Towards Disappearance

James Francken

  • Matyred Village: Commemorating the 1944 Massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane by Sarah Farmer
    California, 323 pp, £19.95, March 1999, ISBN 0 520 21186 3

‘Passerby, go tell other peoples that this village died to save Verdun so that Verdun could save the world.’ President Poincaré’s declaration, inscribed on a simple marker, set in stone those memories of French resistance to German aggression in World War One that he hoped would be indelible. By 1920, defences along the Verdun salient were mouldering away, the battlefields being pillaged for copper and steel. The sacrifice made by the 3rd Company of the 137th Infantry Regiment, buried alive by German bombardment while holding their line of trenches, was a fading legend. The soldiers’ bayonets, which protruded from the earth above their upright bodies, had been hacked at, pieces taken away as souvenirs; some had been stolen. An American banker donated 500,000 francs towards the preservation of what has become known as the Trench of the Bayonets. Deciding that ‘nothing could typify the tragedy and heroism of the bayonet trench better than the trench itself,’ the architect of the Verdun monument designed a concrete covering for the site which would stave off decay. He guaranteed that it would ‘last for at least five hundred years’. The authenticity of what was preserved is uncertain: exploding howitzer shells could not completely fill a section of trench with earth; the trench is more likely to have been covered over by other soldiers out of respect; the bayonets may have been planted to mark a mass grave. But the significance of the site was assured, given Pétain’s status as the ‘Victor of Verdun’ and France’s saviour, according to the young Captain Charles de Gaulle – wounded and taken prisoner under Pétain’s command – ‘when a choice had to be made between ruin and reason’.

In 1945, de Gaulle chose to muffle the divisions of the Vichy regime by finding national unity in the suffering of what he called the ‘thirty years’ war’. Maintaining the ruins of the martyred village of Oradour-sur-Glane played an important part in the construction of this postwar order. Le Monde recognised the memorial’s importance: ‘The name of this village in the Limousin wiped out in a single afternoon in June 1944 ... acquired such resonance that it alone echoes in the France of the Liberation with an emotional charge equal to that of Verdun.’

Sarah Farmer’s account of Oradour’s destruction is muted:

Four days after the Allied landings in Normandy, SS troops encircled the town of Oradour in the rolling farm country of the Limousin and rounded up its inhabitants. In the marketplace they divided the men from the women and children. The men were marched off to barns nearby and shot. The soldiers locked the women and children in the church, shot them and set the building (and then the rest of the town) on fire. Those residents of Oradour who had been away for the day, or had managed to escape the round-up, returned to a blackened scene.

André Desourteaux had been away, working for the postal service in Limoges. Nine members of his family were among the 642 people who died. Only five of the men in the village survived, protected from the fusillade by the bodies that fell on top of them. Screened by smoke and the high altar, Marguerite Rouffanche escaped from the sanctuary of the church, climbing out of a window and onto a grassy shoulder below. Shot at and wounded, she crawled to the garden of the presbytery, where she covered herself with earth in a patch of peas – the only female survivor. Eight-year-old Roger Godfrin saved himself, avoiding capture by running from the school building toward the Glane. Another boy who had not gone to school that day – attendance was high because of a medical inspection – also lived. In outlying hamlets, otherwise untouched by the destruction, ‘there wasn’t a child left,’ as Desourteaux put it: ‘children who left in the morning for school ... didn’t comeback.’

It was with ‘deep emotion’ that Pétain learned of ‘the cruel and inhumane treatment imposed on the commune of Oradour-sur-Glane’; he proposed, ‘as soon as circumstances permitted’, to send a Cabinet member ‘to bow, in his name, on the spot where so many innocent victims ... died such an atrocious death’. In fact, the atrocity in Oradour undermined Vichy’s authority. The Pétainist Government had encouraged reactionary memories of a rural nation. The soil provided the continuity of an essential and timeless France: ‘the land does not lie’ was one of the peasant Marshal’s slogans. But the events at Oradour exposed collaborationist policies designed to ‘avoid the worst’. A government spokesman went on the radio to mollify reactions, making one particular schoolteacher the subject of his broadcast. While he dismissed the incident as the consequence of provocation by French citizens disloyal to Pétain – ‘it is the French who are morally responsible for the death of this woman and a lot of others’ – for many it was the moral turpitude of a compliant Vichy that had brought about the atrocity. The devastated landscape was an uncomfortable reminder. Easy piety and placatory gestures increased condemnation of Pétain – ‘Pértain better not come bow in front of the burnt remains of the children and women of Oradour,’ warned a pamphlet produced by the Resistance in Limoges – anticipating the obloquy of his old age.

