The Bordeaux Trial in 1953
It was almost 9 years before any of the
perpetrators of the Oradour-sur-Glane massacre, which had taken
place on 10 June 1944, were finally prosecuted by a military
tribunal in Bordeaux.
Hubert Desourteaux, one of the survivors,
estimated that as many as 200 Waffen-SS soldiers in the 3rd company
of Der Führer regiment in Das Reich division, had participated
in the killing of 642 innocent men, women and children and the
destruction of the village. Other accounts say that around 150
soldiers were involved. Investigators were able to identify only
66 of the soldiers in the 3rd company, who had survived the war.
By the time the war ended in May 1945,
most of the perpetrators had been killed in action while fighting
against the Allies. Adolf Diekmann, the German officer who had
led the attack, was lying in his grave in a military cemetery
at Normandy. Captain Otto Kahn, the commanding officer of the
3rd company, had allegedly escaped to Sweden, a neutral country.
Brigadier General Heinz Lammerding, the
commander of Das Reich division, was living in the British zone
of occupied Germany. He had previously been tried and convicted
in absentia for his part in the hanging of 99 hostages in Tulle
in reprisal for the murder and mutilation of 73 German soldiers
who had surrendered to the Maquis, a French resistance group.
Lammerding sent a sworn affidavit to the tribunal in which he
claimed that he had known nothing about the massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane
until it was over; he excused the actions of the SS soldiers
on the grounds that they were only obeying orders. As a result
of this letter, his address in Düsseldorf became known and,
fearing that the court would request his extradition by the British,
he moved to West Germany. The West German government then refused
to extradite him.
Understandably, the survivors of the
Oradour massacre wanted the killers to pay for their heinous
crime; they wanted vengeance, but there was a problem which caused
justice to be delayed: One third of the soldiers in the 3rd company
of Der Führer regiment of Das Reich division, who were the
perpetrators of the Oradour massacre, had been born in Alsace.
After France surrendered to Germany in 1940, the former French
provinces of Alsace and Lorraine had been incorporated into the
Greater German Reich and 140,000 young Alsatian men were conscripted
into the Germany army. They became known as the malgré-nous
which means "against their will." When World War II
ended, Alsace became part of France again and the SS soldiers
from Alsace were once again French citizens.
After the Liberation of France by the
Allies, the provisional French government had passed a war crimes
law on 28 August 1944, but it applied only to non-Frenchmen and
did not allow French citizens to be brought before a military
tribunal. The Waffen-SS soldiers who survived the war were considered
by the Allies to be war criminals based on the fact that they
were members of a volunteer army which the Allies had retroactively
designated to be a criminal organization. This rule did not apply
to French soldiers fighting in the Waffen-SS who were exempt
because of the French law.
Seven Germans, who were charged with
participating in the Oradour massacre, were kept in prison for
over 8 years while an investigation was carried out. All but
two of the Alsatians in the 3rd company of Der Führer regiment
were allowed to go free, including those who had been involved
in the massacre. The two Alsatians who were imprisoned were Georges-Rene
Boos, who admitted that he had voluntarily joined the Waffen-SS,
and Paul Graff, who admitted to killing people in Oradour-sur-Glane.
According to Philip Beck, who wrote a
book entitled "Oradour, Village of the Dead," two of
the 14 Alsatians, who were put on trial in 1953, had previously
served in the French Army from 1939 to 1940 when France surrendered.
Six of them had deserted from the SS in Normandy and surrendered
to the British. The deserters subsequently joined the FFI, which
was the French Force of the Interior, a resistance organization.
Out of these six men, two later served with the French Army in
French Indo-China, later called Vietnam. Eight of the Alsatians
had been questioned as witnesses during the investigation of
The survivors of the massacre in Oradour-sur-Glane
were demanding justice, but the problem was how to prosecute
the Alsatian perpetrators who were exempt under the French law
passed on 28 August 1944. This dilemma was finally resolved on
15 September 1948 by new legislation which was aimed specifically
at the Alsatians who were involved in the killing of the villagers,
some of whom were Alsatian refugees. In fact, some of the perpetrators
were from Shiltigheim, a suburb of Strasbourg, the same town
from which the refugees had fled.
The 1948 legislation introduced into
French law the concept of collective responsibility for members
of an organization or group which had allegedly committed a war
crime. The concept of collective responsibility was already being
used by Great Britain, America and the Soviet Union in their
military tribunals conducted after the war. However, under the
new retroactive French law, the presumption of collective guilt
was not automatic; the judge in each case still had some discretion.
