Silent Village with Robert Pike

The French History Podcast
Silent Village with Robert Pike
/

Gary: Today’s special episode is an interview with Robert Pike, wherein we discuss his new book, Silent Village: Life and Death in Occupied France, which is about Oradour-sur-Glane, which experienced a Nazi massacre in 1944. Robert Pike is currently a PhD student at Cardiff University. He graduated from the University of Exeter, where he studied history and French in 1998. His doctoral research is entitled An Interdisciplinary Approach to Rural Resistance in Nazi Occupied France. He is also the author of two books about occupied France. The first of these Defying Vichy: Blood, Fear and French Resistance tells the story of the origins of the resistance in the Dordogne, while his second book is the topic of today’s episode. Please enjoy.

Gary: Well, thank you very much for joining us, Robert, you have a very interesting book which has just hit shelves, which is Silent Village: Life and Death in Occupied France, which tells a story that is, I think, pretty well known in France, but maybe not so much outside of France because it’s been overshadowed by the Holocaust and other atrocities committed in World War II. Can you please explain to us what happened at Oradour-sur-Glane?

Robert: Yeah, thanks, Gary. Yeah, so it’s interesting you say that it’s probably not that well known. I think, like you say, in France, it is very, very well known. I think it’s one of those places it’s almost a bit of a rite of passage when you when you go to France, a lot of people, a lot of English and American German people go there sort of on their way south on holiday. But what happened was that just after D-Day, so D-Day was the 6th of June, 1944, and this was the 10th of June, 1944, which was on Saturday, a Saturday morning in France. And in those days, all the kids were at school and it was a pretty much a normal working day. But the SS Panzer division Das Reich, one element of it, was sent into this village Oradour. And it’s important that we think about all those being not just a village. It’s kind of practically a commune. So it’s lots of little villages and hamlets around, as well as kind of the central block. The villages were rounded up and the people in the fields so around it and in the farms around and the after a short while, a short wait. It was probably a couple of hours actually, when the population were told that these the soldiers had reason to believe that there were arms hidden somewhere in the village. Then the men and the women were divided up that the women and the children were taken to the church where they were locked in and the men into these six areas. There were bombs and hangars and warehouses and things. And that’s when the place was, the people were massacred. So, we think within about half an hour of each other that, first of all, the men were shot. And then afterwards, a lot of combustible materials were put on top of them and they were set on fire. And then in the church, a box was brought into the church and again, the doors were closed. But this box was lit and out of it came this acrid smoke and kind of asphyxiated a lot of the people who panic. And then the Germans sort of came into the church. I say the Germans are going to be careful, say the Germans, actually, because I’ll come back to that in a bit. But it wasn’t just German soldiers. There was SS soldiers came in and fired at the remaining people. And then again, the church was set on fire. So, you know, it was a complete a complete massacre of this town’s population. And from that church, one woman managed to escape through a window and from one of the bombs. But I think it was six men escaped miraculously, one of whom is still alive as we speak now. But we’ll I suppose we’ll come back to why it happened. But it was what the French tend to call now, crime gratuit. So it was a little bit unexplained to us as to why it happened other than it was a show of force, really, to show the population that they have to not support the resistance that was happening in that part of France, that moment, particularly with D-Day having recently happened. So in a nutshell, that’s kind of what happened. And I suppose a little bit more depth a little bit later, I suppose.

Gary: Yeah, absolutely. Your book is about the massacre, but it is much more than that. You detail what this village was like before World War Two. You’ve touched on that a little bit. How was more than just a village? You even go back and make some forays into its medieval past. Can you tell us in as much detail as you like what this commune, this village was like?