Resistance may have caused reprisal, although in Oradour the connection was obscure. The first partisan groups in the Limousin and the Puy-de-Dôme had been organised in the spring of 1942; by 1943 the Maquis were involved in the sabotage of German positions in the region, damaging bridges, telephone lines and railways. Success depended on the support of local communities, who were liable to resent the intervention of the Résistants (‘they go after the Boches, kill some, and then take off. And when the Gestapo came ... the Maquis were quite careful not to show themselves’) when they had to bear the brunt of German retaliation. On the night of 5 June 1944, the BBC sent out coded messages to Resistance forces. They marked the beginning of widespread operations which Eisenhower hoped would allow Allied forces the time to establish a beachhead on the Normandy coast. The Maquisards of the Corrèze led an attack on a German garrison at Tulle and were only frustrated by the arrival of regiments of the Waffen SS tank division Das Reich: 37 Germans were killed in the siege. On 9 June, the SS hanged 99 of the men of Tulle from balconies and trees along the town’s main street. The following day, a different unit of the same division attacked Oradour. Given that there had been no resistance in Oradour itself and that the nearest Maquis were eight miles away, why was the location targeted? Fifteen years ago, Albert Hivernaud’s Petite Histoire d’Oradour-sur-Glane conceded that the causes of the offence were still largely unexplained – ‘despite the efforts of investigators and historians, all that we know for certain is the identity of the troops who carried out the massacre.’ ‘The precise reason why this town was chosen is still unclear,’ Farmer writes. This uncertainty made Oradour especially suitable for commemoration. It was untouched by conflict between the Maquisards and the wider population; memories of shared suffering allowed for consensus.

Das Reich had fought on the Eastern Front and their measures in the Limousin – ‘Little Russia’, as the German troops called the region – continued the brutality they had shown there: the German officer responsible for the hangings at Tulle maintained that ‘we killed more than 100,000 men at Kharkov and Kiev, this here is nothing for us.’ Twenty-one of the soldiers involved in the massacre at Oradour were brought before a military court in Bordeaux in 1953. The difficulty of reaching an equitable verdict was apparent: the majority of the men were French, Alsatians serving in the German Army. Alsace was a region of fragmented attachments, ceded at the end of the Franco-Prussian War and returned to France in 1918. When it was again lost in 1940, those Alsatians who refused to give up their French citizenship were forced to leave, many of those who remained were subject to forcible conscription. Support for the soldiers on trial was considerable; a journalist for L’Aurore was told by one Alsatian: ‘the Oradour affair, for us, is a new Dreyfus Affair.’

At the opening session the judge emphasised that ‘this trial is, and will remain, a trial of Nazism.’ Yet the proceedings descended to a more local confrontation between the need to punish collaborators and the need for reconciliation, resulting in light penalties that were rapidly suspended. The defence produced witnesses from the Alsatian Resistance, who testified to the difficulty of defying the German authorities and the impossibility of desertion; the youth of the defendants was stressed – most had been under 18 when drafted. It was argued that Germans and Alsatians should not be tried together and that to reject motions to try them separately would be to ratify the Nazi annexation of Alsace. The prison sentences that were originally passed – ranging from 5 to 12 years – met with levels of opposition that led to Parliamentary involvement. The National Assembly approved a Bill expunging the convictions. In keeping with France’s treatment of the prisoners of the postwar purge (40,000 collaborators imprisoned in 1945, 19 still in jail in 1958), the Alsatian soldiers were freed. The German Government, dismayed that only the Alsatians had been absolved, ensured a Presidential pardon for the Germans who had been sentenced to periods of hard labour and, in one case, death. Political expediency made an amnesty necessary.

