May 01, 2020

Oradour-sur-Glane. Walking into a Nazi atrocity

On the 10th of June 1944, an SS Panzer Division entered Oradour-Sur-Glane, a small picturesque village not far from the wine-growing region of Bordeaux. In a barbaric act of violence, the villagers were murdered and many of the buildings burnt down.

Oradour-Sur-Glane would just remain a footnote among many atrocities committed during the Second World War if it had not been for General De Gaulle deciding that the village should not be rebuilt but stand as a memorial to the cruelty of the Nazi occupation, and it remains one of the most haunting and disturbing places to visit in the west of France.

On that fateful day in June 1944, an officer of the SS had been reportedly captured by the French resistance in a nearby town. A large SS unit, advancing rapidly to the north to try to halt the Allied invasion of Normandy, which had just begun, was told of the capture and sealed off the village near where they were camped.

In an act of terrifying revenge, the men of Oradour-Sur-Glane were taken into several barns where they were machine-gunned, while the women and children were taken to the church, which was locked, and then burnt with an incendiary device. Those who tried to escape through the windows were shot.

Oradour-Sur-Glane before the war
642 residents of the village were murdered. Only a few managed to escape the atrocity. Even the German high command were appalled, and steps were taken to investigate what happened, but few steps were taken as the commander, Adolf Diekmann, was killed in Normandy two weeks later, and the Nazi forces were in disarray as the war came to an end.

It was not until the Bordeaux trials of 1953 that justice was sought. Although few were happy with the outcome. Many of those involved were now in East Germany and extradition was refused. Of those left, the majority were from the Alsace region of France which Germany had annexed early in the war, and their defence of being forced to act against their will was accepted, and they were given an eventual amnesty, causing large protests outside of the court.

The haunting photographs of the residents as you enter the village

It is an incredibly moving experience to visit Oradour-Sur-Glane today. The approach is via a small tunnel. Photographs of the murdered inhabitants, empty white spaces with just the name mark where none could be found, line the tunnel walls.

This helps make the site more than just a museum to learn about the past. The atrocity is made real as you look into the eyes of those that were killed, their lives suddenly cut short on a summer day.

A simple marble sign asking visitors to remember is placed at the village entrance. Then you walk down a lane way to the main village road, large and prosperous enough to have a single tram line running through it.

The buildings are slowly decaying but much of the life of the small village is as it was. Petrol pumps by the garage slowly rust. Signs are still clear, marking out where the dentist worked, boulangeries baked, stores that sold wine  and the imposing Post Office.

Cars are left where they were parked in the streets, rusting bicycles lean against walls. The church is a particularly sombre place, where so many pointlessly died, the interior stark and bare after being burned down.

De Gaulle's decision to keep the whole village as a memorial was one of incredible foresight. There were many atrocities in war, horrible civilian massacres, not least as occurred in Lidice, two years to the very day in  1942.

To read about wartime atrocities is one thing, but to be able to actually visit, see and walk through the village of Oradour-Sur-Glane brings history to life in a way that would just not be possible in the traditional Second World War memorials of marble crosses and plaques.

For information on how to get to Oradour-Sur-Glane, entry times and much more, check out this excellent site.

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