The importance of the 1948 legislation
was that Article 3 of the new law specifically included French
citizens who had previously been exempt under the 1944 law. Under
Article 3, French citizens could now be prosecuted as war criminals
who were personally co-authors or accomplices. Under the concept
of collective guilt or co-authors of a war crime, the persons
on trial were not defendants who were innocent until proven guilty;
they were "the accused" who were presumed to be guilty
and the burden of proof was on them, not on the prosecution.
The alleged war crime was accepted as fact and did not have to
be proved by the prosecution. The accused could not argue that
a war crime had not taken place, but only that they had not been
there when it happened.
Under the new law of collective responsibility,
there was no way for an accused war criminal to prove his innocence,
except by proving that he wasn't there. If he was there, and
he was a member of the SS or the Nazi party, both deemed to be
criminal organizations by the Allies, then he was guilty as charged.
Even if a soldier accused of participating in the massacre of
Oradour-sur-Glane had never fired a shot, thrown a grenade or
lit a match, he was guilty of a war crime by virtue of being
a member of the 3rd company which was presumed to have destroyed
an innocent village for no good reason.
It is important to note that reprisals
were allowed under the Geneva convention of 1929, but the massacre
at Oradour-sur-Glane was not considered by the tribunal to be
a legal reprisal, but rather a wanton act of destruction and
murder of innocent civilians by enemy soldiers in wartime.
Under the concept of collective responsibility,
a soldier had to not only refuse to obey an order, but also to
actively prevent the alleged war crime from being committed,
in order to avoid being charged as a war criminal. Even if the
act being committed was specifically allowed under the 1929 Geneva
convention, such as a reprisal against illegal combatants, the
soldier had to anticipate that retroactive laws might be passed
if his side lost the war. The victors didn't have to worry about
the Geneva Convention. Military tribunals were only for the losers;
the victors didn't have to defend themselves in a military tribunal,
no matter what atrocities they might have perpetrated during
or after the war. Many French villages had been destroyed by
the Allies during the fighting to liberate Europe in 1944, but
this did not constitute a war crime.
After the new legislation of 1948 made
it possible for the Alsatians to be tried, there was a new problem:
The Alsatians, who were now French citizens, but had been conscripted
into the German Army during the time that they were German citizens,
would be sitting in the dock, side by side with the hated Germans,
the barbarians who were automatically war criminals under the
retroactive laws of the Allies, regardless of their personal
behavior in war time. This was a total outrage as far as the
people of Alsace were concerned. They demanded that the 13 innocent
Alsatians be tried separately and not lumped in with the 7 obviously
guilty Germans. Boos was being tried, not only for his part in
the Oradour massacre, but for treason, because he had been born
a French citizen, but had voluntarily joined the German Waffen-SS
after he became a German citizen when Alsace was annexed into
the Greater German Reich in 1940. After France was liberated
in 1944, he became a French citizen again and thus a traitor
to his country.
The other Alsatians testified against
Boos, claiming that he had herded women and children into the
Bouchoule barn and shot them, and that he had thrown grenades
into the church.
The trial was threatening to become the
new Dreyfus affair in France. Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish officer
in the French army who was put on trial for treason in the 19th
century. The controversy over his trial had led to a suggestion
by Theodor Hertzl, an Austrian journalist who covered the proceedings,
that the Jews should have their own state in Palestine. The controversy
over the trial of the Alsatians created the fear that the people
of Alsace might decide to set up their own separate state.
In 1953 when the trial finally got underway,
the French government was actively trying to promote unity among
the French people, who had fought on both sides during World
War II, many of them collaborating with the Germans and others
fighting illegally as partisans after France surrendered and
signed an Armistice with Germany in 1940. After France was liberated
in 1944, even before the war ended, the French had arrested 40,000
collaborators as war criminals. On January 5, 1951, the French
parliament enacted the first amnesty law to free the collaborators.
By that time, only 4,000 of the collaborators were still in prison
and all but 1,570 of them were released.
It was in this atmosphere of forgiveness
and amnesty, for the sake of French unity, that the trial began
on 12 January 1953. But the Bordeaux trial once again threatened
the unity of France since the Alsatians were not given special
status in view of the fact that they had been conscripted or
drafted into the German Army and then transferred to the Waffen-SS.
