In the beginning
In a Ruined State, is the story of the massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane, France, on Saturday, 10th of June 1944, what led up to that event and what happened afterwards. For those just wanting a brief outline of the story, read the Summary and for those that want the full version; read on.
Every story has to have a beginning, a middle and an end and it is up to the narrator how these sections are to be organised. This recounting of the events at Oradour-sur-Glane on the 10th of June 1944 is no different to any other account of any other event in history. It too must follow the conventions; otherwise it will not be intelligible to the uninformed reader and probably irritating to those well read in the subject. With a story such as Oradour it is important to choose the beginning carefully, so as to include all those historical aspects of the story which are necessary for its proper understanding.
What follows below is a very brief review of the common history of both France and Germany as it affected the events that led up to the massacre on that Saturday in June 1944.
France and Germany have a history of mutual hostility and conflict stretching back through the centuries. There is however nothing surprising to European ears in this statement. Just about every European country has fought wars with its neighbours, often repeatedly with the same neighbour. For example England has had more and longer wars with France than she has had with any other country. In fact the longest single Anglo-French conflict was the Hundred Years War from 1337 to 1453 (actually 116 years in duration).
Usually these conflicts were over the possession of land. The various European civil wars on the other hand were often over the rights of someone or other to wear the crown and did not often cause disturbance across the borders. A study of the historical map of Europe will show constantly changing boundaries over time, as national identities became more solid. Two of the most fluid countries have been what we today call France and Germany. Both have grown from a collection of small, often mutually antagonistic states into full nationhood. This has been especially true of Germany, which until the unification under Bismarck in 1871, had once consisted of literally hundreds of small states, princedoms and kingdoms in a very loose alliance. France has at times had large parts of its present day territory under the English crown and even been at war with what is today parts of itself. For example, during the time of Joan of Arc, the Duke of Burgundy was allied with the English against the French King.
It has been relatively easy for the British people to work out their sense of national identity. The islands of Britain are fairly small, the borders between England, Scotland and Wales have, (with minor variations) been established since before Roman times. Ireland, being a separate (and even smaller) island has always been able to claim a sense of separate national identity. In the cases of France and Germany the distinctions have been much less clear cut, with their borders, both internal and external being the source of much contention. In the context of Oradour-sur-Glane, the subject of national identity is especially relevant in the case of the area of France known today as, Alsace-Lorraine.
A brief history of Alsace-Lorraine (‘Elsass-Lothringen’ in German).
A study of a modern map of Alsace-Lorraine will show very Germanic sounding names for what are currently French cities, towns and villages, for example, Strasbourg, Saasenheim and Munster. This gives a good indication of the way that the dividing line between the two countries has changed through the centuries. German is spoken quite widely in these provinces, with its prevalence becoming even more marked in Alsace than in Lorraine. It is quite common here to find people who have Germanic family names with French forenames, which in itself indicates how the border has altered over time.
As an aside, the word, ‘Alsatian’ is used in English for what in German is called, ‘der deutscher Schäferhund’ (the German Sheepdog).
Following the break-up of Charlemagne's empire in the 9th century, this region became the object of dispute between various French and German rulers. The two provinces finally coming under French rule from the middle of the 17th century and this led to a period of some political stability until the end of the Franco-Prussian war in 1871.
The term, Alsace-Lorraine, was first used in May 1871, when, by the terms of the Peace Treaty of Frankfurt (which concluded the War), Germany annexed the provinces. They were returned to France in 1919 under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Then during World War II, after France’s defeat by Germany and under the terms of the armistice of June 1940, the territory was ceded back to Germany. France finally regained the provinces again after Germany's defeat in 1945.
As can be imagined, this changing of national identity so many times led to some feelings of uncertainty in the minds of many citizens of Alsace-Lorraine as to who’s side they were supposed to be on during the Second World War. Just who really did have their best interests at heart; France or Germany?
At various times there have been autonomy movements in the two provinces, directed against Germany between 1871 and 1914 and against France after World War I. The overall sentiment of the two provinces during the course of both world wars, was however markedly pro-French. This was helped during 1940-41 by the Germans forcibly evicting from their homes those whom they considered to be undesirable, i.e. those they said were, 'French from within'. These evictions were mostly from within Lorraine and included the 44 from the village of Charly and its neighbourhood who were to die in Oradour on 10th June 1944 (see list of names).