Robert: Yeah, I mean, it was, you know, this is a village that had been there for a thousand years. And, you know, actually, it’s not even the first kind of massacre that had taken place there.  During the wars of religion, that had been something which I don’t have a lot of detail about. But there have been kind of a battle there. And some of the villages that been killed at that time. But yeah. So this is a normal Limousin village. So it’s about, I suppose, twelve miles or so west of Limoges. So we’re talking just south of central France, I suppose if you want to want to say that not that far from Bordeaux and kind of on the way to Clermont-Ferrand. It was a normal village. It’s a very, even though the city of Limoges which is quite nearby, in fact, that there was a tram that went between the two places, even though it was very close that you were into the countryside. And it was a very sort of rural environment, very agricultural place. I wouldn’t say was a particularly poor village for that part of France. And the reason is because of that tram, it had good links to a city. So there were five tram lines that came out from the Limoges. And so what that meant was villages could go into the city to to work, almost, I suppose, like a commuter train these days. Farmers could go in and sell their wares in the city, in the marketplaces, and people then from the city could come out to this village. And they did on the weekends. It was it was a pleasant place to go. And there were some nice hotels and restaurants and cafes and bars and things there. So it was quite well known for being a nice place to go on the weekends. And people used to take the tram and travel out and go fishing in the Glane. They used to go swimming in the Glane.  It had a big mix of shops. Most of the services for that, for that particular community were based in the bourg of Oradour and some reasonably big places nearby Saint-Junien just down the road as well. It had everything you probably would need, really. You wouldn’t need to go very far out of Oradour. It had patisseries, it had several butchers, it had a post office and a tramway station, you know, and even banks and places where you could buy agricultural materials, places where you could buy fuel and several garages. So it wasn’t a very, very poor place. But at the same time, we were just at that point where farmers would living around the village. A lot of them were tenant farmers. So they kind of, would change farm every year or couple of years. And it was about kind of just making enough to get by, those farmers that lived just outside the village and really within Oradour itself there were some buildings that were a little bit more so bourgeois. So it was a real mix. It was a real mix of people. And politically, there were two, I suppose, political characters that lived there. One was called Josephe Beau and he was a socialist. And the conservative called Paul Desourteaux, came from a line of kind of a bourgeois line of the rural doctors. And he had been mayor a couple of times, but he’d never actually been elected. He kind of got passed down when his father died. Whereas people tended to prefer the socialist.  Joseph Beau, who owned the grocery shop, was quite popular. So when he got the chance to be elected, actually easily won the election. And then when Paul Desourteaux  went off to fight. And then he kept sort of beating him in elections. And then there was this time when in 1941 when Pétain came to power. When really they found an excuse to move him out really and and put Paul Desourteaux back into power, so there was this kind of strange, there was a socialist, I think it was more of a socialist place. But like a lot of places in France at this time, there was an element of conservatism which was always there. And I kind of, I guess where the money lies. A mix of a lot of different types of people in this one little place.

Gary: After the Germans destroyed the village, de Gaulle ordered its ruins left alone, and it became an embodiment of a typical French village that symbolized France’s ordeal during the war. Now, you’ve touched on this a bit, but you argue that it was not necessarily the standard French village. Can you explain why?

Robert: Yeah, I mean, that’s something I didn’t say at the start, actually. Was this decision to maintain this rack of empty shell of a village, which was a decision made by de Gaulle. And I think, there’s a lot of different theories as to why he did this, but he was trying to bring this representation of what France had endured. As you said in the question, everything that France had been through was going to be kind of represented as being a martyrdom. There were some awkward questions after the war. Certainly communism was doing relatively well. And de Gaulle needed to put a lid on that. And he needed to demonstrate or to show to the world that France had suffered in this occupation. And he didn’t want to sort of dwell on any of it. The idea that there have been collaboration or some of the things that we learned about during the 70s and 80s. He obviously didn’t want to dwell on that. So this idea of a martyr was, I suppose, something religious about it. And I personally, I don’t particularly like the idea of this being a martyr village. You know, this was a village which happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And there were all sorts of people living in this village. And some, yes, you could say, well, they were all doing things that could mark them out as a martyr and future. Some not. Some were not particularly well behaved, let’s say, during the occupation. And then there were the vast majority, like in the middle of doing what they could just to get by. So martyrdom is for me, a strange kind of use of the term. And it’s still described as village martyr when you arrive there. But what he wanted to show, this kind of worked quite well for him, this idyllic place. There are lots of postcards that existed of Oradour prior to the massacre. You know, it showed a very nice, very French normal place. And like I said, it didn’t have a bad economy for a village of its size. It was relatively prosperous with some really nice, I got to say, some really nice restaurants, really well-known restaurants. People used to come there for this kind of thing. But did it symbolize France’s ordeal during the war? This is kind of the point. It did in a way, because it was just a normal you know, I kind of took this with this book, halfway through, it takes almost half the book to actually get to the massacre, because I’m really looking at this kind of cross-section of society and looking at what was there. I wouldn’t argue against the idea that it was a normal place. It was fairly normal, fairly well-to-do. Did it represent a typical French village however, as people might have seen before the war or might imagine a typical French village to be? No, because during the occupation period, a heck of a lot changed in Oradour.  There had been a huge influx of of refugees and evacuees, all sorts of things changed during that period. So lives changed and the political landscape changed, the ways people made their money changed, although I wouldn’t say it wasn’t a typical French village because I think everywhere changed. I would have said that it was potentially used as this idyllic place. And like anywhere in France, if you kind of pick it apart, you’ll find that piece of unsavory elements that were there just like anywhere else.