The Waffen-SS was a mostly volunteer army which demanded extreme
loyalty and dedication from its soldiers. Were the Alsatians
really drafted into the regular army and then transferred against
their will into the SS, as they claimed? Robert Hebras, one of
the survivors of the massacre, doesn't think so. He wrote the
following in his book entitled "Oradour-sur-Glane, The Tragedy
Hour by Hour":
"They all claimed that they had
been forced to join the S.S. I think I may be allowed to qualify
this assertion. When the Germans annexed Alsace and Lorraine,
there is no doubt that many young men were forced to fight on
the front. Apart, I suppose, from a few isolated volunteers,
there has been no mention of Lorrainers being members of the
S.S. Why, then, the Alsatians? I would tend to believe that these
conscripts were, quite simply, volunteers. Not one was able to
produce a shred of evidence of enlistment."
The accused were all men who were blue
collar workers in civilian life; none of them were officers.
The highest ranking soldier was Sergeant Karl Lenz, a German.
They were soldiers who had merely followed orders, but this was
not a defense for war crimes committed in World War II, except
for Allied soldiers who were allowed to use this defense if they
The military tribunal was composed of
6 active officers and a civil magistrate, Monsieur Marcel Nussy
Saint-Saëns, a relative of the famous composer, who presided
over the proceedings. At the opening of the proceedings, he declared
"This trial is and will remain a trial of Nazism."
Stressing that it was really the Nazi regime that was on trial,
Saint-Saëns went on to say that the massacre happened because
some beings who had lost all traces of human dignity were bent
on establishing by force a completely materialistic order. It
was their blind obedience to the totalitarian state which had
brought about this terrible thing.
Even if these soldiers were not members
of the Nazi party and had nothing to do with Nazism, they were
now being held responsible for the Nazi party philosophy. They
were being tried under the same concept that was the basis for
the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, the concept
of a "common plan" in which each of the accused was
responsible for the orders given by his superiors.
During the first few days of the proceedings,
the lawyers for the Alsatians protested against the law of collective
responsibility under which their innocent clients were being
prosecuted, side by side with the guilty German war criminals.
The judge ruled that the law would stand, otherwise the court
had no jurisdiction. The American defense attorneys for the accused
German war criminals in the military tribunals held at Dachau
had also argued, to no avail, against the concept of a "common
plan" under which Germans, who had not personally committed
any atrocities, were prosecuted.
While the Bordeaux proceedings were in
progress, the deputies from Alsace in the French parliament managed
to have the law of collective responsibility brought up for debate
before the National Assembly. The representatives from Alsace
argued that the Alsatians who had been conscripted into the Germany
army had nothing in common with the German volunteers in the
Waffen-SS, who had all been designated as war criminals by the
Allies. They claimed that the Alsatian SS soldiers were victims
of the Nazis, the same as the innocent villagers. An important
part of their argument was that the trial of Alsatians side by
side with Germans had the effect of approving of the annexation
of Alsace into the Greater German Reich. The Alsatian representatives
in the National Assembly asked that a new law be passed that
would disassociate the Alsatians from the Germans during the
proceedings at Bordeaux.
Most people in the French province of
Alsace viewed themselves as victims of the Germans; as far as
they were concerned, the Alsatians on trial were innocent victims
and it was as though the entire province were on trial.
The two provinces of Alsace and Lorraine
had originally been German, but were taken over by the French
after the defeat of the Germans in the Thirty Years War, which
ended in 1648. In May 1871, after defeating the French in the
Franco-Prussian war, and uniting the German states into one country
under Kaiser Wilhelm I, the Germans took back Alsace and Lorraine.
These two provinces became part of France again after World War
I, based on the terms of the Armistice which ended the war. When
France was defeated by Germany in June 1940, Alsace and Lorraine
became part of Germany once again. Today, Alsace looks German,
the people speak a German dialect and the national dish is sauerkraut,
yet the province belongs to France.
Forty thousand Alsatian soldiers died
during World War II and another forty thousand have never been
accounted for. Some deserted at Normandy and then fought on the
French side. Some Alsatians refused to be drafted into the German
Army and were hidden by their families, while others got out
of the Army by virtue of self inflicted wounds.
Many Alsatian soldiers were taken prisoner
by the Russians on the eastern front and ended up in the Soviet
gulags, as the Communist concentration camps were called. Some
Alsatian POWs were sent to the notorious camp at Tambov, northeast
of Odessa, where they either died or were eventually repatriated
in broken health. After their experience with the fascist Legion
of French Volunteers against Bolshevism, the Russians were understandably
not very sympathetic to Frenchmen fighting in German uniform,
and delayed sending the Alsatians back home after the war, even
though the French were their Allies. The last malgré-nous
to be released from the Russian POW camps came home in 1955,
after ten years in a Siberian camp. German POWs were also held
in the gulags in Siberia until 1955.
