In February 1944, 2nd SS Panzer Division ("Das Reich") was stationed in the Southern French town of Valence-d'Agen, north of Toulouse, waiting to be resupplied with new equipment and freshly trained troops. After the D-Day invasion of Normandy, the division was ordered to make its way across the country to stop the Allied advance.... The 4th SS Panzer Grenadier Regiment ("Der Führer"). Its staff included SS-Standartenführer Sylvester Stadler as regimental commander, SS-Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann as commander of the regiment's 1st Battalion and SS-Sturmbannführer Otto Weidinger, who was designated Stadler's successor as regimental commander and was with the regiment for familiarisation purposes. Command of "Der Führer" passed from Stadler to Weidinger on 14 June.
Early on the morning of 10 June 1944, Diekmann informed Weidinger at regimental headquarters that he had been approached by two members of the Milice; a paramilitary force belonging to the Vichy Regime. They claimed that a Waffen-SS officer was being held by the Resistance in Oradour-sur-Vayres, a nearby village. The captured German was alleged to be SS-Sturmbannführer Helmut Kämpfe, commander of the 2nd SS Panzer Reconnaissance Battalion (another unit of the "Das Reich" division), who may have been captured by the Maquis du Limousin the day before.
On 10 June, Diekmann's battalion sealed off Oradour-sur-Glane, having confused it with nearby Oradour-sur-Vayres, and ordered all the townspeople – and anyone who happened to be in or near the town – to assemble in the village square, ostensibly to have their identity papers examined. In addition to the residents of the village, the SS also apprehended six people who did not live there but had the misfortune to be riding their bikes through the village when the Germans arrived.
All the women and children were locked in the church while the village was looted. Meanwhile, the men were led to six barns and sheds where machine guns were already in place.
According to the account of a survivor, the soldiers began shooting at them, aiming for their legs so that they would die slowly. Once the victims were no longer able to move, the soldiers covered their bodies with fuel and set the barns on fire. Only six men escaped; one of them was later seen walking down a road heading for the cemetery and was shot dead. In all, 190 men perished.
The soldiers proceeded to the church and placed an incendiary device there. After it was ignited, women and children tried to escape through the doors and windows of the church, but they were met with machine-gun fire. A total of 247 women and 205 children died in the carnage. Only 47-year-old Marguerite Rouffanche survived. She slid out by a rear sacristy window, followed by a young woman and child. All three were shot; Marguerite Rouffanche was wounded and her companions were killed. She crawled to some pea bushes behind the church, where she remained hidden overnight until she was rescued the following morning. Another group of about twenty villagers had fled Oradour-sur-Glane as soon as the soldiers had appeared. That night, the village was partially razed.
Through a Freedom of Information Act request, the formal written narrative of a 20 year old American B-17 navigator – shot down over Avord, France in late April, 1944 and thereafter hidden by the French Resistance until he was finally flown to England on 6 August, 1944 – was obtained in 2011. The report includes the following hand-written notation, dated August 15, 1944: "About 3 weeks ago, I saw a town within 4 hours bicycle ride up the Gerbeau farm where some 500 men, women, and children had been murdered by the Germans. I saw one baby who had been crucified."
Although Murphy's two-sentence addition to his report is, apparently, the first evidence in the historical record of the infliction of cruelty of that sort on a baby, based on an assemblage of evidence undertaken in large part by Murphy's grandson – an attorney in the National Security Division of the U.S. Department of Justice – there is little reason to doubt the authenticity of the handwritten addition to the formal account of the four and one-half months in which Lt. Murphy evaded capture; a document that had gone through a number of drafts between the filing of Murphy's initial questionnaire on 7 August and the execution of the formal report on 15 August, as the report was compiled and edited by an intelligence officer, formally witnessed and signed-off by a commanding officer, with each successive draft and its interlineations included in the PDF file cited by Harris in the Foreign Policy article. And as Harris sets forth, the weight of circumstantial evidence strongly points to the identity of the "town" in issue as Oradour-sur-Glane.
A few days later, survivors were allowed to bury the dead. 642 inhabitants of Oradour-sur-Glane had been murdered in a matter of hours. Adolf Diekmann claimed that the episode was a just retaliation for partisan activity in nearby Tulle and the kidnapping of Helmut Kämpfe.
On 12 January 1953, a military tribunal in Bordeaux heard the case against the surviving 65 of the approximately 200 German soldiers who had been involved. Only 21 of them were present, as many were living in East Germany, which would not allow them to be extradited. Seven of them were Germans, but 14 were Alsatians, French nationals of German ethnicity who had been regarded by the Nazis as members of the Reich. All but one of them claimed to have been drafted into the Waffen-SS by force. Such forced conscripts from Alsace and Lorraine called themselves the malgré-nous, meaning "against our will".
The trial caused a huge protest in Alsace, forcing the French authorities to split the tribunal into two separate proceedings, according to the nationality of the defendants. On 11 February, 20 defendants were found guilty. Continuing uproar (including calls for autonomy) in Alsace pressed the French parliament to pass an amnesty law for all the malgré-nous on 19 February, and the convicted Alsatians were released shortly afterwards. This, in turn, caused bitter protests in the Limousin region.
By 1958, all the German defendants had been released as well. General Heinz Lammerding of the Das Reich division, who had given the orders for the measures against the Resistance, died in 1971 after a successful entrepreneurial career. At the time of the trial he lived in Düsseldorf, which was located inside the British occupation zone of West Germany, and the French government never obtained his extradition from the British authorities.
The last trial against a former Waffen-SS member took place in 1983. Shortly before, former SS-Obersturmführer Heinz Barth was tracked down in the German Democratic Republic. Barth participated in the Oradour-sur-Glane massacre as a platoon leader in the "Der Führer" regiment, in charge of 45 soldiers. He was one of several war criminals charged with giving orders to shoot 20 men in a garage. Barth was sentenced to life imprisonment by the First Senate of the City Court of Berlin. He was released from prison in the reunified Germany in 1997, and he died in August 2007.
After the war, General Charles de Gaulle decided the village should never be rebuilt, but would remain a memorial to the cruelty of the Nazi occupation.