Gary: Your book is a number of things: it is a story of Oradour but it is also something of a biography of four individuals you interviewed, Robert Hébras, André Desourteaux, Camille Senon, Albert Valade. Can you tell us a little about these people?

Robert: Well, when I went to Oradour, I went a number of times to try and kind of write this, I was helped by various members of staff at the Centre de la Mémoire. And I said I knew of this one particular person who’d escaped the actual shootings themselves. And that was Robert Hébras. He’s written a number of books. And if you’ve been to Oradour, you have picked up something with his name or his photo. So I knew about Robert Hébras. I was aware he was still alive. I first been to Oradour back in 1993, so I was quite surprised to find that he was still alive. But, I asked someone called Sandra Gibrat to help me out at the Centre de la Mémoire. I said, do you think you could set up an interview. And I was thinking well, he’s probably fed up now with meeting people and talking about his experiences and and she said, yeah, no problem, I can get an interview with him, you know. And in the meantime, what about these other people?

So I was thrilled to be able to meet these other people. And what was interesting about it is that, well, first of all, André Desourteaux. If you walk the main streets of Oradour-sur-Glane you’ll see that it’s the Émile Desourteaux and that was Andre Risottos grandfather. No great grandfather. Sorry. What’s interesting about him is I mentioned Joseph Beau the socialist and who had been mayor and Paul Desourteaux Who is André Desourteaux’s grandfather. The fact that these two were political rivals, didn’t particularly like each other at all. They really didn’t. And André Desourteaux’s grandfather Paul had five sons, I think. And one of those sons turned out to have had a relationship with Joseph Beau’s daughter. She fell pregnant. This was kind of a big scandal in Oradour-sur-Glane so much of a scandal that would have been Desourteaux getting married would have been a big society event. But this couple, in a kind of Romeo and Juliet scenario, sent off to to live in the Limoges to have the baby and get married quietly in Limoges. And that child was on André Desourteaux and they were able to come back to Oradour when they were married and they were having their second child, a sister. So very interesting to be able to talk to André Desourteaux I knew about him, but I didn’t know that he was still alive. And again, I was able to go and meet him and his wife and spend the afternoon. And the man, is like an encyclopedia of this village.

And then you had Camille Senon. Again I knew about her, although I hadn’t put two together because people in France at this time used to use different names. She’s actually Margeurite, but she went by the name of Camille Senon and I’ve kind of seen her testimony. And so I put them together and I went to meet her some very kindly arrange the interview. And it was very, very moving she’s an amazing woman. And what she had been on one of the trams, it arrived in Oradour as the massacre was taking place because she lived, she her family lived in Oradour. She lived in Limoges during the week and came back to Oradour on the weekend evening just to have some family time. And she was one of a group of people who were lined up next to a hole that was being dug. And they were basically told that was for them. This grave is mass grave was going to be for them. And for some strange reason later on that evening, after a long, long wait, they were let go. So she had an interesting perspective on life, kind of between Limoges and Oradour.

And then we had Albert Valade who unfortunately died, I think it was December 2019. He died but his again, slightly different viewpoint, was he was the son of a tenant farmer in one of these little hamlets around Oradour. And he had this, again, amazing knowledge about all the different people in these villages. And he on that on that day had been just outside the village when he had been with his cows, tending the cows in the field and a piece of paper kind of, there were bits of ash falling at his feet. And one of these pieces of paper was from one of the catechism books that they used at the church. And he knew, you could see that this was true. The church was burning. He lost his sister, had gone into Oradour to try and pick up two of her four children and he lost, she never returned and never did those children. So whether this wide range of experiences can just- going back to Robert Hebras as well, he’s written down his experience of the day of being shot and of escaping the fires. And just an amazing escape with these five other people that this escape lasted all day.  He was in a terrible state when he finally got away. But again, he lost sisters, his mother. And but, I’d heard his story a lot. And so what was interesting was sitting down with him and talking to him about life before. And again, he was someone who, he was working in Limoges kind of coming back to Oradour just on the weekends. And he shouldn’t have been there that day. He was one of the very few was quite laid back about the Germans arriving because he had lots of experience with them. So they were four very interesting people with different viewpoints. And, you know, unfortunately, these people are disappearing. We’ve lost Albert Valade already. And, you know, it’s great to sort of get the view of things down while we still can.

Gary: Let’s start with the war. France falls and Oradour is part of Vichy under Marshal Pétain. How did the war change life?

