Background to Oradour

Prof. H.W. Koch

France had been defeated and its head of state, Marshal Pétain, had been appointed by the French National Assembly and given virtually dictatorial powers. The armistice agreement contained an entire section under which the French were to refrain from taking up arms again and any opposition to the occupying power carried draconian penalties. In this respect Churchill's policy to 'set Europe ablaze' was bound to have repercussions which would in the main be borne by the innocent. Two incidents shortly after D-Day to this day remain symbols of remorseless Waffen-SS brutality: those at Tulle and Oradour-sur-Glane.

On 8 June 1944 Field Marshal von Rundstedt forwarded an OKW [i.e. High Command of the Armed Forces] directive according to which active members of the French Resistance were to be treated as guerrillas. At the same time all army and SS units were ordered to apply relentless rigour 'to remove the danger to the rear of our fighting troops'. The 2nd Waffen-SS Division Das Reich was ordered to come by road from southern France to Normandy. The vanguard of the division had already been under fire en route in the town of Tulle, which for a short time was in the hands of the French Resistance, where they found 62 mutilated bodies of German soldiers who had surrendered to the Resistance. In accordance with their orders no hostages were taken, but with the aid of the local prefect and the mayor all male strangers in the town were identified and segregated, of whom 21 were released because of their youth and the remaining 99 were hanged. The dead bodies were not, as has often been maintained, thrown into the river but were handed over to the bishop of Tulle for burial. For this act of retribution the divisional commander Lammerding and the officer carrying out the execution were in 1951 sentenced to death in absentia.

On the same day, 9 June 1944, Lammerding was informed from the SD-office in Limoges that the Maquisards [i.e. the French Resistance] had a strong point in Oradour, further to the north. This was confirmed a few hours later by First Lieutenant Gerlach, who arrived tattered and torn at the divisional headquarters. He had been a member of the vanguard, was captured by armed civilians and taken through Oradour, which was full of Maquisards. He and his driver were going to be shot but the driver's resistance caused a temporary commotion in which he was killed but which allowed Gerlach to escape and make his way back. A few hours later news was received that the highly decorated and popular Lt Colonel Kämpfe had also fallen into the hands of the Resistance. His car was found, and his military identification card. During the course of the morning of 10 June Major Dickmann, a close friend of Kämpfe's, reported that two French civilians had announced that a high German officer had been taken prisoner and was to be publicly burned in Oradour. It could only have been Kämpfe since no other officer was missing.

Two decisions were taken by the divisional headquarters. Firstly a captured Maquisard was released on condition that he got in touch with the headquarters of the Maquisards, offering 30 French Resistance fighters held captive in Limoges plus 40,000 francs in exchange for Kämpfe. However, the freed Resistance fighter reported back only once by telephone saying that as yet he had not established contact with the Maquisards. The second decision was to accede to the request made by Dickmann, that he might take a company to Oradour to free Kämpfe. He was given strict orders that if he could not find Kämpfe he was to take as many Maquisards as possible prisoner in order that an exchange could be arranged. Dickmann took one company of the regiment Der Führer to Oradour, a company consisting largely of Alsatian conscripts.

On entering Oradour the company found by the roadside a smouldering German army ambulance in which the driver and co-driver had been chained to the steering wheel and burnt alive together with their wounded passengers. Due to the geographic configuration Dickmann was out of radio contact with the division and made his own decisions. All male inhabitants were rounded up, and all women and children arrested and held in the church. Thereupon Dickmann ordered a house-to-house search for Kämpfe and for any weapons or ammunition. Houses in which arms were found were to be burnt down. As this was going on Dickmann was told to come to a local bakery, where the remnants of a corpse were still smouldering; upon closer examination of the remnants, a Knight's Cross was found which Dickmann identified as belonging to his friend Kämpfe.

What happened then is still shrouded in mystery but Dickmann appears to have lost his nerve. All male prisoners were shot, except for a few who managed to escape. Houses in which weapons were found were burnt and explosions occurred. According to one version the SS set fire to the church and the women and children were burned to death, except for two women and one child who managed to escape the inferno, assisted by two SS men. However, according to the testimony of these survivors the church burned down because fires raging in its immediate vicinity caused an explosion in the belfry, which had served as an arms and ammunition dump for the Maquisards. In any event, Dickmann had exceeded his orders; he submitted his report and court martial proceedings were initiated against him, but before it came to a hearing Dickmann was killed in Normandy.

The Oradour trial took place in Bordeaux in the early months of 1953. Lammerding, in spite of the death sentence pronounced against him in 1951, offered to go to France to give evidence. Both the German authorities in Bonn and the French authorities turned down the offer. The sentences given at the Oradour trial were extremely light, because most of the accused were Alsatians and there was considerable unrest in Alsace over the case. Furthermore many of the accused had in the meantime served with distinction in Indo-China. By the end of 1958 all those convicted over Tulle and Oradour had been freed. General de Gaulle put a 100-year embargo on all files relating to these cases, an embargo which is still in force. When in 1960 Lammerding tried to have the case reviewed, he was again turned down by Germans and French alike. In the days of the Franco-German rapprochement between de Gaulle and Adenauer it was apparently an embarrassing topic to both sides.

From Aspects of the Third Reich, ed. H.W. Koch (New York: St Martin's Press, 1985), pp. 386-89. The title above is editorial. Also see (off-site) Tulle and Oradour: The German View.


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