Updated: Jul 16, 2021
Two years to the day before Oradour-sur-Glane was destroyed by the SS Das Reich (the subject of my own upcoming book, Silent Village) elements of the same division committed a similar massacre. As a reprisal for the Prague assassination of Reich Protector Reinhard Heydrich in the late spring of 1942 by SOE trained Czech agents, the small mining village of Lidice in the protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia was chosen to receive treatment set out by Hitler and Himmler for any location found to have sheltered members of the Resistance involved. This was part of a much wider operation, but no other village suffered quite the same fate as did Lidice on 10 June 1942. Horst Böhme, the SiPo chief for the region ensured that the village was surrounded and then carried out an operation with chilling similarities to that suffered at Oradour-sur-Glane two years later. All 173 men above the age of 15 were killed that day, another 11 arrested and killed later. 184 women and 88 children were sent away to camps and only a few survived the ordeal. The village was burned down and footage of the destruction was created that day. A new village was built nearby after the war.
When news of the massacre reached Britain less than two years after the Battle of Britain, there was widespread condemnation. Anger was deep amongst the mining communities of the North, Midlands and Wales where people felt solidarity with the plight of a village not dissimilar to their own. Humphrey Jennings, a Suffolk-born former academic who had begun a career with the GPO Film Unit in 1934, was a film maker with an interest in social research and observation. When the GPO Film Unit became the Crown Film Unit during the Second World War, Jennings began making films, primarily shorts, which fused documentary with story telling. In August 1942, on hearing of Lidice, he began scouting locations in the upper Swansea Valley in South Wales for a semi-rural mining community with which to live and work for an extended period of time to create his next project.
The Silent Village released in 1943 is a thirty-six minute exploration of life in Cwmgiedd, near Ystradgynlais in Southern Powys, where anthracite mining is central to the lives of a community in a rural location. The film's premise is that the Nazis had indeed invaded Great Britain in 1940 and it tells the story of a community destroyed in the same way as had been the case in Lidice the previous year. After half of the film chronicles the everyday life of a mining village so prevalent in Wales at the time, with its shop, school, homes and colliery, a black car arrives with a loudhailer decreeing that unions are to be disbanded and those helping or sheltering Resistance would be dealt with through the death penalty or deportation. The film shows the miners closing ranks and protecting certain agitators, leading to intervention by the authorities and heartbreaking shots of women and children being led away while the men, singing Land of My Fathers, are gathered and shot. No violence is shown, nor are the occupying forces other than the one shiny black car. Finally the film closes with shots of reality, the same people still living in Wales is it actually was in 1942/1943 but with an audience educated on what might have been and could still be should Britain fall to the Nazis.
No actors were used in the film and dialogue was not scripted. Those who did not want to be involved do not feature on screen, but the film is largely a vivid record of normal life at that time. Wives shovel coal from piles in the street and carry out household chores while conversations that take place in school and in the grocery store are in the Welsh language, without subtitles. Only conversations between union representatives and colliery managers are in English. When the German occupiers clamp down, unions are banned as is the Welsh language, school lessons instead taking place in English. The miners talk of strikes, and clandestine papers in Welsh are produced. Whereas the first half shows the methodist church packed to the rafters with hymns belted out in Welsh, in the second half even these are outlawed. The representation of the occupier only through a single black car and sound effects of heavy boots is also significant. In occupied Europe local police and agents in well-built civilian vehicles were to be feared as much as German troop carriers as these were often restricted to larger towns where troops were garrisoned except for when troops were redeployed.
Jennings' film is fascinating. For those such as myself who grew up in South Wales and wish to take a look into the lives of our grandparents is it a wonderful document. Social history and an understanding of the lives of everyday people in the past is an area of history long undervalued. Jennings lived among the people for months, giving talks to them on mechanisation (drawn from past work experience) and trying to fully understand how their lives would change under occupation by speaking to them and asking them to put themselves in the position of their comrades in Lidice. It is hard to imagine that the men of the Cwmgiedd colliery would have shied away from striking, carrying on their meetings clandestinely or doing their best to protect active resistance activities, but we will never know. Consideration of the 'what would you do?' question fascinates me. The assassination of Heydrich created a climate of fear, but would individual communities such as those in Lidice not have carried on with their daily lives regardless, much like the people of Cwmgiedd in Jennings' film?
A year after the release of The Silent Village Oradour-sur-Glane in Haute-Vienne, France, was destroyed. In all 642 men, women and children were killed there in a similar fashion as in Lidice. It is hard to imagine that Oradour-sur-Glane still existed for a further year after the release of The Silent Village. Young soldiers, indoctrinated or forced conscripts from around the Reich often found themselves inculpated. The first half of The Silent Village closes with the statement "such is life at Cwmgiedd...and such too was life in Lidice until the coming of Fascism".
My book 'Silent Village: Life and Death in Occupied France' is the story of Oradour-sur-Glane and is released in early 2021.
'Defying Vichy: Blood, Fear and French Resistance' is out now.
Below is a link to the film The Silent Village on Youtube, and may disappear. The film is also available as part of DVD/Blu-ray collection on Humphrey Jennings' work.