Robert: It changed a lot. This is perhaps where people can get this misconception when they go into Oradour and they see that, they learn about the places and what was there, you know, that there was restaurants and hotels and things like that. I mean, firstly, even those hotels before the war, they weren’t necessarily full of holiday makers like they would be now. They were called hotel des voyageur, so they were basically full of tradesmen trying to sell things like sewing machines. But putting all that to one side, what you had in France at this moment and we kind of have to track back just before the war, is you have these waves of newcomers to the region.  This is what I’m researching at the moment, actually. And just before a war broke out, the government put into place that there was going to be this evacuation of Alsace Lorraine in certain parts of Alsace-Lorraine, particularly around Strasbourg. And so you had a lot of people coming south and through this amazing, I have to say, the administration of it was amazing, considering you have no computers and things like that.  A lot of people came south and Oradour and all the villages around were sort of allocated a village or couple of villages to have people living. And there was only free accommodation in hotel rooms or the ballrooms of the hotels were filled up with mattresses and people’s homes. People have to just have people in their homes living. And so these people came to Oradour. And so you have that first. A lot of those people then could go back after France fell, they could go back to their original homes and a lot did. But the people that were left behind primarily were Jewish people. And this part of France just didn’t really come across very many Jewish people. But certain families stayed behind because of that. But they had a second wave because France had fallen during that period. You had a lot of people coming from all over Roubaix, Paris, all sorts of, you know, kind of Avignon and places like this where people were coming to family, coming over from Bayonne a little bit later and looking for somewhere away from the war, because geographically, Oradour it’s a long way from where the fighting was going on. So people had attended up there. And again, a lot of people went back. Some people stayed. A few people stayed, a minority and then sorry, checking back even further, even before the outbreak of the war. 1936-38 you had a lot of Spanish people come in there, Spanish people who had come over from, fleeing Franco’s kind of march northwards. And so, again, it’s another different story, really. But but a lot of Spanish had been interned. And then there were these these sort of camps, these they call them GDTE groupement des travailles étranger. And these were camps which Spanish people would put in to. And they have their families sort of followed them. And then it was kind of like forced labor. So sometimes Jews were put into them a bit later as well. And there was one of these actually in Oradour just literally half a kilometer outside. So you’d have these people coming as well. You have people, a second wave of Alsace from the Moselle region. And these were people, when that area was annexed, but not exactly annexed, it was kind of occupied by the Nazis. Anyone, the Francophone elements of those areas were sent away, they were expelled, and again, they were given a place to go or are told, had to go to this place. And we had another wave of people arriving from two villages, this time in the Moselle. And this time these people were given no clue that they’d ever be able to go back. And so these were the sort of permanently and we ended up then having a school built for these refugees, so as well as men going off to fight, we had some people in prisoner of war camps. So you had kind of a change of the population then you had restrictions coming in as the war kind of progressed with occupation, I should say, progressed in the war elsewhere, went on in Germany, continued to fight this. The arrangement between Pétain and Hitler was that this was going to be a kind of collaboration in terms of like a partnership. But as it as it turned out, Hitler had no plans of that type. France was going to be a stock for the Reich, so. Life, just got harder. Food got harder to come by. You had things like rationing, problems with for example, a lot of as well as the arable farming that there’s a lot of meat produced, cow meat in this part of France, a lot of those sort of beasts were being sent off to Germany. So it was really hitting the economy. Plus, all these restaurants and cafes and restaurants had to close because they couldn’t they couldn’t run and also the hotels were full of refugees. All they could do was just kind of keep ticking along. Pétain announced when the war ended, you know, and collaboration, the spirit of collaboration started dancing was no longer allowed. You know, people had to sort of mourn France’s defeat. So things really change quite rapidly and. Strangely enough, in Oradour for the food and wasn’t such an issue as it was in the cities and in the cities. In the big shops, things disappeared from the shelves, whereas in these villages you had farmers nearby and actually those farmers around the outside of these villages actually started to thrive because they could just produce a little bit more of what they’ve been producing before. And you had clandestine kind of butchering of meat and you had food available in these villages that perhaps you couldn’t get elsewhere. So that meant the people started to come out to villages and to try and get things for that reason, which is why they were quite a few people from outside of Oradour there that Saturday. They weren’t there to play it for pleasure seeking purposes. They were there to try and get food.

Gary: On 11 November 1942 Germany occupied Vichy France and squeezed the country to support its war against the USSR. How did this second phase change Oradour? What was its relation to the Resistance? Collaboration? Refugees? Jews?