Only the Communists in Alsace supported
the idea of putting the Alsatians on trial side by side with
the Germans, even though the villagers in Oradour-sur-Glane had
had nothing to do with the Communist resistance movement.
On January 27, 1953, while the military
tribunal was in progress, the National Assembly voted to exempt
all Frenchmen from Article 1 of the 1948 law which established
the concept of collective responsibility. The next day, Article
1 was abrogated. Frenchmen could no longer be tried under the
concept of collective responsibility, and neither could non-Frenchmen.
Now there was a new problem: The law had been changed while the
military tribunal was already in progress. Would the charges
against the SS men now be dropped? The judge ruled that "Nothing
has changed. The court will continue to hear this case in this
session and if severance were to be granted it cannot enter into
question until sentence is imposed." However, on February
3, 1953, the Alsatians were allowed to be tried separately from
The trial continued with the testimony
of the survivors. The star witness was Madame Rouffanche, the
only woman to survive the massacre, who had been so weakened
by a recent illness that she was unable to take the witness stand.
The judges had to draw around her seat in the courtroom to hear
her testimony. Her final words to the court were "I ask
that justice be done with God's help. I came out alive from the
crematory oven; I am the sacred witness from the church. I am
a mother who has lost everything." The term "crematory
oven," which was evocative of the Holocaust, was a reference
to the burning of the women and children in the church.
In a dramatic moment during the proceedings,
the fire box of a bakery oven, in which the remains of an 8-week-old
baby were discovered, was brought into the courtroom. Boos, who
was the villain of the group because he had voluntarily joined
the SS in 1942, was questioned about the burning of the baby,
but he refused to answer all questions about the incident.
In his summation, the prosecutor, Lt.
Col. Gardon, said that while he appreciated that the Alsatians
had been recruited by force, he demanded their punishment as
"unintentional criminals," but criminals just the same.
As quoted by Philip Beck in his book, Lt. Col. Gardon said, "The
Germans at Oradour were our enemies, but the others were actually
Frenchmen and they killed their brothers and sisters."
As quoted by Philip Beck, the prosecutor
said in his summation that he had only noticed signs of emotion
among them when the plight of their country under Nazi occupation
had been described. Otherwise, they had appeared singularly indifferent
and unmoved by the account of the death of a French village,
a village they had helped to exterminate.
For his closing argument, the defense
attorney argued as follows, according to British author Philip
"The trial, he went on, was basically
that of a totalitarian regime. The chief culprits, the promoters
of Nazism - many of whom were still alive - could not be brought
before them that day so their dupes, their first victims, were
made answerable. The accused were not the real culprits. One
had to go higher up the ladder of responsibility. When the time
came to review the history of the period, the supreme head of
the Nazi regime would be seen to bear responsibility not only
for victims such as those at Oradour but also for the men who
carried out the commands. 'It was he who put these men in uniform,'
he concluded, 'It was he who held them in the vice of discipline
and, after blacking out their intellect, led them by degrees
to be involved in the most appalling bestialities.' "
The trial ended on February 12, 1953.
After 32 hours of deliberation, the verdicts were announced by
the judges on Friday, the 13th of February, at 2:10 a.m. The
accused were brought into court twenty minutes later, on this
very cold morning, to hear their sentences read. One German soldier,
Erwin Dagenhardt, who had been able to prove that he was not
at Oradour-sur-Glane on 10 June 1944 when the town was destroyed,
was acquitted. He had already spent over 8 years in prison for
a crime that he didn't commit. The other accused men were all
convicted, as there was no other defense against collective responsibility
which was still the law until the trial was over. There were
also 43 men of the 3rd Company who were tried in absentia and
Georges-Rene Boos was sentenced to death.
He was an Alsatian who had volunteered to join an elite German
army that only became a criminal organization after Germany lost
the war. Nine of the 13 other Alsatians were sentenced to prison
terms ranging from 5 to 12 years hard labor. The remaining four
were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 5 to 8 years. Paul
Graff, who had admitted his guilt before the trial, was sentenced
to 8 years in prison. Since he had already served most of his
sentence while awaiting trial, he was the only one of the accused
who did not immediately file an appeal.
