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Oradour-sur-Glane, Why Everyone Should Know This Story

by Ruth Murdoch  |  December 2018  | France, Oradour-sur-Glane

What Happened There?

During World War II, two hundred Waffen SS (pronounced Vaffen SS) the armed wing of the Nazi Party’s SS organisation committed an act of sheer terror.  They stormed this quiet village and massacred all those people they could find, a total of 642 men, women and children.

They rounded everyone up on the pretence of checking their documentation, a relatively common occurrence.  Therefore, at the time no one seemed overly concerned as they had no reason to suspect what was about to unfold.  They were forced by the officers to the town square (although it’s not a square at all).  Anyone who resisted was immediately shot dead.

The area to the right is where everyone assembled

They then separated the men and teenage boys from the woman and children.  The men were divided and sent to six different buildings* throughout the village.  In one of the buildings the perpetrators lined up two machine guns in the doorway and proceeded to open fire in a sweeping motion while the men stood facing the back wall.  For anyone who hadn’t died instantly, they then received another bullet to finish the job off.  Similar fates befell the men in the other buildings.  The soldiers were instructed to cover the bodies with straw and oil and burn them.

The women and children were taken to the local church.  Here they were locked in and smoke bombs were set off inside the church.  While the woman and children were screaming and gasping from the thick smoke, some of the SS fired into the mass with machine guns.  The bullet holes in the walls remain today.  The church was then set alight while the soldiers stood outside listening to the screams of those inside and from their position of safety threw grenades into the building.  They waited there watching until the roof of the church collapsed and the sounds inside died away.

NB: *There are many blogs, posts, and stories written that talk about these men being taken to ‘barns’.  When I think about a barn it conjures up in my mind a single building on a farm that houses hay, farm equipment, some chickens and the occasional cattle.  Here in Oradour-sur-Glane the buildings that we saw these men taken into were flanked by adjoining buildings either side on a main street.  Perhaps we have a different understanding of what the word ‘barn’ means to those from France.  Anyway, I cannot accurately recall the information from the museum about where these men were taken, so if anyone can shed some knowledgable light on this, please feel free to leave a comment below and I will ensure this post is updated with accurate information.  I didn’t feel it was correct to put the word ‘barn’ into this post without verification.

Inside the Church a Memorial of WWI Victims Bears The Scars Of Bullet Holes Meant For
The Women & Children

The Church Ceiling Collapsed
Courtesy of Museum Photos

The Church Today

After everyone was dead, the soldiers then set fire to the bodies in an apparent effort to conceal what had happened.  They also put the entire village to the torch and although the buildings are made of stone, the roofs and large parts of the walls collapsed in the ensuing inferno.

Photo Courtesy of the SS

A Tribute To Those Who Perished In The Church 

The following day orders were received to bury the bodies and bits of bodies in a mass grave making identification impossible.  Fewer than ten percent of the victims’ bodies could be identified which made the mourning that much harder for any surviving relatives.

Sadly this was not an isolated incident.  According to the International Military Tribunal all the Nazi armed forces including the Waffen SS, security forces and SS police, reserve troops and the Wehrmacht followed orders involving killing and terrorising civilians, which were later deemed to be war crimes.  There were many horrific events of mass murder documented on both the Western and Eastern Fronts.   What makes Oradour-sur-Glane unique is that the remains of the village have been left virtually undisturbed as a continuous and powerful reminder of how brutal and callous mankind can be to each other.

About The Population

Of the 642 victims, 638 had known ages.  Amongst the deceased were 62 children less than 6 months old and 263 less than 21 years.  Thirty-nine people were aged over 71 years old, eight of these were 81 years plus, with the balance of 340 people aged between 21 and 70 years.

On 10th June 2017, a tribute to those people who were murdered was unveiled.  The purpose behind this gallery is to think of these people as individuals, rather than as a collective group.

