The Nazis in France Towards the end of WW2
On a recent visit to a friend in Limousin, France, we decided to spend a day at Oradour-sur-Glane not far from the city of Limoges. We chose this very special place because it's of huge significance in the history of world events. Specifically the Second World war.
In June of 1944, Hitler's elite group of soldiers the Waffen SS were rampaging through the middle of France, in search of resistance fighters and anyone else they thought might be involved in covert activities.
Small villages in particular were being targeted, like Oradour-sur-Glane, a sleepy ancient settlement on the river Glane, in the rolling hills and fertile countryside of middle France.
The Waffen SS were ruthless, swift operators. Their strategy was to enter a village, gather up suspects, interrogate, torture and if needs be, execute those suspected of being members or helpers of the French resistance.
Sometimes whole communities were wiped out and their villages destroyed.
These were desperate times. Many in the SS knew the allied forces were winning the war and yet they continued with their atrocious killing policy. What sticks in the throat is that France was liberated only a few months after this event took place.
The outrageous attack on Oradour ended with 181 men, 254 women and 207 children shot dead. This was the worst ever second world war massacre in France.
Thankfully, five managed to escape the bullets,incineration and bombs and live to tell the tale.
Background: Hitler's Hatred of France
Adolf Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf that he had a desire to destroy the power of France once and for all. This feeling grew whilst he was serving on the front line in the First World War, which Germany lost.
When his troops entered Paris in June 1940 - a feat accomplished using the blitzkrieg method (fast, powerful movement of troops and artillery) - Hitler was overjoyed.
The French government were in no position to offer much resistance. Isolated and with a weak military force, the economic situation in the country meant they had to ask for an armistice 8 days later.
Hitler's army occupied only the north and west of France, the French government moving to Vichy to run the rest of the country.
Later on in the campaign SS divisions began their relentless search for resistance fighters throughout the whole of France. The Oradour atrocity occurred during one of the last forays into the south of the country.
War Crimes - What Do You Think?
Should all war crimes be investigated? How many years have to pass before we say, it's too late for justice?
Or is it right to put no time limits on a war crime in order to bring those responsible to justice?
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Up To Date Trials: Too Late For Justice?
The story of Oradour-sur-Glane is one of terror and mindless criminality. Those who carried out the murders are mostly long gone but one member of the Waffen SS that day still lives. He's an 89 year old grandfather and has been on trial in Germany for crimes against humanity. He denies ever having fired a shot but claims that he thinks of Oradour each and every day of his life.
Soldier X was a mere 19 years of age on that fateful day. According to his testimony he was ordered to guard one of the streets leading into Oradour. He remembers hearing the loud bangs and machine gun fire as his fellow SS comrades carried out their orders down in the village centre.
He recalls trying to stop a boy on a bicycle from entering the street but says he was over-ruled by a commanding officer. The boy presumably became one of the victims.
Some see this trial of an old man as a step too far. After all, as a 19 year old fresh to the front line what was soldier X to do?
It's difficult to know what's best. Is 70 years too late for justice? Or do we owe it to the victims of war crimes to carry out investigations without any time limits?
A Personal Story
My father served in the Royal Navy during the second world war. Like many young British men and women he was motivated to fight because of the outrageous cruelties displayed by the Nazi regime. Hitler's will had to be broken, it was that simple.
Britain, the USA and Russia, plus many other countries making up the allied effort, finally overcame Hitler's forces in the summer of 1945.
Listening to my father's stories about the war always gave me a spine tingling sensation. They were exciting yes, even riveting, but there was always an element of darkness about them. The horror was never far away.
He often said that he'd rather not have been there, which was an odd thing for me to ponder. On a huge destroyer ship, capable of sending missiles miles inland, he said that he had a job to do, like everyone else, and they just had to see it through to the end.
War is war, you have to succeed and survive if you can, or suffer the consequences of failure.
Walking around Oradour-sur-Glane I think I understand him now.
Oradour-sur-Glane, Limousin, France
How To Get To Oradour-sur-Glane
By car - take the A20 from Paris, head south all the way towards Limoges. Turn off on N520 then take E603 and D3 to Oradour-sur-Glane.
By Train - SNCF run regular trains to Limoges from Paris. From Limoges take the coach or taxi or hire a car.
Entry to the village is free. In the visitor centre you can buy books, postcards and other items.
The Village of Martyrs
Oradour-sur-Glane has an educational centre near the large car park. Many school children visit each year, from all over the world. I'm sure they take back with them very powerful reminders of what it means to be human, and how fragile peace can be.
The old ruined village can't help but make an impact. I was caught completely off guard driving in from the main road - to the right were the rows of blackened walls and ruined buildings - in complete contrast to the neat houses and farmsteads of the new village.
All the women and children lost their lives in the church, which was then set on fire. There's little left inside but you can still see the altar and one or two effigies. A wooden confession box has been placed in one corner.
Perhaps the most significant object is the bell, misshapen because it has melted. It lies on the dry scorched floor near the entrance, having fallen through the wooden ceiling when the fire took hold.
The light teases,
goes straight through
a ruin, window
shadows in the wrong
Where is the centre
On a film set
where lizards wait
for the action,
grim smiling extras
on dusty trees
and unreal streets.
You shouldn't be here
eye to eye with
phantoms on tiles
in the boulangerie.
Across the street
the life of voices
takes to the air.
There's pink blossom.
A torture plaque.
Cars living on.
And the dark well
wants me to sing.
Light tricks us all,
benign yet revealing
priceless scrap slowly
feasts on the drama
All images by chef-de-jour unless otherwise stated.
© 2014 Andrew Spacey
Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on September 04, 2014:
It's nice of you to drop by Eliza, thank you. I'd recommend a visit to this village for everyone.
Lisa McKnight from London on September 04, 2014:
You've put such wonderful effort into this article, I really enjoyed reading it through. Thank you for reminding us of the tragedy that southern France suffered during WWII.
Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on June 08, 2014:
Wise words indeed. Thank you for the visit and comment I really appreciate it.
AnimalWrites from Planet Earth on June 08, 2014:
Interesting hub chef-de-jour. It never fails to amaze me what cruelty humans can unleash against other humans. However, how much blame a 19 year old under orders can take, I don't know. I think its more the men who gave the orders and fuelled the hate to begin with who are most at fault.
Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on April 27, 2014:
Thank you for the comment and visit Jodah, always appreciated. This is such an incredible place, open to the elements, a reminder of the dark days and a memorial to those who died and who we can't forget. Take care.
John Hansen from Gondwana Land on April 26, 2014:
Great hub chef. I had never heard of Oradour-sur-Glane before. The images of destruction are amazing, as is your poem and in fact the entire hub. Voted up.