Robert: You know what, I don’t think it did change Oradour very much at all. I don’t think it really affected Oradour. Strange that you talk to any of the survivors, and the only time that anyone had seen a German soldier in a Oradour prior to the massacre was that night, 11 November 1942, when one of the main roads ran fairly close to Oradour and apparently some soldiers passed through. Other than that, no one saw any soldier in Oradour during the occupation period. No soldier, no Gestapo. No millice people just didn’t see them. They didn’t come to these places. People like Robert Hebras and Camille Sinon had experience of seeing people in Limoges. Some of the bigger towns where the German kind of I suppose put, Limoges being a very big place, actually, there were a lot of Germans in Limoges and there was some kind of satellite posts elsewhere in Dordogne in the Limousin and Vienne.  But a place like Oradour-sur-Glane no one saw any soldiers. What did change though after that period, was that, Germany realized they needed more men, more manpower, because. You know, they have this second front that opened up and they needed Oradour obviously they invaded the USSR and then they started to realize that they needed a lot more kind of military manpower. So their manpower was going to the military and then they realized they needed manpower for their factories and things. So there was this negotiation between the Vichy government, Laval in particular, and of trying to get Frenchmen to go and women, actually, primarily French men of a certain age to go and work in Germany. And it starts off as something called La Relève which was kind of a swap where you get one prisoner of war back for three volunteers who went off and worked in Germany. And it just didn’t work because people didn’t want to go, but also because the so, the people that they were sending back were generally people who were ill and they were not going to be very good for the French economy anyway. So a new thing was was negotiated, which was which was called STO which was Service de Travaille Obligatoire. And this was kind of traunch of the young man of France and of the occupied zone prior to that. And this was February 1943. So a year after the La Relève had been launched and this now was no longer a volunteer and this is obligatory. So at this point, men started  to hide, young men started to hide. And we know that in Oradour massacre, there were a number of men hiding out. They survived part from what? One of them. So you have that happening. And what this also did was we had the formation of this this resistance happening. And the resistance started off as kind of a political thing. It wasn’t really, the only armed resistance groups were based around former kind of soldiers that had been decommissioned and fighting in forests and things like that. But suddenly you had a lot of men who were hiding out and needed something to do or wanted to respond in some way. So you had these what became known as maquis groups that the sort of the guerrilla fighters, the guerrilla resistance. And you had Communists, maquis, FTP and then you also had these Gaullist maquis and at this point you were getting more men going to the maquis than the maquis could kind of handle or feed or arm. So  that, I think affected France more than the occupation did, because, like I say, you wouldn’t see a German soldier unless you went into a large town or city and they were being well behaved at that point. There was no, things were getting requisitioned. Vehicles were getting requisitioned. Fuel was running out. People were having to use bicycles. And even then bicycle tires started to run out. So things were changing. But it was all stuff which, you know, didn’t have a huge impact on people’s lives. What did the impact on people’s lives was when, you know, your older brother or your son was suddenly called up and expected to go in and work in Germany?

Gary: On the 10th of June 1944, the SS Division Das Reich arrived at Oradour-Sur-Glane. What happened that day?

Robert: So what have been going on, was in the region around, this part of France that is being nicknamed La Petite Russie, ‘Little Russia,’ because it was there was so much of this kind of guerrilla fighting, which is started up by that point and that the soldiers not just the Das Reich, but lots of different battalions were being attacked and things and guerrilla fighters, you know, they wouldn’t face an army full on. What they would do is attack from behind and retreat into the street. So there was this kind of stuff going on. You also had at this point because you don’t D-Day certain towns and smaller towns you had maquis groups, particularly the communist groups, because the communists just wanted to get on with fighting, whereas the Gaullist groups were being told they were more organized. They were being told to wait, wait until you’re told to act. But in some of the towns in this part of the world, Garé, Tours…you had examples of communist groups going in and trying to and very briefly liberating these smaller places, because what has been left behind there will just sort of sentry’s of Whermacht old, not such elite troops. So they were easily overcome. But then in the south, in random Monteban region, you had this beast waiting. It was it was the SS Das Reich division. And this enormous division had been fighting in Eastern Europe and where it carried out all sorts of atrocities. Now, it also suffered a lot of losses and it was waiting in this southern part of France to know what to do next. A lot of new recruits have been trained up in the Bordeaux and they were kind of joining in. A lot of these recruits. Has to be said, not only were they very young, but a lot of them weren’t coming from Germany. They were coming from France. So a lot of them were forced from the forced conscripts, from Alsace-Lorraine, from France. So. This division was being brought together to be of comparable strength to what it had been before machinery, transport was being fixed and then it was given orders. Now, a misconception is that the Das Reich was told quickly, “We’ve had the D-Day get to Normandy as quickly as you possibly can.” And this was the understanding for quite a long time and that the resistance had this really good record of slowing them down. But actually what they were told is “make your way north. But we want you to deal with this problem area France first.” So in these places that are being liberated by the communist groups, suddenly you had these kind of almost fire-fighting, little divisions, but battalions from the Das Reich being sent in and quelling these problems, so in Tulle, the day before the Oradour-sur-Glane massacre, that had been liberated, Das Reich arrives and won the town back and ninety nine men were hanged from lampposts, another hundred and fifty odd was deported just because of what happened Tulle as reprisals in a place called Guéret  you had a similar thing. It happened. So again, Das Reich sent in. That was quelled twenty two maquisards fighters were brutally murdered and so this kind of thing was happening a lot and the Das Reich was trying to put down these little insurrections. And they were dealing with this. They were going to try and hit hard before going north.

