A living symbol of tyranny
A French village destroyed by the Nazis is today a reminder to the world of the brutality of the Holocaust. P. SUBRAMANYAM concludes his series on World War II.
This picture of Hitler delivering his infamous speech on German Aryan Racial Superiority in Munich is on display at the Memory Centre in Oradour-sur-Glane.
ORADOUR-SUR-GLANE is a small and charming village 500 km from Paris. It was both prosperous and well situated, but unknown to many. The land was rich and fertile, the town, clean and tastefully built.
On June 10, 1944, the Nazis razed the village to the ground and gunned down the inhabitants. Within five hours, the Secret Service (SS) troops killed 642 residents only five men and a woman escaped.
The village today stands as it was since 1944, in ruins and desolate, proof of the carnage .
The citation of the Nation to the town reads as follows:
"The methodical rounding up, the deliberate massacre of these 700 men, women and children, the systematic destruction of these 328 buildings, is the archetypal example of a French community that suffered under barbarism. A motiveless crime, an unthinking cruelty which did nothing but lift the patriotic fervour of the French people, stiffen their desire for liberation, and add to, if possible, the dishonour of Germany and the disgust it engendered."
After the liberation of France, the President, Charles de Gaulle, on March 4, 1945, said: "Oradour-sur-Glane is the symbol of the calamities of the country. The memory must be kept alive, for a similar calamity must never occur again."
The motive of this massacre is still not clear. It was said that the village concealed explosives to wreak vengeance on the Germans and that the order for destruction was meant to be Oradour-sur-Vayres, an important centre of Resistance, which had been the real target and that the Germans had made a mistake between the names.
Perhaps the German military hierarchy in Berlin felt insecure, as on June 6, 1944, the D-Day landings at Normandy took place. Men, weapons and vehicles gathered all around the coast of England. This action to free Europe scared the Germans. The French, who had suffered for nearly four years under the Nazis, relished the possibility of freedom and thus stepped up their underground activities. The Germans felt themselves being hunted down by the American and British troops after the D-Day landings. The end of the war a conclusive defeat of the Germans was in sight.
The second reason was that the Nazis strongly believed in bringing people whom they had conquered into German society through a reign of terror, brutality, intimidation and seduction. Indeed a ruthless policy adopted by the Hitlerite regime and spoken of by Hitler himself, was that of German Aryan racial supremacy consisting of blue-eyed blondes who would rule the world. Non-Aryans, he considered sub-human and deserved to be eradicated. This Nazi philosophy was made clear to the German people in his address to them in his infamous speech in 1936 in Munich.
However, according to archives, the Germans had targeted Oradour-sur-Glane and three days after the D-Day landings, a regiment belonging to the famous SS "der Fuhrer" billeted in the area bordering Oradour village and surveyed the place for action the following day.
One of the streets, with tram lines, in the village of Oradour-sur-Glane that was razed by the Nazis on June 10, 1944. Only six of the 642 residents survived.
On June 10, the inhabitants were summoned to the village green. Armed men surrounded the village. An explosion signalled the massacre, the SS fired at the men's legs with machine guns and the bodies were burnt. Miraculously, five men escaped. The women and children who were herded into the church heard the machine gun fire, and soon after this building was dynamited.
Soldiers who had positioned themselves outside fired through the windows at those who tried to escape. The church stands today as it was after the massacre. One woman, Mme. Riuffanche, managed to crawl behind the altar, climbed a window and jumped nine feet to the ground.
Reports say that SS men ransacked all the houses and if they found any elderly residents who could not move, shot them. The houses were set ablaze.
Within five hours, 642 people were killed. Only five men, one woman and 20 villagers who were away from Limoges that day, escaped. The assassins left the next morning. Of Oradour, virtually nothing but blackened walls, twisted cars, and the skeletal frame of the church remained.
This writer met a village resident, Jean Lamaud. He was hardly six years old on the day of the massacre. He said that his parents, brother and his eight-year-old sister had died. He survived for his grandparents had taken him away to a nearby village a few days earlier. Mr. Lamaud, now about 70, looks after and supervises the Memory Centre.
The trials were a total sham. At Bordeaux, the trial opened on January 12, 1953, after an investigation that lasted nearly nine years. The lack of precise proof of the accused made it a difficult investigation. Of the 65 participants identified, only 21 appeared, the rest had been freed. There were seven Germans (one was a warrant officer), 14 French Alsatians (one was a sergeant), all members of the sinister Das Reich division not one officer was found.
Commandant Dickmann was killed in Normandy, Captain Kahn had "disappeared" in Sweden. General Lammerding had resumed his profession in Dusselddorf and was out of reach, but he sent a letter to the tribunal excusing his men, saying "they were only following orders."
As for Lieutenant Barth, he could not be traced for 37 years having lived a peaceful life in East Germany. He was "untroubled and undisturbed" until 1981, under his own name, in the village of his birth.
On February 13, 1953, the judges gave their verdict. Among the Germans, the adjutant was condemned to death and of the others, one was acquitted, five were sentenced to imprisonment for 10-12 years. The Alsatian sergeant was also sentenced to death; the other 13 were given between five and eight years.
At the second trial held in East Berlin, in May 1983, SS Lieutenant Barth claimed to have received orders from his battalion head, Commandant Dickmann "to destroy the locality and its inhabitants." The delegation of witnesses from Oradour comprised of the five survivors. They retold the horror in all its detail. Lieutenant Barth admitted everything and endorsed that he hadn't found any arms at Oradour or any Resistance fighters. It was Commandant Dickmann who had given the orders to destroy the place and its inhabitants. It was then ratified that the exercise had been justified as an "intimidatory" measure and to set an example to terrorise the people of France. Barth said: "In wartime, one acts harshly and with whatever means available."
The verdict of life imprisonment was disappointing to the people of Oradour. Pressure was also brought by the newspapers and caused Parliament to vote for, in the name of the unity of France, an amnesty, which pardoned the 13 convicted Alsatians. They were all released from prison, along with the six Germans who had completed their sentences. Even those condemned to death were pardoned shortly afterwards. In view of this leniency shown in punishing the criminals, the town of Oradour gave back the Cross of the Legion of Honour and the Cross of War awarded to it some years earlier.
To this day, Oradour stands as a monument of dignity, the sight of which only emphasises the bestial brutality of the SS.
The incriminating evidence in demolished bricks and buildings and the charred mortar is well preserved to this day. For the future generations at Oradour-sur-Glane, this is indeed a place that is a living memory in the history of France.
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