The individual portraits, where possible, are displayed on porcelain plaques lining both walls on the corridor as you enter through to the village.  Where photos are missing a name and age is written in the ever-hopeful attempt to find those from absent victims.

Individuals’ Photos Line The Corridor Leading Out To The Village

When Did This Happen?

It was Saturday, 10th June 1944.  Oradour-sur-Glane was especially busy on this day as there was a school vaccination program for the children being carried out here.  Tobacco distribution day also bought people in from the surrounding areas.

 

Why Did It Happen?

Terror was an effective weapon used by the Germans and the Nazis wanted to ensure that this weapon be used on a regular basis.  Encouraged by the recent D-Day landings, the French resistance had taken control of the areas to the west and east of Oradour-sur-Glane, however this village had little resistance activity and effectively became a sitting duck for the SS.

It appears that the events at Oradour-sur-Glane were intended to demonstrate to the population that terror could happen anywhere, anytime and that attempts to disrupt the German war effort would be severely punished.

There were no specific reason given as to exactly why the village was selected or why it was so completely and ruthlessly annihilated, despite several urban myths and earlier theories arising in the following years.

Click on the middle right-hand side of the picture to show more or wait for the slideshow

Urban Myths Put To Rest

Was Oradour-sur-Glane a case of mistaken identity like many claim?  There are rumours saying that the real town the SS were looking for was in fact Oradour-sur-Vayres.  However, that’s all it was, a rumour.  According to the audio commentary at the museum, this fact was never substantiated.  On the contrary, it has been proven that there was no case of mistaken identity after all.

Another myth concerned the reason for the attack which suggested that it was in retaliation for the capture of an SS officer by the resistance (even Wikipedia states this).  However again new information has now put this one to rest.  Yes, there were two incidents of captured SS officers immediately preceding the event, however, one of the men (and his driver) escaped and fled to the nearby town of Limoges, to arrive during the morning of Saturday 10th June.  A second SS officer was captured in the general area and moved to a secret location, however at the time of the incident these two events were unlinked.  The SS themselves used the disappearance of their Officer as later justification for the Oradour massacre.

A third story tells of how the SS shot the men below the knees to prevent them from escaping.  However, the orders of the SS were to kill everyone, so there was no need for inflicting incapacitating injuries and the information at the museum suggests that the SS shot to kill and finished off the survivors before incinerating the bodies.  There was no specific account of wounding, according to official sources that I have been able to verify in the research, despite seeing this recorded in numerous places and blogs.

An entire family killed

Look at the name Thomas, so many family members gone!

They Were Just Children!

The New Town Rebuilt

On 10th June 1947 President Vincent Auriol presided over the ceremony of laying the “foundation stone” of the new village of Oradour-sur-Glane.  The new town, which took over six years to build, was an exact replica of the old town, except that there was no train station.  The new town sadly entered into a period of mourning that was to last for decades.

The extended mourning period was due in part to the fact that the SS burnt many of the bodies beyond recognition making identification near impossible for grieving relatives from outside Oradour.  Additionally, the fact that no-one was brought to any kind of justice for committing these atrocities helped to fuel the mourning.  It wasn’t until the 1980’s when a new generation inhabited this town did the mourning period officially end.

 

The Silent Treatment

In the Bordeaux War Crime Trials after the war, the relatives and survivors of Oradour-sur-Glane sought justice and expected that those responsible would be tried, sentenced and punished appropriately.  However, the majority of the soldiers, officers and commanders were now dead and many others were in East Germany who refused to extradite them.  Eventually, after eight and a half years, 21 men were brought before the tribunal, found guilty and sentenced to prison.

However, this wasn’t the end of the story due to fourteen of the soldiers being Frenchmen from the province of Alsace, which had been annexed by German at the start of the war.  These soldiers had been forcibly conscripted, e.g. against their will, into the German army and an amnesty on 20th February 1953 freed all such forced conscriptees.  This action so disgusted the locals that politicians, local authorities and local state representatives were not invited to ceremonies organised by the National Association of Victims’ Families and the local council of Oradour-sur-Glane.  All other convicted soldiers were eventually released by 1958.

