Oradour-sur-Glane: French Identity Memorialized | Mark Helbling

Oradour-sur-Glane: French Identity Memorialized | Mark Helbling

In her study, “The Thread That Binds Together: Lidice, Oradour, Putten, and the Memory of World War II,” Madelon de Keizer offers a comparative analysis of the violence that three villages (one Czech, one French, and one Dutch) suffered at the hands of German forces and the communities’ efforts to make sense of what happened.1 She structures her analysis on the tensions and transitions between local, national, and transnational forms of recollection as memories of the war began to fade and hatred for Germany began to lessen. Although she primarily focuses on the Dutch village of Putten, she argues that in each case, master narratives grounded in a symbolic significance of a local tragedy gave way to narratives more diverse and contingent.2

The chronological frame of her analysis importantly serves to situate Oradour in a wider and shared narrative of commemoration. However, de Keizer also notes that “Oradour was to remain the martyred village par excellence for Western Europe . . . the preeminent example of violated innocence.”3 This ideal would both shape and complicate efforts to commemorate local and national memory as manifested in the consolidation and preservation of the ruins, the construction of a Memory Museum, and the political discourse of presidents to the end of the century. This is the cultural thread I will follow. However, as scholarship increasingly interrogates the limitations of national identity as an interpretive strategy and as architects and conservationists question whether the ruins can continue to meaningfully serve as an authentic artifact, the ruins are possibly destined to become, in the words of Marc Augé, a “non-place.”

Oradour, a village in the department of Haute-Vienne in the region of Limousin, lies along the River Glane twenty-two kilometers to the northwest of Limoges, the major city of the region. On market day (Saturday, June 10, 1944), like most market days, people came from nearby farms and communes to buy and sell their wares and generally enjoy the company of others. On these days, the general population of Oradour would increase from roughly 340 to 650 individuals.4 On this particular day all the local schoolchildren, 64 from the boys’ school and 106 from the girls’ school, were in the village.5

However, unlike any previous day, and four days after the Allied landings in Normandy, German troops of the Waffen SS tank division Das Reich appeared and surrounded the village…


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