ORADOUR-SUR-GLANE, France — This is the grimmest of all European war memorials. More grim than any towering monument. More grim than any neatly manicured military cemetery with its symmetric rows of marble grave markers. Grimmer still to some than a well-preserved concentration camp.
Grimmer because what is preserved here is the destruction of war.
Oradour-sur-Glane’s burned and shattered houses and shops were not rebuilt. Instead, this small, pastoral village along a quiet river 12 miles northwest of Limoges, in east-central France, was left exactly as it was found after a German SS unit slaughtered 642 civilians — farmers, merchants, housewives, schoolchildren and infants — and set the town afire June 10, 1944.
It is a memorial everyone should see, because but for the accidents of time and place, this could be anyone’s home.
This is the ugliness of war, the destruction, the indiscriminate, senseless brutality, the innocents whose quiet daily routine ended in unexpected terror and death.
This is what is left after the bullets and fires. Piles of stones that once were the walls of homes. The rusted and twisted steel of burned-out autos. A battered tea kettle. The steel frame of a sewing machine, all that survived the fire. A child’s rusted toy car wedged among the fallen stones. The church altar, chipped where bullets ricocheted away.
Dr. Jacques Desourteaux’s car, rusted and resting on its wheels, the rubber tires long since rotted away, still sits where he parked it when he returned from visiting a patient to find that all the town’s residents had been rounded up and herded into the marketplace.
What happened on June 10, 1944, four days after the Allied invasion on the Normandy coast, has never been fully explained, never will be and perhaps never could be.
On that sunny Saturday afternoon, Oradour was swollen to nearly twice its size with farmers who came into town to collect the monthly tobacco ration and residents of Limoges who decided to get out of the city for the weekend.
About 2 p.m., 10 German army trucks from the 2nd SS Panzer Division, the Das Reich Division, rolled noisily into town, and the soldiers fanned out to seal off all exits from the town.
The townspeople were somewhat anxious but not alarmed, because Oradour-sur-Glane had never been known for resistance activity.
Major Otto Dickman, the officer in command, summoned the mayor and told him there was to be an identity check. The town crier was dispatched with his drum to call the people to the village square.
Soldiers went through the houses, making sure even the smallest children and the oldest and most infirm residents of Oradour were herded into the square.
A small boy who was a refugee from Lorraine fled instead through the gardens. He was the only one of 247 children in the village to survive that day. Two other groups, one of five men and another of three, also fled rather than go to the square.
In the square, the men were lined up along a wall and the women and children herded down the street and into the village church.
Major Dickman then informed the mayor that they had reports that weapons and contraband were stored in the village. He demanded 30 hostages to be held during the search. The mayor, confident the Germans would find nothing, offered himself and his four sons, including Dr. Desourteaux.
After an hour, the 200 men were split into seven groups and herded from the square to various barns, garages and cellars. Then the soldiers opened fire with machine guns. Many of the men were merely wounded. Later straw and other combustible materials were piled on the dead and wounded inside the barns and set afire.
Five men who played dead crawled slowly to the corner of one barn and out through a hole to escape the flames.
In the church, the women were terrified by the sounds of the machine guns and the screams of the men in the barns.
Then two soldiers entered the church carrying a mysterious box with several fuses hanging from it. The soldiers placed the box on the altar, lighted the fuses and left. Smoke began pouring from the box.
Some sought to escape the choking smoke by climbing out the windows — only to be gunned down by soldiers. Just one woman tumbled unnoticed from a window, but then was shot and wounded as she attempted to catch a baby someone dropped from the window.
Eventually the soldiers threw open the doors to the church and sprayed the inside with machine-gun fire. They piled the corpses and pews together and set everything on fire. Then the soldiers went from house to house, hurling grenades inside and setting all but one of the village’s 254 structures afire.
Around 7 p.m., the tram from Limoges arrived on schedule and was stopped across the river from Oradour. Residents of Oradour were taken off the tram, and the others were told to return to Limoges. Mysteriously, hours later, the terrified passengers from Oradour, who could see the smoke and flames rising from the village, also were released and told to leave and not come back.
At dawn the next day, people returned to the town and discovered the carnage. Most bodies were burned beyond recognition. In the church, one woman was found huddled in the confessional. Two small boys, holding hands, were found shot to death in a corner.
Behind the altar, searchers found the bodies of a number of babies where their mothers had hidden them in the hope they would survive.
Eventually, a weak voice was heard in the garden outside the church — the woman who had jumped from the window was found still alive, though badly wounded.
In all, 642 people died in Oradour. Why?
The Das Reich Division had been en route from Southern France to Normandy to help repel the Allied invasion. The journey, normally three days, took 17. En route, Das Reich suffered hundreds of casualties in harassing attacks by the French resistance.
Oradour-sur-Glane had never been a center of resistance activity. But one explanation for the massacre suggests that the Das Reich Division, in unfamiliar territory, had intended to carry out reprisals in Oradour-sur-Vayres, a town a few kilometers away that was known for its resistance activity.
Another theory is that Oradour-sur-Glane was picked at random in retaliation for the kidnapping of Major Helmut Kampfe, another Das Reich Division officer, east of Limoges the previous day. Germans also had been attacked a few kilometers from Oradour.
Another report was that arms had been found in one garage at Oradour.
Another, more devious, theory is offered in a controversial book by Robin Mackness, a British citizen who once worked for a Swiss bank and served time in a French prison for trying to smuggle a client’s gold from France to Switzerland to escape a French tax on savings.
Mr. Mackness linked the massacre to a resistance attack on a small convoy carrying the Das Reich Division’s records the previous night a few kilometers south of Oradour. The soldiers escorting the convoy were killed and, according to the author, 600 kilos in gold, the personal stash of Major Dickman and General Lammerding, were stolen.
The massacre, according to Mr. Mackness, occurred during Major Dickman’s frenzied search for the gold the next day.
The author claims that the gold he was caught smuggling into Switzerland was part of the shipment stolen from the convoy and that his bank client was the leader of the resistance fighters who attacked the convoy.
His story cannot be proved. His client, Major Dickman and General Lammerding are all dead today. Epilogue
Major Dickman was killed 20 days after the massacre while his unit was trapped in the Falaise pocket in Normandy.
General Lammerding died in 1971, after 20 years of successfully avoiding extradition to France to stand trial for the Oradour massacre and another in Tulle.
In 1953, two sergeants and 19 other former soldiers eventually were tried in Bordeaux. Ironically, 14 were French citizens, Alsatians who had either enlisted or been drafted into the German army after the Germans occupied the Alsace-Lorraine region early in the war.
One German and one Alsatian sergeant were sentenced to death. The remainder received sentences of 5 to 12 years.
The sentences, unfortunately, only compounded the pain of Oradour and France, which has had to struggle since the war to heal the wounds created by those who collaborated with the German army.
Around Oradour and Limoges, officials and townspeople protested that the sentences were too lenient. In Alsace, mayors of all the towns protested that the sentences of the Alsatians were too harsh.
Within a week of the sentences, the French national assembly passed an amnesty law that commuted the two death sentences to life in prison and freed all the remaining soldiers from their 5- to 12-year sentences.