What isn’t clear from the information made available in the museum is what happened to the six people, one woman and five men who escaped this massacre.  I wonder why none of these people took part in the trial.

Memorial in Cemetery

Children’s Items

Memorial in the New Town

The 1983 Trial In The German Democratic Republic

Lt. Heinz Barth was in command of the 3rd Company of 1st Battalion Der Fuhrer Regiment.  It was thought that all trace of him was lost.  Could it have been that he was wounded and escaped capture by Allied forces?  Accused of taking part in the Oradour-sur-Glane massacre, he was condemned in absentia by the Bordeaux military tribunal in 1953.  Later reintegrated into civilian life in East Germany, in the former zone of Soviet occupation, Barth was ‘traced’ in 1982 and put on trial in East Berlin.  Barth did not deny his involvement but claimed to remember almost nothing.

Being the only SS member involved in the Oradour massacre to have been judged, the trial seemed to be a bit of a sham showing the protection given to former SS officers on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain.

The outcome of the trial was not recorded, however further research suggested he was sentenced to prison and released in 1997.  He died in 2007 at the age of 87.

The Children of Oradour-sur-Glane

Access To The Old Village

The only way into the old village during operational dates is through the superb architecturally designed building that houses the museum, which opened in 1999.  There is disability access to the old town via a lift and the town itself was built on relatively flat land making is easy to get around.  See Opening Times below for more information about access in winter.

Costs

Free entry to the Martyr Village (the name they now give this village).

Entry to the museum including two audio units cost us €19.60.  If you only speak English then it is highly recommended you make the most of the audio guide.  There is a short twelve-minute movie at the end of the museum and the audio provides extensive information not available elsewhere.

It was also thanks to the audio guide that we were able to obtain the answers regarding some of the misconceptions around this event as highlighted earlier.

My only criticism was the lack of closure on certain things.  Apparently, six adults escaped, plus one young boy.  Only one of the women who escaped from the church survived being shot, the other two perished.  There are no accounts for what became of these survivors.  Did they stay in the area, did they ever return, did they go on to live a long life?  It would have been great to have this detail filled in, as I guess we all want to cling onto some happy ending if that was even possible.  Perhaps it wasn’t.

 

Opening Times

From February 1st to 28th February: 9am5pm

From March 1st to 15th May: 9am6pm

From 16th May to 15th September: 9am to 7pm

From 16th September to 31st October: 9am to 6pm

From November 1st to 15th December: 9am5pm

Admittance is up until one hour before closing time.  Believe me, you will want to spend more than an hour here if it is your goal to try to comprehend what went on and to contemplate the many ruined buildings and relics of the lost civilisation here.

Annual closure of the Centre de la Mémoire is from 16th December to 31st January inclusive. During this closed period, the ruins are still accessible between 09:00 to 17:00 via the entrance on the road to Confolens (the D9) opposite the Centre de la Mémoire. The ruins can also be accessed during the dates when the Centre is closed, via the original entrance at the Northern and the Southern ends of the village.

Parking Nearby For Motorhomes

We stayed two nights here, on the first night we parked in the carpark overlooking the old town.  This gave easy and close walking access to the old town.  I’m not sure how busy this place becomes in the height of summer, however there is also an Aire situated 1.3kms further north past the new town.  Here you can find electricity and in the summer months water for a small fee.

Spread The Word

Please help to spread the word about the events of Oradour-sur-Glane by sharing this blog far and wide.  A brief Facebook post reached over 15,500 people in one week and many people had no knowledge of the town or what took place.  That, in my humble opinion, is a real shame.  I believe everyone should know some of the atrocities of war.

If you wish to read further, here’s an excellent link for more information https://www.oradour.info/

Please PIN this far and wide