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The Tragedy of Oradour-sur-Glane: The Slaughter of an Entire Town

The stories remembered from World War II are fraught with tales of human suffering and atrocities that defy comprehension. Among these is the heart-wrenching massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane, a tranquil village in France, whose name has since become synonymous with the horrors of war and the depths of human cruelty. On the 10th of June, 1944, the village was engulfed in an unimaginable tragedy that saw 642 men, women, and children ruthlessly killed by the German Waffen SS. This event, one of the most brutal in the annals of the war, left an indelible mark on history and a poignant reminder of the cost of conflict.

The Village of Oradour-sur-Glane

Nestled in the picturesque region of Nouvelle-Aquitaine, Oradour-sur-Glane was a typical rural French village. Its residents led simple, peaceful lives, far removed from the tumultuous theatres of war that raged across Europe. This semblance of tranquillity was shattered on that fateful day in June, when the village became the target of an unwarranted and savage attack.

A school class of girls in Oradour. All of the children pictured were killed by the SS during the June 10, 1944, massacre. Oradour-sur-Glane, France, photograph taken 1942–43.

The Atrocity: A Day of Horror

On the 10th of June, 1944, a detachment of the Waffen SS, part of the 2nd SS Panzer Division "Das Reich," descended upon Oradour-sur-Glane. The operation was ordered by SS-Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann, purportedly as a reprisal for the kidnapping of a German officer by the French Resistance. However, the reasons behind the attack remain shrouded in ambiguity, with some historians suggesting that it was intended to serve as a gruesome warning to deter further resistance activities.

Adolf Diekmann

The SS troops, under Diekmann’s command, herded the villagers into the town square under the pretence of conducting an identity check. Men were separated from women and children. The men were taken to various barns and garages, where they were shot in the legs to incapacitate them before setting the buildings ablaze. The women and children were locked inside the village church, which was then set on fire. Those attempting to escape through windows and doors were met with a hail of bullets.

The village's schools, including one sheltering refugees from Lorraine and Moselle, bustled with activity that morning. Families bid farewell to their children as they ventured to the main bourg with friends, but none returned. Only a lone schoolboy, warned by his family of the perilous Germans, managed to escape unnoticed.

The parents of children residing beyond the round-up perimeter endured days of anxious waiting under the watchful eyes of German sentries, who returned to oversee destruction. Only after the Germans completed their task were the parents permitted to search for their missing loved ones. Initially hopeful that their children were safe nearby, their optimism waned as time passed without news. Whispers from those who ventured near the village's perimeter confirmed their worst fears: everyone had perished. The barns and church were heaped with human ash, bodies strewn about, and buildings razed to the ground. Amidst the devastation, some livestock remained untouched, a stark contrast to the fate of the villagers.

Ruins in Oradour-sur-Glane, France. The town was destroyed by the SS on June 10, 1944. Photograph taken in September 1944.

When the grieving parents finally entered the village, the reality surpassed their worst nightmares. The SS had returned to bury the dead in mass graves and incinerate those strewn across the streets. Their goal was to erase Oradour-sur-Glane from existence, ensuring its inhabitants remained unnamed and forgotten.

The Oradour-sur-Glane massacre stirred considerable contemporary attention, prompting the German Army command to seek an explanation, and the officers of Das Reich to provide one.

On the evening of June 10, following the departure of troops from Oradour-sur-Glane, Diekmann convened his officers and non-commissioned officers, instructing them to maintain silence regarding the killings.

He advised them that, if questioned, they should attribute the deaths to an insurgent attack on the division in the village, resulting in casualties among the villagers. This explanation was then relayed by the German Army High Command to General Eugène Bridoux, the State Secretary in the Vichy Ministry of Defense, in response to a formal protest note from Vichy diplomats that accurately recounted the events of June 10. According to the German explanation:

  • The male villagers perished in the course of the battle.

  • The conflict had originated within the village.

  • Women and children sought refuge inside the church, where they died due to an explosion from a nearby insurgent ammunition supply depot igniting the interior of the church.

In an effort to quell mounting public outrage and prevent the Vichy government from aligning with the Allies, the German Army Commander-in-Chief in the West ordered a criminal investigation into the massacre. Given that the SS fell under a separate jurisdiction from the German army, SS judge Major Detlef Okrent conducted the investigation, heavily relying on the testimony of SS Captain Otto Kahn.