The wholesale conscription of over 130,000 men into the armed forces of the Third Reich between 1940 and 1944 (including some who had fought in the French army against the German invasion in May / June 1940), helped to increase the pro-French sentiment within the two provinces.
The treaty of Versailles
In every city, town and village in Britain and France you will see war memorials to the dead of both the First and the Second World Wars. The dates quoted on these memorials are always 1939-45 for WW II, usually 1914-18 for WW I, but occasionally 1914-19. The reason for the ‘extra’ year on some of these monuments is that although the fighting stopped on 11 November 1918, the war did not officially end until the signing of the treaty of Versailles in June 1919. With hindsight, one can draw a straight line from that treaty to the outbreak of WW II, for it was in the words of Marshal Foch, "not a peace treaty, it is an armistice for 20 years". He was correct almost to the month.
This treaty was an exercise in vengeance, principally led by France, who it must be remembered had borne the brunt of the war on its territory and had paid a huge price in blood. For his part, the British Government Minister, Eric Campbell Geddes, who was serving as First Lord of the Admiralty, said that he intended, "to squeeze the pips until they squeak", so as to obtain the maximum reparations from Germany.
The final cost to the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria) was a bill equal to the whole of the costs of the allies. The major part of these reparations was to be borne by Germany, who was also to lose its entire colonial empire and influence. Had these reparations been paid in full and at the demanded rate, Germany would not have cleared the debt until 1988 (assuming that the Second World War had not taken place). Finally there were the territorial ‘realignments’ that were forced onto the Central Powers and which were to provide the main trigger for WW II. Briefly the changes that affected the Germans were as follows:
They lost Alsace-Lorraine to France. The Saar basin area was placed under a League of Nations mandate for 15 years. Eupen-Malmedy and Moresnet were given to Belgium. The northern part of Schleswig was returned to Denmark. A large part of the provinces of Posen, West Prussia and the richest part of Upper Silesia was given to Poland (to form the so called, ‘Polish Corridor’), along with the port of Danzig (present day Gdansk in Poland). One effect of this 'Corridor' was to cut off the eastern part of Prussia by land from the rest of Germany. A part of Bohemia, German speaking and historically a part of Austria was ceded to Czechoslovakia (this area was to become known as the Sudetenland).
It does not require much imagination to see that such parcelling out of territory and re-drawing of national boundaries without even the pretence of consultation was going to fuel enormous resentment in the hearts of the losers. It was this factor more than any other which led directly to the start of the Second World War, when Germany in pursuit of its lost territory, crossed the line in the sand drawn by Britain and France and invaded Poland in order to regain the, 'Polish Corridor'.
Between the wars
When the French occupied the Ruhr in 1923 it was just one of the humiliations suffered by Germany in the inter-war years. Incidentally the other W.W.I. allies did not favour this move; it was something that France did all by herself in pursuit of her reparation claims.
After the Nazis came to power in 1933 one of their first steps was to refuse to pay another Mark in reparations to France (or anyone else for that matter). They then began, slowly at first, to re-build the German sense of national pride by taking back those territories that the treaty of Versailles had taken from them. They first withdrew from the League of Nations in October 1933. Then, peacefully enough, began the process of rebuilding Germany as she had been prior to Versailles. The first step was a plebiscite held in the Saar in 1935, which showed over 90% of the population wished to be re-united with Germany proper. Next was the public announcement in 1935 by Hitler that Germany was re-arming beyond the strictures of the 100,000-man army dictated by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. In March 1936 German troops re-occupied the Rhineland (without firing a shot), even though it was supposed to remain demilitarised indefinitely.
The Anschluß (Joining) between Germany and Austria took place in March 1938 followed by the occupation of the Sudetenland in September of the same year. It must be appreciated that these territorial moves were viewed with great enthusiasm by the vast majority of the population within Germany and also in the re-assimilated territories themselves.
