Forgotten Massacres of Summer 1944
As the German president and his French counterpart paid an historic visit of reconciliation to Oradour, the headline in Liberation, the leftwing Paris paper, reminded readers of the significance of the event: “Oradour-sur-Glane, village martyr de la barbarie nazie“.
As the videos below show it was the feared German elite SS division Das Reich ordered to move up from Montauban SW France to Normandy to repel the Allied landings, that along the way carried out the atrocious massacre of 10 June 1944, in which 642 people, including 247 women and 205 children under the age of 15 were shot or burned and the village razed.
The visit September 4 by German President Joachim Gauckand, and French President Francois Hollande to render homage at a ceremony commemorating the World War II massacre is the first ever such visit of contrition and apology by an incumbent German leader. As the two heads of state paused, hands clasped in the silence of this memorial, the memory of other, less well-documented, wartime atrocities in France is being re-examined.
Here is a video clip released by the Élysée showing highlights of that visit:
For France and its wartime allies are preparing to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War and the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings that heralded VE Day in WWII and the French are keenly aware of their duty to remind today’s generations of the horrors of past wars.
Writing in a recent issue of the French edition of Slate magazine Antoine Bourguilleau poignantly traced events.
Here is part of his account: “Maillé, Argenton-sur-Creuse, Vassieux-en-Vercors are among the forgotten massacres of the summer of 1944. In the long list of the martyred cities and villages of France during the spring and summer of Liberation, there were others apart from Oradour-sur-Glane and Tulle.
“On August 25, 2008, sixty-four years after the liberation of Paris, for instance President Nicolas Sarkozy paid tribute to the 124 victims of the village of Maillé (Indre-et-Loire) and suddenly a whole generation in France was made aware that the liberation of France in 1944 was accompanied by numerous massacres.
“On the morning of August 25, 1944, while Paris was about to be liberated, German soldiers surrounded the village of Maillé and for a little over two hours, the soldiers unleashed their fury. Of the 500 inhabitants, 124 were killed by bullets, bayonets or in the blaze that followed when the solders set fire to buildings. By noon it was all over, but sentries blocked access and prevented any help arriving. An 88mm artillery gun was deployed on a height overlooking the village and at nightfall an artillery bombardment was launched. Shots were fired at the village by German military convoys circulating nearby. The blaze and the bombing left 52 out of the 60 houses in the town destroyed or severely damaged. The ages of the victims ranged from three months to 89 years. German soldiers slaughtered everyone and everything that was within reach: men, women, children and pets.
“So who was responsible? The German Justice Department through the Dortmund prosecutor Ulrich Maass opened an investigation in 2004 — in France as in Germany the crimes of the Third Reich are not barred by time limits. This showed that there is now little doubt that among the killers, were elements of the 17th SS Götz von Berlichingen Panzergrenadier Division while a certain Gustav Schlüter (the spelling of his name varies) seems to have played a significant role in this terrible affair although some still wonder whether the truth about the massacre of Maillé will ever be fully known.
“What is known and with absolute accuracy has come from the moving testimonies of survivors who described a nightmare of rampaging soldiers killing in cold blood. The historian Sebastian Chevereau, who runs the Maison du souvenir de Maillé, the Maillé Remembrance museum, told the Arte TV channel: ‘All the children of Maillé were shot at close range. There was no indiscriminate firing at Maillé, which just further adds to the horror. Everyone who was killed was shot face to face.’
“What ‘justification’ could there have been for such a massacre? Maillé borders the Bordeaux-Paris railway line that was strategic for the retreating Reich armies: the Germans needed to evacuate their armies following the threatened Allied breakthrough in the north and the landing in Provence in the south. On several occasions, the resistance blew up the roads near Maillé, perhaps a little too close to the village, as one resistance fighter acknowledged many years later confessing that he felt responsible for the German reprisals against the villagers that resulted. But the sabotage was not the only cause. It was also reported that the day before the massacre, two German vehicles patrolling around the town were been targeted by the resistance. Two SS men were injured.
