Paris, Occupied France • August 21, 1941
On this date in 1941 in Paris, well over a year after the hardstepping German Wehrmacht (armed forces) and Gestapo (Germany’s sinister secret police) had entered the French capital and settled in, a 22‑year-old Communist member of the French Resistance named Pierre Georges (noms de guerre, Frédo and Colonel Fabien) fired two bullets into the back of Alfons Moser, a young German naval ensign, in the Barbès-Rochechouart metro station, not far from the Gare du Nord in the 10th arrondissement. These were the opening shots of the partisan warfare that would soon paralyze German forces all over France. Adolf Hitler demanded the immediate execution of one hundred hostages. The number was reduced to ten. Maréchal (Marshal) Philippe Pétain, the doddering 85‑year-old titular head of the French government, proposed that his collaborationist Vichy regime carry out the executions by guillotine in public; however, German military authorities, fearing repercussions from the French public, insisted that the executions be done in private.
Beginning on August 28 and over the next several days, French judges sent eleven innocent Frenchmen to their deaths. Between August and the end of 1941, there were 68 serious attacks on Germans in and around Paris alone. The brutality with which these attacks was met, the mass executions of hostages (500 within several months of Moser’s assassination), plus the growing wartime shortages of rationed consumer goods (food, tobacco, clothing, and shoes for example) that gave rise to a vigorous black market, were at last combining to turn average French citizens against their German occupiers and French collaborators. Marshal Pétain himself remarked that “from various parts of France, I begin to feel an unpleasant wind getting up.”
Young Moser’s death marked a turning point in the French Resistance, and the wind never let up. Large and small resistance operations culminated in two horrific German reprisals on June 9 and 10, 1944, in Tulle and Oradour-sur-Glane in Central France. In reprisal for résistants killing, harrying, and slowing them down as they attempted to reach the Allied beachheads in Normandy following D-Day (June 6), men of the 2nd SS Panzer Division “Das Reich,” one of Hitler’s most elite and murderous armored outfits, together with some of the Nazi Party’s Sicherheitsdienst (German Security Service), rounded up 500 men and women of Tulle, near Limoges in South-Central France, and hanged 99 from balconies and street lights. The next day the bloodthirsty killers ringed the nearby sleepy hamlet of Oradour-sur-Glane, herded the women and children into a church, which they set on fire, shot the men singly or in small groups, killing a total of 642 villagers, burned the hamlet to the ground, and pillaged its livestock. According to French sources, between May 1940 and September 1944 a total of 6,000 Frenchmen were massacred or killed (massacrés) by the Germans and their “allies,” 25,000 were shot (fusillés), and 27,000 résistants died during deportation, not to mention the tens of thousands of résistants and déportés (76,000 Jewish déportés alone) who died following their incarceration in POW camps, concentration camps, or death factories in Germany and Eastern Europe.
Cold-Blooded Killers: “Das Reich” in Oradour-sur-Glane, Occupied France, June 10, 1944
Left: The church in Oradour-sur-Glane in which 245 women villagers or visitors and 205 children were killed or burnt to death in cold blood. Soldiers of the 4th SS Panzer Grenadier Regiment (“Der Fuehrer”), a company of the 2nd SS Panzer Division, heaped chairs, straw, and bundles doused with fuel on bodies and corpses inside the church after an explosive charge and grenades had failed to do their deadly work. Those who attempted to escape were were cut down by automatic weapons fire. Husbands, fathers, sons over 14, and brothers were marched to nearby barns and garages, lined up, and executed. Those who survived execution were set on fire. Six men and one 47‑year-old woman who escaped through a broken sacristy window at the back of the church survived the madmen’s massacre. After the war a new village (population 2,375 in 2012) was built northwest of the site of the massacre. By order of French president Charles de Gaulle the original village (called Village Martyr, “Martyred Village”) has been maintained as a museum and permanent memorial to the cruelty of the Nazi occupation. Photo taken on June 11, 2004, exactly 60 years after Oradour-sur-Glane’s destruction.
Right: Wrecked hardware (bicycles, sewing machine, etc.) six decades later is left as a lasting reminder of the barbarity of the German reprisal in Oradour-sur-Glane, a hamlet tucked away in the gently rolling hills and green forests of what was then called Limousin, South-Central France. In January 1953 a military tribunal in Bordeaux, France, heard the case against the surviving 65 of the approximately 200 Waffen-SS soldiers who had been involved in the atrocities “Das Reich” Panzer Division committed en route from a staging area north of Toulouse in Southern France to the Normandy front. (The division’s victims while in transit are estimated to number 4,000, many civilians among them.) Only 21 defendants were in court because many of the accused could not be extradited from the new East Germany (German Democratic Republic). On February 11, 1953, with one exception, all were found guilty of commiting war crimes. The convicted were released from prison within five years. As late as 2013, German prosecutors were still pondering whether to put on trial seven elderly members of the “Das Reich” found alive in Germany.
Left: The main street of Oradour-sur Glane, just outside the village church. On September 4, 2013, German president Joachim Gauck, French president François Hollande, and two of the three remaining survivors of the 1944 massacre visited the ghost village of Oradour-sur-Glane. A joint news conference broadcast by the two leaders followed their tour of the site. Said Gauck: “The Germany that I have the honor of representing is a different Germany from the one that haunts memories.” This was the first time a German president had visited the site of one of the biggest World War II massacres on French soil. For decades relatives of the victims of the Oradour-sur-Glane massacre had opposed any pilgramage to the site by a German leader.
Right: As early as the late 1980s families of the martyrs of Oradour-sur-Glane had proposed a memorial to their fallen kin. A building of innovative design was built to house a permanent exhibition as well as temporary exhibits associated with atrocities committed during the four-year German occupation of France. On July 16, 1999, French president Jacques Chirac dedicated the Centre de la mémoire d’Oradour-sur-Glane (Center of Memory). Since 2002, more than 300,000 visitors have visited the museum.
Oradour Sur Glane: Death of a French Village