So this order had come out that somewhere had to be hit hard. And this has been kind of contested ever since, but that the order’s there in black and white somewhere was going to suffer and it was going to be made an example of as had been…the way the things were done in Eastern Europe. So a place was chosen and again, there are arguments about why Oradour was chosen. Personally, I think it’s fairly clear. There was a little bit of an insurrection in Saint-Junien which is just down the road, a slightly bigger place, and so the Das Reich were kind of sent there, or elements of it and that was easily dealt with. And I think the idea might have been that they were going to do this Saint-Junien  I think when they got there, they realized Saint-Junien was a bit too big for that. So they called in some local milliciers, kind of local French policemen, if you like, and they have meetings and I think this is perhaps the point at which someone French along the way probably pointed out that this place, Oradour-sur-Glane, it’s going to be easy to surround. It’s just about the right size. There’s no maquis nearby. There’s no resistance known to be in Oradour-sur-Glane. So you shouldn’t be getting any fight back at all. You can do it calmly and gently. And that’s what they did. They set off just after lunch and as I said earlier, surrounded the place, arrested, did this very calm round up, got people into this village, onto this village, green. And then they carried out the massacre, as I described before. And then the place was set alight. Anyone who came and tried to collect their children or whatever, they were killed on the spot. Some cyclists who were passing through, they were killed to. It kind of I think it was probably, I think what the German high command did was they made sure that the person on the ground commanding the operation was a bit of a nut case in terms of he just he seemed to like this kind of operation. And fortunately, he got killed in Normandy a few weeks later. And so they had their perfect scapegoat, know they started blaming him for what had happened in Oradour.   He went above and beyond his orders, but there’s no real evidence of that. But what we people don’t tend to know as well is that it didn’t kind of end on that one day. Sentries were left there so the people couldn’t get back. And then over the next 48 hours, soldiers kept coming back and making sure, burning down any places that had been left over, disposing of any bodies that were lying in the street. This is where, and anyone who’s been to Oradour will know about this. Bodies were found in other rooms and down a well and things like that. It was probably at that point that these bodies were disposed of in that way. And this is the really heartbreaking thing. The point of the destruction of Oradour, as far as I can see, was to actually erase not just the buildings of this place, but the whole this whole community. So they wanted to make any, they wanted to make sure that, no, none of these remains were identifiable. So they actually made these again, the fires the horrible fire as they then transferred these bodies into mass graves. And they did that before they let any villagers into the village to try and reclaim their loved ones. So, you know, it was a…it wasn’t something that lasted for twelve, twenty four hours, it lasted for several days before anyone could start making sense of this. And more people arrive than we perhaps, we know that six got out of the barn, one woman got out of the church, she was a grandmother, miraculous escape. There were others that have been hiding out, people who knew that they were kind of perhaps under surveillance by, could be communist or for being Jewish or whatever. And some people had fled. So we probably had about 20 or 30 of the survivors. But generally, everyone who was rounded up pretty much was killed. So six hundred and forty three people from our Alsace Lorraine, French, Spanish, Italian, all sorts of people on that day. And there was no checking of identity documents. There was no “oh, well, if you are a collaborator, you’re going to be OK.” The Desourteaux mayor who was there was a Pétainiste there was no distinction made. You know, they will suffer the same fate. And the idea was that there would be no witnesses.

Gary: Afterwards, there were a number of important trials and inquiries of Germans and French collaborators, who was held accountable for the massacre?

