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 and head of Alfons Moser, a young German naval ensign, in the Barbès-Roche­chouart Métro station, not far from the Gare du Nord in the 10th arron­disse­ment (district). Very public and very bold, these were the opening shots of the parti­san war­fare that would soon para­lyze German occu­pa­tion 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 (by this time, almost cer­tainly senile), pro­posed that his collab­o­ra­tionist Vichy regime carry out the exe­cu­tions by guil­lo­tine (a favor­ite of French police) 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, mostly hit-and-run 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); the absence of over a million young and middle-aged men who were in prison, concen­tra­tion or POW camps, in hiding, or in exile; the constant ID checks on the street and in Métro stations; the repres­sion, round­ups, and depor­ta­tion of French-born and nation­alized immi­grant Jews; and the growing war­time short­ages of rationed con­sumer goods (for example, food, tobacco, clothing, and shoes—leather stocks had been requi­si­tioned by the German mili­tary) that gave rise to a vigorous black market—all these things were at last com­bining to turn average French citi­zens against the German occu­piers and their Vichy French servants. Marshal Pétain him­self remarked that “from various parts of France, I begin to feel an unpleasant wind getting up.”

Young Moser’s brazen murder 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), officers and 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) and Vichy Milice (militia), rounded up 500 men, women, and children of Tulle, near Limoges in South-Central France, and hanged 99 from trees, bal­co­nies, and street lights. Surveying the scene, SS officers laughed, drank, and snapped photo­graphs. 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. Only 7 inhab­i­tants escaped to tell this story of criminal madness.

Speaking of criminal madness, 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 (the last train of déportés left Paris for the East on August 17, 1944, a week before the city’s liber­ation). The body count doesn’t include the tens of thou­sands of résis­tants and déportés (76,000 Jewish déportés alone) who died in transit or following their incar­cer­ation in POW camps, concen­tration camps, or death factories in Germany and Eastern Europe.

Few accounts of wartime France have affected me more deeply than Caro­line Moore­head’s heart­breaking yet inspiring his­tory of 230 women of the French Resis­tance, age 17 to 67, who were sent by Philippe Pétain’s collab­o­ra­tionist Vichy regime to Nazi death camps in the East. Only forty-nine of these résis­tantes returned to a libe­rated France. Drawing from inter­views with these women and their fami­lies, and from chilling records she accessed in French, German, and Polish archives, Moore­head traces the grim 27-month odys­sey of these women in A Train in Winter. Their col­lec­tive voices are a remark­able testa­ment to extraor­di­nary courage, sur­vival, and the enduring power of friend­ship in a world scarcely imag­i­nable. Moore­head’s book is on my short list of books to read twice.—Norm Haskett

Cold-Blooded Killers: “Das Reich” in Oradour-sur-Glane, Occupied France, June 10, 1944

Ruins of Oradour-sur-Glane

Above: Oradour-sur-Glane today looking southeast along the main thorough­fare, Rue Desour­teaux, earlier lined with bars, cafés, and res­tau­rants. In 1944 only about a quarter of its 1,500 res­i­dents lived in town. The rest were in outlying hamlets and farms. On a hot Sat­ur­day after­noon on June 10, 200 SS soldiers in half-tracks and trucks drove up unan­nounced from the St. Julien road (bottom), sealed off the town, and rounded up its inhab­i­tants into a cen­tral recre­a­tional area. The towns­people were then bombed, shot with auto­matic wea­pons, or burned to death. The Germans then set the town ablaze. By about 7 p.m. most of them were gone with the excep­tion of one German fatality and a guard unit. Photo source: Alan Davidge, “The Exe­cu­tion of Oradour-sur-Glane,” Warfare History Network, Spring 2023.

Ruins of Oradour-sur-Glane churchOradour-sur-Glane ruins

Left: The church of St. Martin 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 “Das Reich,” 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 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, their bodies uniden­ti­fiable. Six males, one a 7‑year-old school­boy, 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 an open-air 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 and rusting 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 had been killed in action after their arrival in Normandy and some could not be extra­dited from the new East Germany (German Demo­cratic Republic). On Febru­ary 11, 1953, with one excep­tion, all were found guilty of com­mitting war crimes and were sen­tenced to hard labor. The con­victed were released from prison within 5 years. As late as 2013, German prose­cutors were still pon­dering whether to put on trial 7 elderly members of the “Das Reich” found alive in Germany.

Oradour-sur-Glane main street, June 2004Centre de la mémoire d’Oradour-sur-Glane (Center of Memory)

Left: Rue Desour­teaux, 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 pilgrimage 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. Out of 642 just 52 could be posi­tively iden­ti­fied; the remainder were offi­cially clas­si­fied as “missing,” because their remains were not suf­fi­ciently iden­ti­fi­able. 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). Oradour is well off the beaten track for tourists; that said, since 2002 hun­dreds of thou­sands of visitors have visited the museum.

Ghosts of War: Oradour-sur-Glane

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