The Aftermath: A Village in Ruins

The massacre resulted in the deaths of 642 people: 247 women, 205 children, and 190 men. The Waffen SS left the village in smouldering ruins, a testament to their barbarity. Among the few survivors were individuals who managed to hide or escape the initial slaughter, bearing witness to the atrocities that unfolded.

A class of boys from the school in Oradour. All of the people pictured here were killed by the SS during the June 10, 1944, massacre. Oradour-sur-Glane, France, photograph taken between 1940 and June 1944.

Oradour-sur-Glane was never rebuilt. Charles de Gaulle, the leader of the Free French Forces and later President of France, decreed that the village should remain in its destroyed state as a permanent memorial and a stark reminder of the horrors of war. The ruins stand to this day, a haunting testament to the massacre and a symbol of the resilience and remembrance of its victims.

After the war, the massacre in Oradour-sur-Glane garnered significant attention. In 1946, the French government designated the site as a national memorial and mandated its preservation. The French prosecution team presented evidence of the massacre at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg that same year.

The reasons behind Diekmann and his superiors' choice of Oradour-sur-Glane and the order to kill its inhabitants remain unclear. Neither the International Military Tribunal nor the French authorities at the Bordeaux proceedings in 1953 could conclusively link Oradour-sur-Glane to the French resistance or determine who ordered the massacre. Even in 1981, when authorities in the German Democratic Republic prosecuted Heinz Barth, an NCO involved in the massacre, they failed to definitively answer these questions.

Various theories have emerged from the trials and West German investigations into officers of Das Reich. The prevailing explanation is that Lammerding and Diekmann acted on intelligence from SS Major Karl Gerlach, who had escaped after being kidnapped by insurgents, suggesting that the villagers were aiding the resistance. Another theory posits that French collaborators misled the Germans into believing that SS Major Helmut Kämpfe, another kidnapped officer, was being held in Oradour-sur-Glane and was in imminent danger of being killed. However, this theory is weak, as there is no evidence that the Germans searched for Kämpfe in Oradour-sur-Glane, nor did they continue the search elsewhere. Survivors noted that SS Captain Otto Kahn, identified as one of the German officers, never mentioned Kämpfe but informed the villagers that their homes would be searched for weapons and ammunition.

Other theories are even less credible. SS Major Otto Weidinger, who was not involved in the massacre, claimed post-war that the Germans believed Oradour was an insurgent headquarters, but there is no evidence to support this. German military records do not indicate any insurgent attacks near Oradour. A war diary entry for the Military Commander in France on June 14 led to a theory that the 2nd Waffen SS Panzer Division confused Oradour-sur-Glane with Oradour-sur-Vayres, a village 15 miles southeast. This theory is undermined by the lack of any reference to an insurgent attack near Oradour-sur-Vayres during this period.

The Machefer family in Oradour. All of the people pictured here, except for the father, were killed by the SS during the June 10, 1944, massacre. Oradour-sur-Glane, France, October 1943.

Despite the extensive attention given to the massacre, few of the SS men responsible were prosecuted. Diekmann died in combat three weeks after the massacre. German authorities refused to extradite Lammerding to France, despite his conviction and death sentence in absentia by the Bordeaux court in 1953, citing constitutional prohibitions against extraditing German citizens. The state prosecutor’s office in Frankfurt reopened Lammerding's case in 1961 but halted proceedings in 1964 due to insufficient evidence. Lammerding died in West Germany in 1971.

In 1953, a French military court in Bordeaux tried 21 former members of the 2nd SS Division for crimes committed at Oradour-sur-Glane and Tulle. Fourteen of the defendants were ethnic Germans from Alsace. The court convicted 20 of them, sentencing two to death and the rest to prison terms ranging from five to 20 years. However, amnesties and pardons resulted in all the convicts, including the two sentenced to death, being released within five years of the trial.

The Legacy: Remembering the Fallen

The Oradour-sur-Glane massacre stands as one of the most heinous war crimes committed on French soil during World War II. Adolf Diekmann, the officer who ordered the atrocity, was killed in action shortly after, thereby escaping justice. In the post-war years, several SS officers involved in the massacre were brought to trial, though many of the sentences were met with controversy and deemed insufficient by the survivors and their families.

The remains of the town

Today, Oradour-sur-Glane is preserved as a memorial village. Visitors walk through the silent streets, frozen in time, bearing witness to the charred remnants of everyday life abruptly halted. The cemetery houses a memorial to the victims, a sombre place of reflection on the fragility of peace and the depths of human cruelty.



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