Hitler, at this time was undoubtedly the most popular freely elected leader in the world. Remember that he was truly, freely elected, he had not usurped power, he had not seized power, and he and his party were democratically elected to run the state. Later on (post 1945) many were to claim by way of excuse that there were political manoeuvrings in this electoral process and that the NSDAP were not elected by a majority, just that they formed the largest single party and thus led the government.
Having achieved power, Hitler set about dismantling the entire democratic process which had brought him there. Germany soon became a one-party, no elections, no trade unions, ongoing dictatorship, although many people did not realise this at the time.
The observations in the two paragraphs above are from necessity of space somewhat simplified, if you want to know more about the politics of the day, consult the bibliography.
After the war many people in Germany were to claim that they had not voted for Hitler and perhaps they did not, but many must have done so. Some people later claimed that the Jews had died of Typhoid instead of being gassed or shot and perhaps they did. However in both cases the responsibility must still rest with the German nation.
At the trial of the surviving Das Reich men in Bordeaux the chief prosecutor (Colonel Gardon) quoted from Shakespeare's Richard III, "I am reminded of the words of Gloucester standing by the dead body of the King":
Gloucester: Say that I slew them not?
Lady Anne: Why, then they are not dead: but dead they are, and, devilish slave, by thee.
Gardon was saying in effect, that you might as well say that despite the heaps of ashes and ruins, the war had not taken place, but since it obviously had, why try to deny it?
However you look at it, the German people of the 1930's freely elected a monster to rule them and in his name they willingly committed atrocities on a hitherto unprecedented scale. The Second World War could I think be re-titled, The First World Race War, because from Germany's point of view that is what it was. It was racism that drove Hitler east to claim Lebensraum (living space) for the peoples of The Third Reich and the Untermenchen (sub-humans) and Jews living there just had to go. In fact it was the success of the German armed forces in the east, which led to such huge numbers of Jews falling into German hands that provoked the Final Solution. Because there was no simple way of dealing with the problem of containing such a large body of hostile people, it was thought better to remove them altogether.
Almost like a bad joke, it can be mentioned that some serious discussion had taken place in 1940 as to the possibility of shipping all the Jews in the Reich to the island of Madagascar and settling them there at their own expense. Nothing came of it.
I do not want to dwell overlong on the Holocaust, it is mentioned in this narrative simply to emphasise that the German leaders of the day were utterly ruthless in pursuit of their aims. This disregard for people who were thought to be unworthy, permeated the whole of German society and undoubtedly guided the conduct of the SS on the 10th of June at Oradour-sur-Glane.
The Second World War
The date of the start of World War II, does depend to some extent on ones nationality, as unlike the First World War, it was a protracted affair in its beginning. Since Oradour is a French village, the usual date is from 3rd September 1939, but it is as well to realise that other nationalities have other, wider-spread dates. To the Chinese it began on 7th July 1937 with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, to the Poles it began on 1st September 1939 with the German invasion of their country. To the Russians, 22nd June 1941 when the Germans invaded and to the Americans the 7th of December 1941 with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. Germany declared war on America on 11th December 1941, before America could declare war on Germany.
Before September 1939 the Third Reich did not seem to be seeking a war with either Britain or France, all they said that they wanted was the restoration of their lost territories from the treaty of Versailles and Lebensraum in the east. For the 'east', initially read Poland. The invasion of Russia being kept a close secret until it began on 22nd June 1941.
The German invasion of Poland on 1st September 1939, in order to recover the, 'Polish Corridor' caught both Britain and France unprepared to fight (they were both re-arming, but were not yet fully ready). Nevertheless in support of their treaty obligations they declared war against Germany on 3rd September and presented a united front to Hitler.
The period from September 1939 up to 10th May 1940 was what became known as the, ‘Phoney War’, when very little land fighting took place. Then on 10th May, the Germans acted decisively, attacking in the west and violating Belgian and Dutch neutrality in order to largely bypass the strong defensive Maginot Line guarding the French - German border.
By 17th June the French were ready to sue for peace. The same day Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain, the World War I hero who had become Premier the day before, asked for an armistice. This was signed on 22nd June on terms that gave Germany direct control of northern France and the Atlantic coast.
