The ruins of Oradour-sur-Glane
War memorials dominate the French landscape, especially in the north where each tiny village has a statue or a plaque dedicated to men ‘Morts pour la France’. They were all built to commemorate the First World War, known simply as la Grande Guerre (the Great War) in which over 1.3 million men ‘died for France’. Yet what about the Second World War? How is that, equally momentous, event commemorated in France? In Britain the process has been relatively straightforward in that commemorations of the second war were simply grafted on to the commemorative traditions of the First World War: Remembrance Day is still held on the anniversary of the 1918 armistice; more names were added to pre-existing memorials.
Remembering the Second World War is more complex in France. In British popular history 1940 was ‘our finest hour’ and, as in 1918, a painful war ended with a straightforward military victory. We were bombed but (leaving the Channel Islands aside) the United Kingdom remained intact throughout. The French war was very different. France was invaded and occupied in 1940 and the country was largely split into two sections: those in the north lived under German occupation and those in the south lived in ‘Vichy France’ a regime which collaborated with the Nazi state. There was no clear victory and no sense of having endured the war as one nation.
For these reasons it has been difficult to create memorials specifically dedicated to the 1939-1945 war in France. The D-Day landings are widely – and lavishly – commemorated in Normandy but in parts of central and southern France you can search in vain for some official remembrance of the Second World War. One notable exception is the ruined village of Oradour-sur-Glane, a once prosperous community in the Haute-Vienne, not far from Limoges, and just inside the border of Vichy France.
The French resistance were active in this area at the beginning of June 1944, and the Waffen SS decided to instigate reprisals in response. On 10 June 1944 the Nazis rounded up the 642 residents of Oradour-sur-Glane and separated the men, women and children. First they executed all the men, then all the women and children. After the executions they burned all the bodies, ensuring that they could never be identified, and set fire to the entire village. This burned-out village has since been left to act as a memorial to those who were killed and to serve as a stark reminder of the realities of warfare.
Walking through the streets of Oradour-sur-Glane allows you a real glimpse into the fabric of French life at the time. The tramlines to nearby Limoges survived the fires, as did the old telegraph poles. Oradour-sur-Glane may have been rural but it was not remote. It was a small village with a thriving high street and was well-served with bakers, butchers, hard-wear shops and cafes. A surprising number of garages still hold rusting cars, and almost each house contains a collapsing – but still recognisable – Singer sewing-machine. More poignantly there are the remains of children’s toys, such as abandoned tricycles, in gardens and homes.
Like much local history, this history of Oradour-sur-Glane highlights the extent to which human society is formed by movement and migration. Most of the residents had been born in the local area but others were refugees. Amongst the inhabitants were Spanish republicans who had sought French exile after Franco’s victory in 1939, there were French refugees who had come from the border provinces of Alsace and Lorraine at the beginning of the war, and there were also French Jews, many of whom had thought that they would be safer in the south than in the north.
Memorials tell us about the past but they also tell us about those who erect them. In the visitor centre at Oradour-sur-Glane the inhabitants are sometimes described as ‘victims’, sometimes as ‘martyrs’, a more active term and one which indicates the deep Catholic roots of Republican France. On the walls of the visitor centre one can read a number of quotations, many of which are personal responses to the massacre. One – very large and prominent – quote reads ‘The Germans betrayed their own mothers and all women when they did not spare the children.’ This comment (from a Frenchman in 1946) perfectly encapsulates French pro-natalism and the gendered honour system which accompanied it.
This type of massacre was very common on the Eastern front, less so in the west.
Nevertheless, atrocities accompany all wars, just or unjust. One of the most powerful images at Oradour-sur-Glane is the old First World War memorial, still intact in the ruined church. Like all such memorials it inscribed with a long list of names to the ‘glorious dead’. Yet looking around the burned out streets of the village, there is very little that is glorious about the dead of Oradour-sur-Glane.
This post was contributed by Fiona Reid, whose research and teaching areas include the social impact of the Second World War in Britain and France and the history of refugees in Europe.