Richard: This is something which goes into quite a long story, but essentially no one was made accountable for Oradour. What the Germans tried to say, was that this person, I don’t think might have been in charge on the ground on the day was the person that’s kind of gone above what he’d been told to do. So he was made into a bit of a scapegoat and the Das Reich closed ranks, they very much kind of this is our story will pretty much stick to it. They hadn’t quite got the story right at that point because some some of the soldiers on the day had said that they thought this was because a major had been kidnapped nearby and thought that it was true. But it was a major effort that would have gone a long way away from actually, and that didn’t really contribute to what happened on the day. But anyway, there were various little stories like that going around or that they had been arms discovered Oradour, you know, some there had been some soldiers killed just outside Oradour. So these soldiers, these things are going around. And we know that the Germans haven’t got, the Das Reich hadn’t got their story straight to that point, but then they close ranks and they close ranks and they stuck to this story that it was this dead man who was responsible, who had kind of gone above his order. And then over time, certain people are been taken prisoner. So some German prisoners were identified as having been in Oradour and also some of these Alsace-Lorraine men who had been there on the day because a lot of the firing had been done by men who were French, were from Alsace Lorraine. And this started to cause problems because they organized this trial, a trial that was that would eventually take place in Bordeaux in 1953. And what this was, was a military tribunal. So whoever they identified and actually had in their grasp already were brought to trial on that day, on the week, and unfortunately, we kind of, the investigators did identify who was further up the chain of command. But they were out of reach, they had gone back to Germany, and we know that, for example, the general commander of the Das Reich, that General Lammerding, became a wealthy industrialist in a, I can’t remember which, I think it was Dusseldorf perhaps. But one of the German cities and lived a long life afterwards, as was the case with the other commanders, the people high up. So the people who were tried in Bordeaux they were the foot soldiers. And this is kind of the tragic thing about that trial. During the trial, there were all sorts of legality. And sort of legal arguments going on as to how this was going to go forward, because people in Alsace-Lorraine were really unhappy about this trial taking place because they were saying, well, these people who are being tried, these bullies, as they were, they were 17 or 18 year old boys went Oradour happened, regardless of the fact that they fired they were there because they were forced to be there. They fired because if they didn’t fire, you know, they would have been shot themselves or they had to join the SS because otherwise their families would be deported. And these this group of people, this group of men across the board, people who would be forced into into the SS were called malgré nous Which kind of translates to “despite us” and it kind of, what this  did, it created a real tension between Alsace-Lorraine and the people of the Limousin. So during this trial, these men that had been brought, there were they were all sentenced. Only one man from Alsace Lorraine joined by of his own accord. And he was proud of having killed people and he was given a longer sentence. Some of the Germans had slightly longer sentences and they were all sentenced. In fact, so some of them were sentenced, including this one officer  was sentenced to death, actually. And then most of them had kind of long prison sentences. But then there was such an uproar in Alsace-Lorraine. Over the course of several days really, only took days, that the Assemblement Nationale has now voted to commute the sentences and anyone to be sentenced to death, it was reduced life in prison to a lot of these men then, pretty much had their sentences turned over because they’d already been held for long enough that they didn’t need to serve any more time. And this created a huge sort of, Alsace-Lorraine that been incredibly angry. And now the people of the Limousin were very angry because he was the only people to whom they were with having justice served upon them. But this was being taken away from them, whereas, and we knew that the people who were really come of this were being protected in Germany because France had made this policy, you could not fight Germany, really, but it was an accord. This kind of in the interest of Entente, you weren’t going to be sending these people for war crime offenses. So even though General Lammerding was sentenced to death, it was in absentia. He was in Germany and he was never going to be sent to France for trial. You know, this went on for years. And in fact, when Lammerding died, I found this in the archives just a couple of weeks ago, the French papers had to publish a photograph of him, of his body on a deathbed to prove to the people of Limousin that he was actually dead and that he had just been kind of whisked off to an even better life. So there was a real feeling and there remains a real feeling that really no one really was made to suffer for what happened on this day. And it came under the umbrella of the Germans, kind of almost, the rules of war was that reprisals were allowed. So what happened in Tulle the night before when the ninety nine men were hanged from lampposts, was legal in the rules of war? Oradour, as long as it was a reprisal, was I suppose it was over the top. You know, the Germans wanted to keep this narrative that it had been a legal act of war, and so they had to stick to their story. And we know that it wasn’t, it was a was a war crime, as this division had conducted elsewhere in Europe. So a very unsatisfactory element, and even now, you know, you speak Robert Hebras and is still sad that no one has been made to pay. There was one of the trial in 1983 in Berlin, [German leader] a little bit further up the command. And he, again, had been living in East Berlin, no sorry West Berlin. Now he’s been living in East Berlin, sorry, and he’s been kind of protected in the interest of Entente. And they tried him and he was given a long sentence. But again, he got out after about 10 years and died in his bed, which made people in this part of France incredibly angry.