It is important to realise that the armistice was not an instrument of French surrender, it was an agreement to stop fighting that laid down obligations on both sides. Nevertheless France was clearly the loser in the arrangement and was to suffer agonies of guilt thereafter. It is still a sensitive subject to this day and one that most French people, quite understandably are reluctant to talk about, preferring to remember the exploits of the resistance to those of the collaborators. Yet at the time things seemed somewhat different and many in France thought that events could have been a great deal worse, as indeed they could have been. For an example of just how bad conditions could have become, the French people had only to look at Poland and see the wholesale deportations, chaos and upheaval of German rule in the Wild East.
Under the terms of the armistice Pétain was allowed to form a government for both home and colonial rule. He set up his capital in the spa town of Vichy in the unoccupied south-east and this was what was to become known as Vichy France. His government remained an obedient vassal of Germany until the end of the war in France, even after Hitler imposed direct rule in November 1942.
France was divided into a total of 9 administrative zones (see map). The provinces of Alsace-Lorraine once again found themselves a part of Germany and many French people, such as the Godfrin family, were evicted from their homes in favour of Germanic immigrants.
The Germans, who had suffered such national humiliation after the First World War, now gave France a dose of the same medicine, by dividing the country up into separate zones. This was a truly traumatic experience for the French people. Imagine your own country having its capital city and half its territory occupied by a conquering power (Germany) and some other parts given to a foreign country as a present (Italy). Other parts being permanently incorporated into the conqueror’s country (Alsace-Lorraine) and as a sop being allowed to have some form of self-government (Vichy) over about 45% of your own land area (with limited access to the coast). This self-government was of course only government in those areas that the Germans permitted. There was no real freedom of action at all in any sense that could be recognised in an independent democratic state.
Resistance to the Germans began slowly and chaotically, with no overall co-ordination and control. There is a popular impression in some parts today that, The French Resistance was a well organised and well led single group of men and women that opposed the Germans from June 1940 up to the liberation of France in 1944. This was most definitely not the case; there were initially many small uncoordinated groups that at times caused themselves much grief by not knowing about each other's plans and activities. Even in 1944 there were two main groups, the FFI, loyal to de Gaulle and controlled from London and the FTP (communists) who were a law unto themselves. It was members of the FTP, who it will be shown later, precipitated the massacre at Oradour, basically because they ignored the requests from London not to antagonise the German occupying forces in the rear areas after D-Day.
This section gives a very brief summary of the critical dates as affecting the events at Oradour.
20 April 1889 … Adolf Hitler born in Braunau am Inn, Austria. It is interesting to note that he was christened, 'Adolfus' and never, contrary to popular belief used his father's original name of, 'Schickelgruber'.
28 July 1914 … A local conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, explodes into what was called, 'The Great War', or 'The War to end all Wars'. It was only later that it became known as, 'The First World War'.
18 December 1914 … Adolf Rudolf Reinhold Diekmann born in Magdeburg, the youngest of 5 children; three sisters and a brother being older than he. His father, Heinrich was an elementary school teacher and must have had some considerable educational influence on the young Adolf during his formative years. Adolf therefore grew up amongst the deprivations of the Great War and the social unrest and chaos of its aftermath. It is interesting to note that he had to repeat the sixth year of his Grammar school education. This would have been caused by his not reaching the required standard for the grant of a leaving certificate. This process of having to repeat the sixth year if required, is one that is still current in German school education to this day, it was not something peculiar to the 1920's.
11 November 1918 … The Great War ended in an armistice, not a surrender by Germany and her allies. It was not until 28 June 1919 that the Treaty of Versailles was signed and Germany learned just how vengeful the Allies (especially France) were to be in terms of reparations. It is worth remembering that Germany was not an occupied country at this time and still had her armed forces intact.
September 1919 ... Adolf Hitler joined the fledgling DAP (Deutsche Arbeiter Partei) and quickly rose to become its leader. After leaving the army in March 1920 he devoted all his energy to politics and changed the party name to that of the, National Sozialistische Deutsche Arbeiter Partei (NSDAP, or Nazi) in the spring of 1920.
1918 to 1933 … The Weimar Republic governed Germany through this highly disturbed post-war period. The most notable landmarks of the time were firstly, the extreme inflation of 1923, which affected the middle classes more than the poor, in that they were the ones who had the most to lose. It was these disaffected people who were to become Hitler's most influential supporters. Secondly, The Depression of 1929 caused mass unemployment across the whole social strata. The Nazi Party (NSDAP) exploited these social disasters to the full.
