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(2/4) Oradour: a community that changed over time

Updated: Jun 8, 2023

In the second of four special blog posts, I consider the inhabitants of Oradour-sur-Glane, the village destroyed on 10 June 1944 by the SS Panzer division "Das Reich". I also look at how society there changed between the outbreak of war in September 1939 and the moment of the massacre. The remaining posts will cover the question of why this place was chosen, and profile two of the very last remaining survivors, who recently passed away.

When I came to write about what had happened in Oradour, my decision to focus on the inhabitants of the village resulted from two separate considerations. First, I had just written a book about the Resistance, focused on the neighbouring region of Dordogne and using a bottom-up approach. I had used oral history techniques to tell the stories of a handful of individuals and their experiences of engaging in resistance in a number of ways. It included how their activities evolved with time. As a historian I was pleased to recount details of ordinary lives set against the context of events influenced from above. It was the oft-studied politicians or military leaders who took decisions that impacted events on the larger scale.

Second, I had a strong feeling that the Oradour story had generally been told by placing the SS "Das Reich" in the centre stage. I had no wish to focus on that military element because that was written elsewhere in copious detail. I also did not want to get involved in trying to solve any so-called mystery about Oradour. When I reviewed the archival material it became clear that there was no mystery, only historical context together with seventy-plus years of rumours which had been recycled time and again. What leaped out at me from the many boxes of documentary materials was quite how much we could learn about the population of the village. We could trace how Oradour had changed between 1939 and 1944. I also got the sense of an evolving soap opera of local politics, familial disputes, commercial success stories, and love affairs that blurred the line of what was socially acceptable. The people of Oradour-sur-Glane were a fascinating mix.

I decided therfore to leave the SS point of view out of my boook and focus instead on Oradour's inhabitants, hoping that by reconstructing the village around them we could move away from an anonymity that had somehow resulted from the village's traditional blanket martyrdom. We could finally learn more about these people beyond the context of how they died. By exploring the lives of people who had lived there, we could better understand the complexities of daily life in the context of occupied France. Names on the list of victims could become lives to be reconstituted. I interviewed four remaining survivors and did all I could to learn about the other ordinary folk who lived in Oradour. These people were known as Radounauds and they formed the bedrock of the village.

The population constituted, I discovered, many categories. To give just a few examples; there were refugees from all over Europe; ordinary farmers facing Vichy agricultural policies and German requisitions; local politicians with personal and political rivalries; café owners and shopkeepers having to diversify their businesses due to missing menfolk; schoolteachers with diverse provenances who had arrived in Oradour with their careers in front of them ; escaped prisoners of war; communists under surveillance; children keen to leave education and join the agricultural workforce. About half-way through my research I was sent some recently uncovered photographs of seventeen-year-old Madeleine Bonnet, who had been abandoned as a baby but had finally found happiness working in a village grocery store. The personal stories of these pupilles de la nation, looked-after children, sometimes very well documented, contain details that are often heart-breaking and sometimes life-affirming.

My book, a microhistory, sought to place the village of Oradour within a better-known wider context. Oradour was a village that had undergone huge changes in a short period of time. Going back as far as 1911, the establishment of an electric tramway to nearby Limoges had meant that city dwellers found it even easier to get to Oradour, a village well-regarded for weekend fishing, shopping, dining, and swimming. That was why it would subsequently be remembered as an idyllic rural French village.

By the time it met its dreadful fate in June 1944,the population had become somewhat different to what it had been prior to the outbreak of war in August 1939. Rural populations had learned to adapt to the military mobilisation of its men. But, in the Spring of 1940, when France was overcome by Germany, many men were retained as Prisoners of War. Spanish refugees who had been fleeing Franco's regime since the late 1930s were used to plug the workforce. Work groups, Groupement de Travailleurs Étrangers (GTE), were set up to exploit these Spanish refugees and, later, foreign Jews for cheap labour. One such camp was located just outside the village between 1941 and 1942. After the camp was moved elsewhere, a small Spanish population remained as part of Oradour's community.

On the outbreak of war in the Autumn of 1939 a first wave of evacuees from Alsace Lorraine arrived, along with many more displaced exiles as France fell. Most eventually returned home, though Jewish families had to stay behind. A second wave of refugees, French speakers expelled from Moselle, arrived in Autumn 1940, and by 1943 a new school had even been built for refugee pupils. The other three schools contained children from agglomerations such as Paris, Avignon and nearby Limoges, most of whom who had been sent to live with relatives in order to avoid the dangers of Allied bombing.

Oradour fell with the southern unoccupied zone but in November 1942 that changed when the whole country was officially occupied. Oradour still saw no German soldiers and few visits by French police, but nearby Limoges changed drastically. So too did Vichy laws, as restrictions bit and Jews and other undesirables were pursued. Against the grain of Vichy policy, a handful of Jewish families were able to exist in Oradour in relative security. Some hid, others lived in plain sight. With a drastically altered population, family units and the local agricultural economy needed to adapt.

Still, however, life went on. In Oradour, like many such villages, it was still possible to exist relatively comfortably. Farmers, butchers, and bakers paid lip service to some of Vichy's restrictions. The electric tram provided an important link between large towns such as Limoges, where food was becoming scarce, and villages such as Oradour where produce could be sourced. The authorities were aware of what was happening in the countryside but rarely did anything about it. The radounauds were largely untroubled by the Vichy authorities and felt at ease with life. Rural locations such as Oradour became ideal hiding places. In February 1943 STO, obligatory work service in Germany or elsewhere, was introduced for a tranche of the young population. Many of those meant to report for it instead fled to the countryside. Some joined the fighting Resistance, the maquis, but most hid with family friends or relatives. Several young men were hiding in Oradour for this reason.

Occupied France contained people of all sorts. A small number chose to resist in some way, just as an equally small number chose to actively resist. Most people did what they needed to do to get by, sometimes changing sides according to their own needs. All too often choice did not even come into it. Importantly, research into Oradour-sur-Glane has shown that it was not exempt from any of these positive or negative features. It was a microcosm, albeit with its own particularities, of Vichy France.

This is the second 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.

Silent Village by Robert Pike Oradour-sur-Glane

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