Camille Senon whose family owned a café in the middle of the village and who had arrived in Oradour by tram as the massacre was taking place. I spoke to the grandson of the mayor who had been out of town as he was at work that day in nearby Limoges but who returned home with a key in his hand and no door to put it in. I spoke to a man who had been a young farmer, and whose sister had gone into the village to collect her children never to return. The book is about the people of Oradour-sur-Glane and for the people of Oradour-sur-Glane, and an attempt to add further context to the ever-crumbling physical ruins.