8 November 1923 … The Beer-Hall Putsch (Revolt) in Munich. This was the doomed attempt by Hitler and the NSDAP to seize power by force of arms. After his release from Landsberg am Lech prison (where he wrote, Mein Kampf) in 1924, he determined that only by legal means could the NSDAP come to power.
30 January 1933 … Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, which soon became a One-Party State. Trade Unions were abolished and the Concentration Camp system began in this same year.
September 1933 … The SS-Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (Bodyguards of Adolf Hitler, known as the, L.A.H.) was formed. Initially a small force, it eventually grew to being a full Panzer Division. This is of necessity of space a very much simplified explanation of the beginning of the SS. However the formation of this 'Bodyguard' unit marked the beginning of the Waffen SS and the L.A.H. was in existence from 1933 right up to the capitulation in 1945.
1 April 1933 … Adolf Diekmann joined the NSDAP and voluntarily started Work Service (for the state) at Burg near Magdeburg on 18 May 1933. During this time he decided to complete his higher education and in November that year enrolled at the National Political Reformatory Institute in Naumburg. He took his High School Graduation Certificate on 12 December 1935, six days before his twenty-first birthday.
1 March 1936 … Diekmann joined the fledgling 'SS-Verfügungstruppe' (SS-Special Forces Troops) in their signals battalion based at Berlin-Aldershof. He was a good student and in due course was promoted to Standartenoberjunker and posted to the Germania Regiment on 14 September 1938.
March - April 1938 … The 'Der Führer Regiment' was formed in Austria, with its headquarters at Vienna. In order to overcome manpower shortages, officers and NCO's were transferred from the Germania, Deutschland and Leibstandarte regiments into the new unit in order to establish it as quickly as possible.
September - October1938 … The Sudetenland is occupied by Germany, following, 'The Munich Agreement', the Germania Regiment (including Diekmann) goes in on 2 October 1938.
1 September 1939 … Germany invades Poland in pursuit of its claim to have the, 'Polish Corridor' and especially the free port of Danzig (present day Gdansk in Poland) restored to the Third Reich, thus beginning the Second World War in Europe.
3 September 1939 … Britain and France declare war on Germany, following the latter's failure to cease hostilities against Poland.
5 September 1939 … The United States of America declares its neutrality and thus possibly condemns the world to war.
14 November 1939 … Diekmann awarded the Iron Cross II for his actions in Poland as a member of the Germania Regiment Signals Battalion.
October 1939 ... Der Führer, Deutschland and Germania regiments were combined to form the SS-Verfügungsdivision, this unit was eventually to become the 2nd SS-Panzer Division Das Reich.
April 1940 … Diekmann becomes ADC of the Germania Regiment and then shortly later its Adjutant.
27 May 1940 … Diekmann was shot through the lung during the fighting at Saint Venant near to the La Bassee Canal in France. He was sent to Elbogen an der Eger (present day Loket in the Czech Republic) to recover.
20 August 1940 … Diekmann awarded the Iron Cross I for his action in France.
1 May 1941 … Following his recovery, Diekmann was transferred to the SS-Officer training school at Bad Tölz, where he remained as an instructor in Signals and Tank tactics until September 1943.
22 June 1941 … Operation Barbarosa, the German invasion and attempt at conquest of Russia began.
12 September 1943 … Diekmann left Bad Tölz and joined the Das Reich Division in Russia as Adjutant to the Der Führer Regiment (he did not reach Russia to take up his post until 10th October).
24 December 1943 … The main part of Das Reich Division (including most of Der Führer) was pulled out of Russia and sent to Stablack, in East Prussia for rest and retraining. I believe that Diekmann went with this group, if so then he had spent just under 3 months on the Eastern Front.
'Armoured Battle Group Das Reich' was formed out of the left-behind elements and stayed in Russia until the following April, when it left to re-join the rest of the Division in France.
