Thursday will be the sixtieth anniversary of one of the most notorious massacres of the war. Surprised by the D-Day invasion, German troops were sent into Vichy France (the technically autonomous France in the south) in order to shore up security. Near Bordeaux, a unit of the Waffen SS massacred almost the entire population of the small town of Oradour-sur-Glane. The men were separated out and shot. The women and children were shut up in the church, asphyxiated, shot, and burned. 642 people died.
As shocking as the event was, it was discovered after the war that fourteen of the German soldiers were Alsatians: malgré-nous, people who were considered German citizens (Reichsdeutsch). Because the National Socialists considered Alsatians to be Aryan and ethnically German, they were obligated to serve the state as other Germans. Furthermore, the Nazis were anxious to show the participation of Alsatians in the Reich. Many Alsatian men were forced to serve in the military–often members of their families were held hostage or were harmed in order to compel them to fight. Most malgré-nous fought on the Eastern Front in the Waffen SS (the military division of the SS, often given the most arduous missions). The Russians were aware of the presence of the malgré-nous, and they would call out to them in French, encouraging them to surrender or switch sides.
A court in Bordeaux tried the Alsatian soldiers, along with seven Germans, in 1953 and condemned them. But the sentence caused outrage in Alsace. People felt that the rest of France did not understand the unique suffering that they experienced during the war. Not just occupied, the Nazis put tremendous pressure on the Alsatians to integrate and Germanize. The malgré-nous were only one aspect of forced assimilation and punitive deprivation that Alsatians experienced and other Frenchmen did not. The malgré-nous were pardoned. The people in Oradour-sur-Glane and the region of Limousin were incensed. They felt that the government sacrificed justice in order to preserve national unity with a traitorous people. The betrayal that they felt was deeper because no one attempted to prosecute the leaders who organized the massacre, only those who committed it:
If they had condemned the organizers before trying the executors, the clemency granted to the latter might have been easier to accept.
Politicians who refused to recognize the crimes were placed on a plaque–a symbol of shame–in the remnants of the burned out village (now organized under Centre de la Mémoire).
Dialogue between the two is still difficult. The Limousin demand recognition of the massacre, and they are unwilling to recognize the precarious situation in which Alsatians found themselves. In the 1980s, one of the malgré-nous sued for a military pension (something which he would be entitled to despite fighting for Germany), but was lambasted by a storm of public opinion.
Like Gerhard Schroeder at Normandy this week, current Alsatian politicians are attending memorials of Oradour-sur-Glane. Alsatians have generally stayed away from memorials. The current mayor of Oradour-sur-Glane, Raymond Frugier, has attempted to create dialogue between Limousin and Alsace. He has met with Alsatian politicians for six years. For this memorial, Frugier invited four Alsatian politicians to attend. He wants reconciliation–to create a collective memory of these events–but he insists that certain facts are accepted:
Everyone must accept that people on both sides endured terrible suffering ... There are [those in Limousin] who refuse to recognize forced incorporation. [In Alsace] there are those who tend to lessen the responsibility of the SS in order to minimize the involvement of the malgré-nous.
They are trying to balance the right tone, giving the atrocity its due while reminding France of the sufferings of Alsatians. France is still struggling with a simple view of people’s roles during the war: collaboration or resistance. In this light, the malgré-nous are on the wrong side of history:
Many Frenchmen still believe that those who were incorporated into the Wehrmacht by force had been volunteers. (Philippe Richert, French senator and president of the general council of Bas-Rhin)
Finding the balance is not simple–it is difficult to excuse the participation of the malgré-nous despite their unique status:
The Alsatians were on both sides of this terrible war. (Fabienne Keller, mayor of Strasbourg)
The politicians have responded to the challenge by pointing out that Oradour-sur-Glane concerns two different war crimes:
I understand that Oradour[-sur-Glane] was and absolute crime. But forced incorporation existed and was a violation of the rights of the population that is recognized by war tribunals. These are two wrongdoings of Nazism ... Alsace has also been a symbol for the wrongdoings to totalitarianism. (Adrien Zeller, president of the regional council of Alsace)