In June 1944, a Waffen-SS unit rounded up the inhabitants of a village in the middle of nowhere to effect revenge for resistance operations – in an entirely different but similar-sounding village – and killed over 600 by shooting or burning villagers alive. Men were herded with bulltets into barns, which were set alight. Women and children were driven into the church, which was torched. One (woman) managed to escape: 452 died.
After the war, de Gaulle’s government decreed that the village should not be rebuilt, but should become a permanent memorial to French suffering under the Nazis. The village was rebuilt down the road, and the burnt, wrecked original Oradour is now a museum, with a visitor centre opened by Jacques Chirac. Its signs frequently name villagers ‘martyred’ here, and, indeed, the whole place is le Village Martyr (the martyred village).
There is no doubt that the sights here are thought-provoking: I myself was moved by the bell, whose brass had bubble out to envelop the clapper and holdings in a mangled mess on the floor. But I was even more affected by the other visitors to the church who, talking volubly to each other (did they see the sign asking for silence?), passed it by in order to take a snapshot of the roofless nave.
Pondering the purpose of this museum, and the wisdom of de Gaulle in not rebuilding the village, but preserving this scar, I cannot help feeling disquieted by the museum’s existence.
The purpose of memorials such as this, or such as the numerous Holocaust memorials, is, of course, that we should remember and reflect upon these dreadful inhumanities and help prevent their occurrence again. We should feel so emotionally moved and repelled by these events that, like a child burning its finger on a flame, we will never do them again. But this does not work. First, only those receptive to being moved will be moved: these are the more humane, sensitive types who would be unlikely to mete out cruelty. Those affected by memorials are self-selecting – apart from organised group trips (schools, etc.): the only people who visit them are those who already think the events abhorrent. Those who are capable of or have a tendency to cruelty simply would not dream of visiting such a memorial.
Secondly, most people – even those who are moved by memorial – are capable of immence complacency and cowardice. How many people would put their own life at risk to save another, or to speak their opinions if those opinions were unfashionable or dangerous? It has been shown time and again that complacency is the oxygen for the flame of violence and oppression, as Pastor Niemöller famously reflected. Mark Fisher more recently pointed out, in Capitalist Realism: is there no alternative?, that ‘morality has been replaced by feeling’: without analytical back-up, morals merely become what is pleasurable.
Another problem with the emotional reaction to events is the industry of victimhood. Victimhood is a negative, reactionary, exclusive state of being. It worries old wounds and, in so doing, creates new ones. It panders to eye-for-eye desires for vengeance, ‘exceptionalising’ the perpetrator and the perpetrated against. It also particularises the general. The massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane, while horrid, was – is – not exceptional. Plenty of other inhumanities were perpetrated during the Second World War – the British bombing of Dresden; the US bombing of Nagasaki; the famine in Bengal caused by the white British saving their own skins at the expense of millions of locals. There is, in the Oradour museum, a series of photographs about the Rwandan genocide (an event allowed by post-colonial paralysis and global complacency), but curiously no mention of the 1961 Paris massacre, where French police beat and drowned in the Seine over 40 Algerians protesting (peacefully). No number of Holocaust memorials has stopped Zionist extremists from committing all sorts of inhumanities to Palestinian Muslims and Christians. Victimhood has not served to propagate compassion and siblinghood: it has sow division and discord. Exceptionalising events and victims does nothing to attack hatred and extremism.
Exceptionalisation takes another form, too: it forever associates a certain place with a certain event – even though for most of its existence, that event has been no part of the place. For me, as a mediaeval historian and musician, Flanders means rich tapestries, fabulous portraits and the music of Dufay, Ockeghem and Josquin. For my teenage pupils, it inevitably means trenchfoot and German aggression. Since they go on, also inevitably, to study the rise of the Nazis, a positive image of Germany makes little impact on much of British youth. This has been the case for the whole of my school career – even as a pupil myself – and I suspect that part of the Brexit vote can be blamed on (history) teachers’ failure to promote a more interesting and varied picture of Europe, and releasing pupils ill-equipped to reject the views of, for example, the Daily Hate Mail. Oradour-sur-Glane could be remembered positively – as a spot rich in fishing and wildlife; as a place where life returned again, undaunted by its hideous setback. But its ruin is preserved as in aspic, and the inoffensive-but-homogeneous new Oradour-sur-Glane has itself been all but killed by the effects of centralisation and capitalism. Like many English cities, what the post-war period has done to communities such as Oradour is perhaps worse even than what wartime did.
There was a party of French school children wandering around; I – having embarrassingly inadequate French – did not ask them what they made of it all. They were a well-behaved bunch, but it did seem more like a day off school than an experience which should be life-enhancing and enriching (two positive words, to suggest the increase of a humane understanding). Nor did I question any of them about their attitudes to Germany and the rest of Europe. I do not know what region they were from, but, as my friend and guide remarked, the Limousin ‘voted le Pen.’ Despite such a memorial of the perils of divisive nationalism, we are plunging once more into divisive nationalism.