Sergeant Karl Lenz was also sentenced
to death. There were no specific charges against him and he had
denied being a participant in the massacre. His French attorney
had argued that he should be acquitted since the law of collective
responsibility had been repealed. Nevertheless, he was given
a harsh sentence due to the fact that, as a non-commissioned
officer, he had the highest rank of any of the accused. The other
six Germans were sentenced to prison terms of less than 9 years,
which meant that they had already served their time before the
proceedings began. Wilhelm Nobbe, a German, was not brought before
the tribunal because he was declared to be insane.
Otto Kahn and Heinz Lammerding were tried
in absentia and were both convicted, as were the other soldiers
in the 3rd company who were not present at the trial. The Alsatians
who were brought before the tribunal had showed up voluntarily
for the proceedings. None of those convicted in absentia ever
served a day of prison time. Heinz Lammerding continued to work
in his profession as a civil engineer in Germany until he died
Robert Hebras wrote in his book that
Lammerding gave the order for the massacre; the Centre de la
Mémoire at Oradour-sur-Glane still puts the blame for
the destruction of the village on him.
At the Nuremberg International Military
Tribunal in 1946, the top officers in the German military were
convicted of violating the Hague convention with regard to Oradour-sur-Glane,
under the concept of collective responsibility or participation
in a common plan, even though the Wehrmacht or the regular German
army was not involved in the massacre and the destruction of
Both sides were extremely unhappy with
the verdicts of the Bordeaux trial. Philip Beck wrote the following
in his book "Oradour, Village of the Dead":
"When the sentences were announced
there was a great outburst of indignation throughout France.
They were considered utterly inadequate for such a terrible crime.
There was a protest march through Limoges in which 50,000 people
are said to have taken part. Notices were displayed reading:
'WE WILL NOT ACCEPT THE VERDICT.'
"On the other hand, the people
of Alsace-Lorraine went into mourning over the injustice of the
sentences on their countrymen. They were too severe. The mayors
of all the towns in Alsace walked in silent procession past the
war memorial in Strasbourg. The Bishop of Strasbourg advocated
the non-acceptance of the sentences."
On February 19, 1953, the French parliament
voted to grant amnesty to the 13 Alsatians who had been sentenced
to prison. The vote was 319 to 211 in favor of amnesty with 88
deputies abstaining. The Upper House voted 176 to 79 in favor.
They were the conscripts, drafted into the German army against
their will. The amnesty had been granted in the interest of national
unity. General de Gaulle explained it this way:
"What French person will not
understand the inflamed suffering of Alsace? In this serious
affair what we have to avoid, above all, is that after having
lost so many of her children assassinated by the enemy in the
tragedy of Oradour, in addition France lets a bitter wound be
inflicted on national unity."
The accused had been tried by a military
tribunal, so there was no jury involved. Nevertheless, the amnesty
had the same effect as jury nullification. There were strong
protests about the fact that a judicial decision had been effectively
overturned by the legislative branch of the government. The amnesty
applied only to the 13 conscripted Alsatians, and not to Sergeant
Lenz, a German citizen, who was technically covered by the retroactive
repeal of the retroactive French law against collective responsibility.
Boos, who had committed treason, was not included in the amnesty.
On February 22, 1953, the 13 Alsatians
were released from the military prison in Bordeux at 3 o'clock
in the morning and driven back to their homes in secret. The
Germans who had already served their time while awaiting trial
were also released that day. Paul Graff, an Alsatian, who had
admitted his guilt before the tribunal, was among those who were
In 1954 the death sentences of Lenz and
Boos were commuted to prison terms with hard labor; they were
eventually pardoned by the president of France and by 1958, all
the convicted men had been set free. By 1964, all the French
citizens who had collaborated with the Germans had been freed
When the amnesty became known in the
new town of Oradour-sur-Glane, the mayor, Monsieur Fougeras,
returned the Legion of Honor with which the village had been
Robert Hebras wrote:
"The National Association of
the Martyred Families of Oradour rose in indignation at the flagrant
injustice rendered in the name of national unity; it made a mockery
of the victims' dignity. Oradour broke off all relations with
the State and the rupture lasted for 17 years. The families also
refused to place the ashes of the victims in the memorial raised
by the State. The Association was able to finance a monument,
erected in the cemetery, thanks to the large number of donations
that came from all over, and to exceptional terms of payment
granted by the company owned by Monsieur Dagoury, who, himself,
lost all his family in the massacre. As for the first memorial,
after reconciliation with the State, it was turned into a museum,
where a number of items found in the ruins are displayed."
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