Tuesday, April 25, 2006
War For An Afternoon
“War for an Afternoon” by Jens Kruuse
by Richard E. Noble
Oradour is a very small town in southwestern France. It is the scene of a World War II atrocity. The German SS in an act of reprisal against acts of ‘terrorism” wiped out the whole village.
Shirtless bakers and farmers in rolled up work sleeves, women, and a young school teacher with her whole class of little children in their little wooden shoes were paced off to a horrible death. Approximately 680 men, women and children were executed.
The males were separated from the females and children. With the women and children safely sequestered in the local church, the men were then brought to their knees with machine guns. They were shot in the legs, so as not to die immediately. The SS soldiers then covered all of the victims with brush and straw and set them on fire. Their screams could be heard far and wide.
Next the SS soldiers went to the church where a similar execution was repeated with the women and children. Low machine gun fire cutting them to their knees, followed by incineration of the moaning, crying, pleading victims. By one miracle or another several of the town’s people escaped. They told their stories of brutal German soldiers murdering their loved ones. Shooting old woman and men, who were too sick to rise, in their beds; busting open heads with their gun butts, booting and kicking women and children who were moving too slow or protesting, and in several instances the soldiers were laughing and joking while in the act.
After the war an attempt was made to round up the German SS who participated in that slaughter and bring them to justice. Twenty-one German soldiers were apprehended. All pee-ons, no officers or generals could be found or apprehended. The authorities had sixty-five names. Of the sixty-five, fourteen were actually Frenchmen who were fighting on the side of the Germans. Only seven Germans were caught, the rest were acknowledged to be in hiding.
The first challenge was to the court itself. The laws dealing with international war were limited. Was this court illegal and attempting to enforce laws made “after the fact”? Second, could any soldier on either side be charged with a crime for simply doing his duty?
In all countries, including our own, a soldier’s duty is to do or die, not to reason why. A soldier is given an order by a superior.
He must obey, or suffer consequences ranging from death to imprisonment. He must obey even if this law be criminal in nature. He can lodge a protest later. The soldiers further claimed that their sensitivity towards murder and/or killing and the morality of individual conscience was drummed out of them as a matter of course in their military basic training. Military officers make the same claim - only doubly true. They must be the example to their men. In effect, all officers and soldiers are free in time of war by the catch 22 of the code of military structures all over the world. As soldiers bound to duty they are charged to operate without conscience. They are no longer morally or legally responsible for their actions. An officer may be responsible for giving the order but he is relieved of the burden of his decision by the law in many countries and the Declaration on Human Rights made by the United Nations that no person can be punished for a crime that he, himself, did not commit. At Nuremberg a new international standard was attempted under the charge of “Crimes Committed against Humanity”.
Whether this new standard of humanitarianism was actually achieved or not is still debated.
The French soldiers further contended that when their country surrendered to the Germans, they in effect, abandoned them and the lives of their families to the enemy, and that this new French government had no claim to be punishing anybody. All of the consequences were initiated, first of all, by the French government’s own treason or cowardice.
Many of the French defendants had fought on both sides during the War. A good many were from the Alsace or Lorraine area and were impressed into the German military as young teenagers after their area was occupied. They claimed that their lives and the lives of their families back home were under constant threat of death from the German regulars and authorities. This trial was tearing the French public apart, but it continued.
Finally the government declared an amnesty for all soldiers who fought in the war on either side. But the judge refused to release any of the prisoners, most of whom had now been under custody awaiting trail for eight years or more. He said that this case had nothing to do with Military Law or any codes dealing with collective guilt. This was a “good old penal code” violation. Certain individuals had been accused of killing over six hundred individuals and burning down an entire town. The trial would continue and the defendants would be judged on an individual basis.
The opposition to the arguments of the defendants was clear and simple. Thousands upon thousands of honorable brave Frenchmen had stood up to this exact challenge by the occupying enemy and been executed. Many of their families were also
executed. Many of these people were tortured and then executed. The soldiers who committed the atrocities at Oradour were nothing more than cowardly traitors to themselves and their country. They did have a choice, no matter what they claim. They could have stood up to the German Terrorists and died in front of a firing squad, rather than becoming cowardly terrorists themselves.
The trail continued and decisions were made. The verdicts ranged from the death penalty to two years in prison. But this did not stem the public upheaval. Each side was outraged by the decisions. One side claiming that the penalties were too severe and the other saying that all of the traitors should have been shot. The streets all over France were erupting in violence, the legislature stepped in. In a very heated debate it was decided to let the verdict stand as declared, but the penalties not enforced. All of the defendants were secreted out of town and back to their individual communities.
The mayor of Oradour removed the Croix de guerre that had been awarded by the state from the town hall and personally handed it back to the representative of the state.
The Legion d’honneur given to the families of the victims was returned in a similar manner.
A monument that had been built to honor the victims and provide a place for their bodies was left empty, and is still empty today.
Two new monuments were erected at the town of Oradour. One exhibiting the names and addresses of the Alsatian SS men. On the other the names of the 319 deputies who had voted for their amnesty. By 1966 these monuments had also been removed.
“War for an Afternoon” by Jens Kruuse is the book describing this story. It is quite a read; a real life adventure in the morality and ethics of everyday war.