January to April 1944 … The main part of Das Reich (including most of the Der Führer Regiment), spent the time in training and trying to generate some 'esprit de corps' amongst their new, mostly conscript recruits. At this time there were 15 different European nationalities amongst the soldiers of the Division, including many from Alsace-Lorraine. There were difficulties with discipline and desertion was relatively common, especially amongst the conscript soldiers hailing from Alsace-Loraine. These were unheard of problems in the early years of the war, when the unit was wholly volunteer and Austrian-German in composition.
From April onwards the Germans came under more frequent attack by the Resistance and whilst this was not a serious military threat it was intensely irritating and annoying.
3 February 1944 ... General Field Marshal of the Luftwaffe and Commander-in-Chief West, Hugo Sperrle issued what have become known as, 'The Sperrle orders' detailing the harsh measures to be taken by the Germans in combating terrorism in the west. These orders applied to all the German forces under his command in the western field of operations and not just the SS, see: The Sperrle Orders.
20 April 1944 … (Hitler's birthday) Diekmann was promoted to Sturmbannführer and then on 30th May appointed to the command of the first battalion of the Der Führer Regiment. At this time the Regiment was a part of Das Reich Division based in the Montauban area of southern France, many miles from any combat zone.
May 1944 … Der Führer placed on alert several times in order to deal with the Resistance threat. The seemingly underhand way in which the French Resistance waged war against the members of the German armed forces had a significant effect on the way that the soldiers viewed both the Resistance and the French in general. Regular soldiers throughout history have never cared much for irregulars. It is hard enough for a man to go into combat against a clearly identified enemy who is wearing a distinguishing uniform. It is much harder not to be able to relax outside the obvious combat zone and have to regard all civilians as suspects.
On the face of it, it was a tactical error on the part of the German High Command to employ a Panzer Division such as Das Reich in what was in fact a police / garrison type of role. An armoured fighting Division is used to acting with extreme force against a clearly defined enemy; they were not a good choice for policemen. Remember also that they were based in Vichy France and were entitled under the terms of the armistice of June 1940 to expect that the French there should treat them as allies, not enemies.
21 May 1944 ... Whilst on an anti-resistance patrol, troops of the 3rd company, 1st battalion of the Der Führer regiment, under the command of Adolf Diekmann and Otto Kahn, entered the village of Frayssinet-le-Gélat in Department 46, The Lot. They were fired at in panic by an elderly woman using a shotgun and as a result 12 villagers were shot dead and 3 (including the woman) hung in reprisal.
6 June 1944 … D-Day. The allied invasion of France via the Normandy beaches began. Das Reich was passed the order, 'Come to march readiness'.
7 June 1944 … March preparations were finalised and the Division prepared to move off on the road to Normandy, over 400 miles to the north.
8 June 1944 … Das Reich moved off in the early morning and had skirmishes with the Resistance at various locations. The journey was made both tiring and trying by roadblocks of felled trees and various barricades. Later in the day they heard that the Resistance had mounted a full-scale attack on the German garrison in the town of Tulle.
9 June 1944 … Part of Reconnaissance Battalion II under Heinrich Wulf retook the town of Tulle. In a reprisal for the attack itself and the killing and mutilation of numerous German garrison troops, they hung 99 suspected members of the Resistance from lampposts and balconies.
The commander of Der Führer Battalion III, Sturmbannführer Helmut Kämpfe was sent to the town of Guéret in order to relive the garrison there which was reported to be besieged. On his return from the town that evening and whilst travelling alone he was abducted by the Resistance. He was the highest-ranking German officer ever to fall into their hands throughout the war years.
Battalion I under Adolf Diekmann had a most difficult day, encountering numerous clashes with the Resistance and losing some men killed in action on the march.
10 June 1944 … Early in the morning, troops from the Deutschland regiment of Das Reich, took severe reprisal action against the village of Marsoulas in the Haute-Garonne, following their being fired on from the church.
As a result of the abduction of Kämpfe, circumstances combined to send Adolf Diekmann of the Der Führer regiment of Das Reich, to the village of Oradour-sur-Glane in the Haut-Vienne, where during the course of the afternoon the entire village was destroyed and 642 inhabitants were killed in a reprisal action.
© Michael Williams: 21st July 2000 ... revisions
Wednesday, 17 August 2016