Alsace and Limousin Still Daggers Drawn

The French regions of Alsace and Limousin remain unreconciled over Nazi War atrocities at Oradour-sur-Glane a state of affairs some believe will only end when the last war survivors pass on.

A photograph taken by Dennis Nilsson during a visit to Oradour-sur-Glane on June 11 2004, exactly 60 years after its destruction by the German army during World War II (Credit: Dennis Nilsson /Wikipedia)

Passions were again inflamed recently when the Court of Appeal at Colmar sentenced Oradour-sur-Glane survivor and author Robert Hébras, 87, to a symbolic one euro fine for damages and 10,000 euros in legal costs for casting doubt on whether the Alsatians had been forced or not to enlist in the Waffen SS in WWII.

According to the French news agency AFP: the book Oradour-sur-Glane, le drame heure par heure by Robert Hébras first published in 1992 (éditions Les Chemins de la mémoire) had included the phrase: “Among the thugs, there were some Alsatians supposedly forcibly enlisted into SS units.”  This statement was removed from subsequent reprints after 2004, but was reinstated in the latest edition published in 2008-2009, leading to a complaint from Alsatian survivors.

The court judgment was released on September 14 and overruled the October 2010 findings of the lower court. On that date the Tribunal de Grande Instance de Strasbourg had rejected a complaint brought by the Associations des évadés et incorporés de force (Adeif) du Bas-Rhin et du Haut-Rhin (the Haut-and Bas-Rhin Associations of escapees and forcibly enlisted (Adeif) also known as the «Malgré-Nous». They demanded the book be withdrawn from bookshops because of what had earlier been described as a ‘tendentious statement’.

The Court of Appeal at Colmar held, however, that the author had “overstepped the boundaries of freedom of expression by calling into question whether the incorporation of young Alsatians into German Waffen SS units had been forcible or voluntary.”

It ruled that Robert Hébras could not invoke his own testimony as reliable because at the time of the massacre “he had not been able to distinguish Nazi German forces from those of Alsace as both were wearing the same uniforms” and even less had he been a witness ” to the forcible conscription of Alsatians into German units.”  The Court of Appeal added that the matters raised were already found to be “historical truth and judicially established”.

In June 1944, Robert Hébras was not yet 20 when the SS Panzer Division Das Reich circled Oradour-sur-Glane his home village in Haute-Vienne to massacre its population. Among the 642 victims were his mother and two sisters. He survived only because he was hidden under the pile of corpses and managed to escape when the barn was subsequently set ablaze.

Nazi war propaganda against French influence in Strasbourg

A feature film, “A life with Oradour”, by Patrick Séraudié was released September 2011 in France and described Robert Hébras’ story in detail noting how 67 years after the terrible events “life for some remains a life filled with many ghosts.”

Reporting on the court hearing the Rue 89 online paper said it had contacted both the author and the Malgré-nous association. The author was reluctant to comment saying he did not want history to be further distorted but said he had withdrawn the phrase in a bid to help bring about reconciliation between Alsace and Limousin. However General Jean-Paul Bailliard, president of the Association Malgré-nous urged the paper to print the “vérité historique” namely that the enlistment of the Alsatian forces in Waffen-SS was a fact recognised as a war crime by the Nuremberg Tribunal.

Filmaker Patrick Séraudié told the paper that when he went to screen his film in Strasbourg in 2011 the climate was “very heated.”  However he said he believed it was now “possible to travel to Oradour-sur-Glane in a car bearing Alsatian registration plates (67 or 68) without being stoned.”

According to Wikipedia: “On orders from Robert Heinrich Wagner, the regional governor of Alsace, on August 25, 1942, some 100,000 Alsatians and 30,000 Mosellans were drafted into the German armed forces. Most of those answering the call served in the army and were sent to the Eastern Front. A smaller number served in the Waffen-SS … Thirteen malgré-nous were involved in the massacre of Oradour-sur-Glane together with one genuine volunteer from Alsace. In a trial in Bordeaux in 1953 they were sentenced to prison terms between 5–11 years, while the volunteer was sentenced to death. The trial caused major civil unrest in Alsace, as most of the malgré-nous had been forced to serve in the Waffen-SS, resulting in a general amnesty by the French National Assembly on 19 February 1953 … After the war a new village was built nearby but then President Charles De Gaulle ordered that the original Oradour be maintained as a permanent memorial.”

More reading on the subject can be found in this extract dated 2004: A Tale of Two Frances. ” Politicians who refused to recognize the crimes were placed on a plaque–a symbol of shame–in the remnants of the burned out village (now organized under Centre de la Mémoire). Dialogue between the two is still difficult. The Limousin demand recognition of the massacre, and they are unwilling to recognize the precarious situation in which Alsatians found themselves. In the 1980s, one of the malgré-nous sued for a military pension (something which he would be entitled to despite fighting for Germany), but was lambasted by a storm of public opinion. Like Gerhard Schroeder at Normandy this week, current Alsatian politicians are attending memorials of Oradour-sur-Glane. Alsatians have generally stayed away from memorials. The current mayor of Oradour-sur-Glane, Raymond Frugier, has attempted to create dialogue between Limousin and Alsace. He has met with Alsatian politicians for six years. For this memorial, Frugier invited four Alsatian politicians to attend. He wants reconciliation–to create a collective memory of these events–but he insists that certain facts are accepted: Everyone must accept that people on both sides endured terrible suffering … There are [those in Limousin] who refuse to recognize forced incorporation. [In Alsace] there are those who tend to lessen the responsibility of the SS in order to minimize the involvement of the malgré-nous.”

Story: Ken Pottinger

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