In the third of four special blog posts, I look at why Oradour-sur-Glane, the French village destroyed on 10 June 1944 by the SS Panzer division "Das Reich", was chosen for destruction. The final post will pay tribute to several survivors who recently passed away.
In the rural Limousin, just as in most places around France, 1944 saw the development of groups of armed Resistance. These groups became known as the maquis. Some were followers of De Gaulle and spent the Spring months training in prepapration for D-Day. Others were communist and were much more keen to get started with a civil insurrection. All depended on the population to supply and support them. Sometimes these maquis were unwelcome in village communities due to their methods of procuring what they needed, and the occupying German forces, as well as the Vichy authorities, used propaganda to paint them as terrorists or bandits. The occpuiers knew that taking on these guerilla fighters would be difficult; but if they targeted the population with reprisals they may be able to turn the rural population against the idea of helping the maquisards. Oradour was not among those villages known to be regularly troubled by the maquis who raided such places in search of food, money, or weapons. There was no active armed Resistance in Oradour, nor was there a maquis in the immediate area. There is evidence of a small cell of the Armée Sécrète, the Gaullist arm of the Resistance, but this was not an armed group and it was unlikely to have been much more than a group that distributed propaganda. Although dangerous for those involved, that was a very different type of resistance activity.
Why is this point important? Any suggestion of armed resistance in the village has always been sensitive, damaging even, for survivors and families of the victims. Any association between Oradour and the Resistance lends credence to claims made by those who ordered the Oradour massacre. that the operation was a direct retaliation for an attack in the district on one of its own. Like all other places of its size, it would be a shock if there had not been some element of Resistance in Oradour by 1944. At the same time, the blanket categorisation of a village cruelly martyred fitted the image that was needed in 1945 - that of an idyllic French village which had suffered at the hands of the occupier. Subsequently, talk of Resistance within the village has been perennially taboo and associated primarily with revisionist historians or authors aiming to sensationalise the story.
Historical research from the late 1970s onwards highlighted France's very complex inner battles under Marshall Pétain, an autocratic leader who was extremely popular until mid-occupation, and the Vichy regime. Following liberation, France had initially fêted itself as a country of Resistance, but a more realistic view emerged through research. Resistance, like collaboration had been a minority occupation. Most ordinary people did what they needed to do to get by, and adapted according to circumstances. There were few clearcut choices. Vichy's deportation of foreign and French Jews became the focus of the 1990s and the public trials of several Vichy-linked politicians highlighted that France was not wholly innocent of the many crimes of the holocaust.
More recently, research has focused on French society under the occupation. The concept of resistance has been widely acknowledged to include brave decisions by ordinary people, particularly women. This exemplifies the complications of Vichy French society. My own research has shown that Oradour was not exempt from any of these overarching features, but was a microcosm, albeit with its own specificities, of Vichy France. The many testimonies collected during the investigation in August 1944 contain accusations, counter accusations, and a mass of information about the daily trials and tribulations of life in the village. Combined with archival evidence, nowhere else has such a complete snapshot of a community's internal politics been recorded. They demonstrate that Oradour was very much an ordinary community. Only now, with the disappearance of most of the survivors, a lessening of the anger towards the massacre due to the passage of time, and a recognition that the French Resistance was not all about maquis fighters, can normal everyday Resistance be attributed to Oradour without the need to assume guilt.
Why, then, was Oradour chosen for such destruction?
There were other villages in France which were destroyed by fire as reprisals, but none so comprehensively as Oradour, and none in such a systematic manner with such extensive loss of life.
The answer lies in the broader picture. On 6 June 1944 the Allies had landed on the beaches of Normandy. All around France secret plans had been put into action. The French Resistance, on orders from London, had stepped up disruption of the Nazi war effort. That Resistance activity in the Limousin, a large region, and throughout the whole of south-western France had become increasingly troublesome for the German army. Agents from London were training the maquis to be effective and the German High Command knew this. Bombed railroads, sabotaged factories, and attacks on troops along tree-lined country lanes had become a thorn in the side of the occupiers. German forces avoided leaving towns and increasingly sent the violent French police force to country locations to engage with the maquis. Earlier efforts to target the guerrilla fighters by severely punishing the civilian population who supplied them had proved successful.
