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Travel

Dark Tourism: Oradour-sur-Glane, the French village stuck in 1944

@SamWKemp

The province of Limousine in south-central France is something straight out of a Claude Monet watercolour. The impressionist painter travelled to the area on countless occasions, working quickly to catch the morning light as it unfolded over sleepy medieval villages. While now associated with the luxurious vehicles that pull up to red carpets, Limousine takes its name from the Lemovices, a Celtic tribe that once roamed the area’s lush forests. It also just so happens to be the name for a breed of cattle unique to the area and the cloak worn by local shepherds. An etymology of that pedigree gives us an indication of just how far back the history of Oradour-sur-Glane goes. For centuries, the tranquil village lay undisturbed – a piece of rural France forgotten by modernity.

But travel to Oradour-sur-Glane today, and you will find a different picture entirely. Bombed-out shopfronts line empty streets that, on the morning of June 10th, 1944, hummed with life. Although bread, sugar, milk and cheese were a rare commodity by the latter stages of the war, the village’s 12 cafes still welcomed their customers, many of whom were sipping the last dregs of their translucent coffee when they heard a unit of the Nazi 2nd SS Panzer Division, Das Reich, marching along the cobbled streets into the centre of town.

What followed is only truly known to those who managed to escape. The unit was weary, battle-hardened and – following the success of the allied D-Day Landings – demoralised. Following the invasion, they were ordered to Southern France from the Eastern Front, a bloody theatre of war made worse by the bitter cold and lack of supplies. Their targets were French resistance fighters suspected of hiding in sleepy, seemingly unimportant villages such as Oradour-sur-Glane. The allied success had given the resistance fighters courage where once had been only desperation.

On that day in 1944, the Germans obliterated this blossoming hope, massacring 646 men, women, children and babies in the space of just a few hours. To this day, the scale and speed of the brutality is shockingly apparent. The local mayor’s Peugeot 202 still sits where it was parked nearly 80 years ago, just as the skeletal houses still contain the rusted Singer sowing machines that once beat a motoric pulse into the neighbourly hush of the gloaming hour. The scales, once-treasured skirts, meat hooks, and rusted bed frames peppered around the town remain untouched under the orders of General de Gaulle, who requested that the town be left exactly as it was at the moment of its destruction all those years ago, a reminder of that inexplicable and unforgivable tragedy.

At this very moment, when towns in Ukraine are being reduced to rubble by Russian forces, French officials are struggling to stop the skeletal remains of Oradour-sur-Glane from crumbling into dust. Those who believe the town needs to be preserved hope to provide future generations with proof of what humans are capable of doing to other humans. At the same time, they are being forced to reckon with the inconvenient truth that time erases all things.

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