In the west of central France, in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region, there is a ruined village named Oradour-sur-Glane. What remains of this French village stands as an official memorial to a tragic event that occurred during the Second World War.
The destruction of this village happened on June 10, 1944. A German tank division, the 2nd SS Panzer Division, was heading north to Normandy with orders to clear any resistance forces they encountered. After the D-Day landings, resistance activity had increased.
Theories about what motivated the actions of the German Division against this sleepy French village range from wanting to make an example of Oradour-sur-Glane to believing a German officer was being held there.
But what many historians do agree on is that, without the heat of battle as an explanation for their actions, the German soldiers carried out a cruel, premeditated attack.
The village church and surrounding barms were the sites of 642 fatalities at the hands of the 2nd SS Panzer Division. There were 240 women and 205 children among victims. After they had dealt with the inhabitants, the ruthless German soldiers set fire to the buildings, leading to the utter destruction of Oradour-sur-Glane.
After the war, on November 28, 1944, the village gained national recognition. Charles de Gaulle, the President of France at the time, announced that it was not his intention to demolish or rebuild Oradour-sur-Glane, but instead to preserve the ruins.
Oradour-sur-Glane was left as a symbol of those parts of France that had been wounded by German occupation. Local authorities installed interpretation equipment on the site to ensure that all visitors would understand the importance of these ruins.
Today, the buildings stand just as they did in 1944. Inside houses, there are still everyday items like pans, lamps, and sewing machines, all ruined by the heat of the fires. The butcher’s shop still has scales and meathooks. Plaques on the walls differentiate the various buildings while also encouraging visitors to be silent and remember.
The history of this place is also kept alive with the help of the Centre de la mémoire d’Oradour, located nearby. The museum contains films, testimonials, exhibits (including personal possessions of the former residents), and text displays, telling the story of Oradour-sur-Glane as well as the wider picture of Nazism and WWII.
Since the ruins were not going to be rebuilt, a brand new Oradour was created very nearby. It is a small town but modern, built in the style of the 1950s. It offers visitors of Oradour-sur-Glane the chance to stop for food and refreshment. The population of this new village was just over 2,000 in 2012.
The story of this destroyed village has been recounted throughout the artistic world. The 1975 film Le Vieux Fusil was based on the events of June 1944. In 2003, a documentary movie was released about Robert Hébras, one of only six survivors from Oradour-sur-Glane.
Ethan Mordden wrote One Day in France in 2015, a novel that mixes fact and fictional characters to relate the events at Oradour-sur-Glane. Welsh poet Gillian Clarke commemorates the village’s fate in two poems contained in her 2009 collection.
In September 2013, a remarkable event took place at Oradour-sur-Glane. German President Joachim Gauck visited the ruins, the first German leader to do so. He stood next to François Hollande, the President of France, and they both listened to Robert Hébras recounting what happened on that terrible day.
A huge thank you to Pete Ridley who gave us permission to share his photos of this village. He lives on the south coast of England, not far from Portsmouth. Pete has a passion for travel, especially to places of 20th-century historical significance. You should visit his Flickr account via this link, where you will find more of his photography.
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