Once D-Day happened on 6 June 1944, activity on both sides was stepped up. The SS Das Reich was ordered to make its way north, but only once it had dealt with the Resistance in the area. If it did not, it was likely that the whole of the south of France would be quickly liberated. A "brutal and lasting strike" was ordered.
The massacre at Oradour was a planned response to what was happening on this larger scale. The place itself was not chosen until, probably the night before. when General Lammerding left Limoges to go to St-Junien where there had been skirmishes with the maquis. On close inspection it was decided that St-Junien was too big to encircle so an alternative was needed. Oradour-sur-Glane was chosen for reasons of expediency. It was nearby, of the right size, easy to encircle, and on the way to the next stop on the route vaguely north. That there was no maquis in the immediate area was helpful. This information was undoubtably supplied by French Gestapo-paid agents who knew the area well.
After the war, the leaders of the Das Reich doubled down on their reasoning for the massacre which was undoubtably a war crime. A host of explanations were given, all coming back to suspicion of resistance in the village, or a patched-up account of maquis activity somewhere nearby. These explanations were wildly inconsistent, but provided a veil of justification. It was even suggested that the wrong Oradour was chosen, the real target being Oradour-sur-Vayres a village thirty kilometres to the south-east of Oradour-sur-Glane which did have a reputation for maquis activity. The geographical location would have meant a catastrophic series of map reading errors by professional soldiers. Unfortunately, however, this theory has stuck. It fitted the local narrative well as it excluded any suggestion of Resistance activity, and it is still often quoted.
The chiefs of the Das Reich were protected from ever having to give evidence at a trial due to a post-war atmosphere of detente. Investigations led to a 1953 military tribunal held in Bordeaux which included none of those responsible for giving the orders. The well-publicised trial did more harm than good because it included fourteen young men from Alsace-Lorraine. Most were forced conscripts but their presence represented an uncomfortable truth. Debates about their guilt under duress bittered relations between the Limousin and Alsace Lorrain. The affair illustrates how, when examined objectively, little is ever truly black or white.
The Gaullist martyred village label served a purpose as France self-congratulated itself at the liberation. It was necessary as wounds healed. But over time it robbed the village of its sophisticated authenticity. The presence in Oradour of supporters of Pétain, of a GTE work camp for Spanish refugees, of foreign and French Jews in hiding, of young working age men hiding from deportation to the Reich, were all ugly truths best ignored. These are features not singular to Oradour, they echo in villages throughout France but to find evidence of them in Oradour you have to look hard.
A new Oradour-sur-Glane was built within a stone's throw of the village martyr. For decades it would be a place of mourning. Teenagers were not allowed to wear bright colours. There were no village celebrations or parties. Streets were numbered rather than named and shop fronts had to conform to the village's strict policies. Over time things evolved as did the village martyr. Visitors now pass through a visitor centre, the Centre de la Mémoire, which provides a wide context as to what led to the massacre. The shells of buildings have degraded significantly, losing some of their immediacy. The Centre de la Mémoire has adapted to this change. In 2018 a temporary exhibition called Visages d'Oradour , Faces of Oradour, was the result of several years of linking names to photographed faces, and researching Oradour's inhabitants. There is now a gallery just before the entrance to the village martyr with the names of the victims and the photographs that have so far been located. A new temporary exhibition focuses on personal objects, bringing the everyday lives of the villagers closer still to the visitor. This is all part of a continual evolution of what Oradour, as a preserved site, represents to new generations.
This is the third of four special blog posts.
My book about Oradour-sur-Glane, Silent Village: Life and Death in Occupied France is available from all good booksellers. Follow the link on my website to purchase signed copies.