“Could this act have triggered the massacre? Even today, we still do not know the precise reasons for this tragedy and this just adds to the suffering. What is certain is that 124 of the 500 the town’s residents were slaughtered that morning in August 1944.
“In June 1944, the soldiers of two “Das Reich” SS Panzer Division already had a terrible reputation. On June 9 after part of the city of Tulle (coincidentally President Hollande’s power base), had been taken by the resistance, Das Reich soldiers aided by local militias seized hostages and hanged 120 of them — that is three for each German soldier killed during the assault on the city the day before. This was common practice on the Eastern Front.
“On that day of horror the victims were separated into groups of ten to be strung up from balconies around the town, while the organizer of the mass hangings sat drinking cafe on a street terrace with his subordinates. In the end, 99 people were hanged in Tulle and many others were deported. The following day, this same division committed the terrible massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane. The justification? The Resistance had taken an officer of the regiment known as “Der Führer” prisoner. The Waffen-SS decided to make an example of the village.
“So why is Oradour so well remembered while Tulle and Maillé tend to be overlooked? Mainly because a decision was made to keep the ruins of Oradour-sur-Glane unchanged and intact. Those hanged at Tulle were of course later removed and buried leaving but the memory of the tragedy alive in the town. Maillé was rebuilt and while clearly not forgetting the affair locally, people have moved on with their lives. Nearly 70 years later, Oradour-sur-Glane has the same appearance as the village had on June 10th after the massacre. At the entrance of the site, signs invite visitors to observe silence. It is hardly necessary: the atmosphere is so heavy that it just happens.
“Another reason is that the Oradour massacre is so well documented. The names of those responsible are known especially after a sensational trial held in 1953 in Bordeaux, which saw twenty defendants answer charges, including some from Alsace-Moselle who had been conscripted into the Wehrmacht. On February 12, 1953 all these Alsatians were sentenced to various punishments (death for the single volunteer soldier, penal servitude or imprisonment for others) in a trial that led to huge protests. In Alsace the outcome left the inhabitants feeling stigmatized and ostracized by the national French community — emotions fuelled by local MPs and mayors. In the Limousin, people remained indignant because they felt all those on trial should have been sentenced to death. This indignation was reinforced after an amnesty on February 19, 1953, that released the convicted Alsatians. The Germans sentenced were also subsequently released — the price for later Franco-German rapprochement. Nearly 70 years later, the anger has still not fully dissipated in Haute-Vienne”.
The writer goes on to list the other towns and villages subjected to similar horrors as the liberation of France advanced that summer of 1944.
Among the litany of terrible events: On 11 June 1944, after the Allies entered the village of Graignes in Normandy and American paratroopers occupied it, soldiers of the 17th SS Panzergrenadier, recaptured the town and slaughtered 32 Americans soldiers and 31 civilians accused of helping them; at Argenton-sur-Creuse, 53 people were shot including local maquis by the same “Das Reich” troops; the town of Bagnères-de-Bigorre was the target of a punitive Nazi operation which saw 32 people killed in the town in retaliation for “terrorist” acts, on June 11, 1944; at Dun-les-Places 27 civilians were killed and the village was partially destroyed on June 27, 1944; on 11 June 1944, at Mussidan, in the Dordogne, Germans shot 52 people in reprisal for sabotage of the nearby railway; at Saint-Sixte, in the Lot-et-Garonne, 14 gypsies, including six children, were shot by an SS unit which also hanged 11 people the same day in the village of Dunes; at Vassieux-en-Vercors at the end of July 1944, the Germans landed by gliders, supported by local militias and retook a village where the Resistance was entrenched. They killed 101 fighters, before torturing and killing 73 civilians; at Ascq in the north, on April 2, 1944, two months before D-Day, elements of the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend, furious that their convoy had been attacked near the town, plundered, brutalized and massacred 86 people.
Story: Ken Pottinger
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