Commemoration is much in vogue recently with the coinciding of the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, and very soon, the 100th anniversary of the Great War, or World War I. The concept fits well within the “History versus Heritage” series of posts I began with “The Intersection of History and Heritage.” This essay is based upon one I wrote several years ago for a graduate class on memory and World War II.
On 10 June, 1944, elements of the Nazi SS Panzer Division, Das Reich, descended upon the village of Oradur-sur-Glane, in the Limousin region of France, massacred 642 civilians and left the rural community in smoldering ruins. It was a tragic event, one of countless tragedies during WWII. But perhaps just as tragic is the fate of those ruins and the efforts undertaken by various groups to preserve the remains of Oradur as a war memorial. In her book, Martyred Village, Sarah Farmer explores the aspects of commemoration at Oradur, tracing the debates over how to preserve, present, and observe the site.
The reasons for commemorating Oradur vary according to specific agendas. For the survivors of the massacre and the families and friends of the victims, preserving the town’s ruins serves the need to honor dead loved ones. For those active in the Resistance and seeking retribution, the ruins bear witness to the barbarism of the Nazi occupation and provide a record, so to speak, of the horrible war crime. For the French government following the Liberation, memorializing the atrocities at Oradur memorialized the suffering of all of France at the hands of the Germans.
This last case, as Farmer shows, serves as the French government’s attempt to absolve the nation of guilt for surviving the war, regardless of an individual’s particular role in the conflict, save only the most egregious of collaborators. From de Gaulle on down, according to Farmer, the apparent governmental objective in memorializing the ruined town was to reduce “the tension between the image of the French as active resisters and the fact that the great majority of the population had survived the war by getting by.” (p.87) “Absolution” is quite an appropriate term given the religious connotation that is assigned to the commemoration of Oradur. The village and all who were massacred in it are dubbed martyrs, sanctified in the fact that they were ordinary civilians, innocents brutalized by Nazi aggression. The suffering of the citizens of Oradur is made to represent the suffering of the French nation as a whole during the war.
One of the central questions Farmer addresses in her analysis is whether it is physically possible to preserve a site such as the ruins of Oradur-sur-Glane. Aside from the church, the majority of structures in the village were not built to stand for centuries, and existing in a wrecked state, exposed to the elements, only further deteriorates the ruins. As Farmer points out, the very “feel” of the site that caretakers meant to preserve is, in her words, “softened,” as soot and ash has been washed away and vegetation encroaches. Time, which commemorators have attempted to freeze, is the very agent destroying their efforts.
The next question, then, becomes one of accuracy. To stave off the ravages of time, caretakers must preserve. Invariably that preservation must alter the site. Rotted beams and timbers are replaced by concrete, rusted metal is polished, artifacts are moved. When the actual appearance of the moment is altered to present the “essence” of the moment, who decides what that essence is and how best to present it? An example Farmer gives is the Desourteaux car. She quotes “old-timers” who note that the burnt out automobile referred to as Dr. Desourteaux’s car is not actually the car he returned in to the village on the day of the massacre. That car is located on the Desourteaux family property. The car located in the marketplace, which was referred to, over time, as Desourteaux’s car, was moved to its resting site by rescue workers in 1944. The point is that whether or not the auto is actually the mayor’s car no longer matters, what matters is that the vehicle represents Desourteaux’s car, abandoned in the marketplace at the time of the massacre. Not accuracy, it seems, but representation, is what matters. Who then is to make the decision about what is represented?