By preserving the ruins of Oradour as they stood, it was hoped that the memory of the massacre could be perpetuated without the inevitable interpretation of the event that any other kind of monument would impose. The President of the Provisional French Republic visited the site, establishing Oradour’s national significance – ‘Oradour is the symbol of what happened to the country itself. In order to mend, and to maintain the memory, it is necessary to remain together, as we are in this moment’ – and precipitating the state’s expropriation of the land. The National Assembly introduced legislation classifying the village as a historical monument and site of ‘national pilgrimage’: ‘It is necessary to leave to future generations the testimony to Nazi barbarism and the suffering of the French people during four years of occupation.’ The bullet holes in the walls of the church were protected with straw, the bloodstains conserved by a procedure suggested by a curator at the Louvre. The church bell partially melted by the heat of the fire was displayed, along with objects found inside the building – corset stays, nails from clogs, tapestry scissors. Three hundred thousand people a year now participate in the secular ritual of the tour around the ruin’s forty acres.

Maintaining an appearance of devastation without suggesting neglect has proved extremely difficult. As early as 1946, a representative from the Ministry of National Education acknowledged that while ‘it is relatively easy to maintain the church in the state in which it appeared after the fire ... it is unfortunately not the same for the village as a whole because of the materials used in its construction. The houses of Oradour are largely made of puddled clay’ (a mixture of sand and clay): ‘materials that readily crumble and cannot be conserved in a ruined state’. Erosion by rain and cold weather was inevitable, according to Oradour’s principal architect: ‘A ruined condition is, by definition, a furtive condition, a moment in an evolution, more or less rapid but irreversible, towards complete disappearance.’ And the postwar silence that had effaced the conflicts of Vichy – ‘four years to be stricken from our history’, as the period was described at Pétato’s trial – allowed an accurate record of the atrocity to fall into oblivion.

The dead hand of the Gaullist myth of wartime unity was eventually lifted as historians, filmmakers and novelists began to confront the memory of Vichy. Patrick Modiano’s amnesiac narrators are frequently trying to establish their identities in the darkness of the Occupation, in novels that pass themselves off as unreliable memoirs: one narrator, without identity papers and uncertain of his own name, constructs an autobiographical account of his infiltration of a Resistance group which encourages him to join the Gestapo as a mole; another becomes an amateur detective, writing about his search for the evidence of a missing father rumoured to have been a collaborator. Newspaper cuttings, telephone books and photographs expose this as fiction. Accounts of events at Oradour had troubled journalists anxious about the faithfulness of their coverage: ‘To the Anglo-Saxons we sometimes pass for an imaginative people. It is said without cause that we exaggerate.’ It was felt that an accurate account of Nazi brutality was necessary, ‘bringing together unimpeachable evidence and conclusive photographs ... It’s a question of proclaiming the truth.’

Previous books on Oradour have attempted to do just that. Robin Mackness’s breathless Oradour: Massacre and Aftermath (1988) is, however, a dubious account of the destruction; it argues that the SS chose Oradour as a target because a convoy of tanks had been ambushed on the morning of the attack by a Resistance group which discovered and stole a cache of gold bars. Mackness includes in the book’s long list of illustrations the photograph of a wrecked car without windows or wheels, parked in front of the marketplace; the image is captioned: ‘The doctor’s car, unmoved since June 1944’. The Observer accompanied an article about President Chirac’s intention to attend a dedication ceremony in Oradour on 9 July with a photo of the same car, captioned: ‘Frozen in time, Oradour remains as the Nazis left it.’ But efforts to keep the ruins as they were change history and petrify the past. Recent investigation has shown that the car on the marketplace belonged to the wine merchant; the rescue teams who came to clear the ruins found it blocking the road and moved it to its present position. The body of the car has been sanded and waxed, the interior painted with tar. As the village crumbled, fallen masonry was restored and mud walls maintained. Modern Oradour runs the risk of honouring a reconstruction rather than an event – and a reconstruction that is not always accurate.