Gary: One thing you touch on is how Oradour is not fixed in history, but is consistently rediscovered. What does Oradour mean today?

Richard: Someone who’s been dealing with this a lot, is this someone who’s called Hannah Diamond who was responsible for the recent displays in the Musée Jean Moulin and Paris.  She was talking to me about this the other day. The idea of the museum is kind of changing. Oradour kind of changes in that way, the kind of the scrapbook type museum has become something where a narrative needs to be needs to be told, because the people who were there at the time and could stand in that museum and talk you through what life was like and not there anymore. And suddenly people have to be able to find their way through the story. Now, a similar thing has happened in Oradour when you used to go there, even when I went there as a teenager in the early 90s, you still had guides that were that were taking people around. And the fact that they linked their own story to the surroundings, they could talk about what was there in front of people. There was a sort of materiality to it. There was there was, you could almost touch the story. And I think now that those lost people have gone and Robert Hebras up until last year, I was still taking people around, you know, groups of children and I think groups of children who got that experience, had a very different experience to groups of children who just shown around or just looked around and tried to follow the signs and the guide books. So I think now we’ve got this the same thing. In 1999 an exhibition center was opened in Oradour which tries to tell the story leading up to the massacre and what then happened on the day, so whereas if you visited in the 1960s or 70s, you would still have seen the sewing machines in the rubble, if you like. Now, the place I always think people would argue with me on this, I think it sort of looks more like a sort of medieval, you know, if you’ve been to it to go to a castle in Wales and see the same thing, you kind of. Recognizable buildings, but with a lot of grass over the overgrown. So I think it’s losing that sense of materiality and you have to go into like a little crypt by the cemetery to see what I think of the really interesting things, which are the little. Watches that stopped and the toys that were gathered and as I said, the sewing machines and the money and the wallets that you could easily miss that. So I think in terms of the visitor to the site, and I know that now Oradour la Centre de la Memoire, is reorganizing its visit to try and bring some of that materiality back in to show what life was like so that it doesn’t look too much like a medieval kind of site. It’s still very shocking, don’t get me wrong, because it’s very recognizable what things are, but this is kind of my own thinking that it is going to continue to overgrow and the rust on the car and things that is going to continue to decorate the place. It can’t last forever as it.  In terms of its place in the historiography, if you like, I think that’s slightly different again, and I think, it live this life. As the villagre martyre that de Gaulle wanted. It represented that place. It represented the rest of France as being the one place that suffered under this Nazi oppression. And given its own life. But I think now, now, now that the resistance, the occupation period is being reassessed. You know, I think it’s time to sort of give these people their names back rather than having this collective martyrdom. You know, I think it’s an opportunity to sort of say, well, these people lost their lives that day, let’s know a bit more about who they are. And there’s something to remember started doing that by having a kind of gallery of photographs. It’s kind of what I want to do with this book was to try and reconstitute what this village was. I take you through the massacre as well, but I kind of feel like the massacre, that event means a lot more when you understand who these people were and what they were doing and why they were doing it. And I think really it needs to move on from being a place of pilgrimage, if you like, for this martyrdom to a place of learning, you know, yes, we can learn about the war and we can learn about the occupation and we can learn about what happened there on that day. And that mustn’t be forgotten. Don’t get me wrong, but I think we also can use it as a place. I like to think of it as a place frozen in time, a bit like Pompeii. How much have we learned about Roman times by looking at Pompeii? And as we’ve lost this, as we’re losing these last few people who were able to talk about what life is like in that moment in time, and I think Oradour can serve that purpose too. And we can see, you know, for example, is this there’s buildings there. Do we know poissetiere, someone used to dig wells, you know, where you got the saboutier which is the person who used to make the clocks? You know, there’s a lot we can learn about, about just what life was like. The charron, wheelwright, used to make the wheels for the wagons. You’ve also got the fact that it can teach us a lot about Vichy France, because we can know that this family with this sort of family, this was a Jewish family. This was a family from the Moselle. This is linked to the evacuation. This is a family who came from Roubaix and they came during another time. This girl had been sent from Paris to be safe during the war. So by giving them the names back, we can kind of understand what what was going on in this place as well. And it can teach us a lot more because it was a fairly typical place, but it can teach us a lot more about what life in Vichy France was really like. Does that answer your question?

Gary: I think it does. Thank you very much for being on the show. The book is Silent Village: Life and Death in Occupied France. This has been enlightening.

Richard:  Thank you.

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email