“Today, blood must flow.”

Der Speigel reported on 2 February that a renewed investigation into one of the most horrible Nazi massacres in France, on 10 June 1944.  The village, about 20 kilometres north-west of Limoges, has been left as one of the moving memorials of the Second World War, a wrenching scar in the beautiful countryside of the Limousin.

I visited a few years ago. There is an evocative museum – a  ‘centre de la mémoire’ – that tells the story, and the ruins of the village, and the cemetery.

I thought today of Syria – Damascus and Aleppo.

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‘ “Today, blood must flow.” The sentence is said to have been uttered by Heinz Barth, a junior officer in the SS division “Reich,” which was stationed in France in the summer of 1944. A group of some 150 soldiers from the division were on the road to the French village of Oradour-sur-Glane when Barth allegedly spoke the words. Just hours later, the village lay in smoking ruins, its population massacred by the Nazi troops.

Now, seven decades later, the sentence — and whether it can be proven that Barth indeed said it — has become a key element into an ongoing German investigation into the events of June 10, 1944, one of the most horrific slaughters perpetrated by the Nazis in World War II. This week, investigators from the public prosecutor’s office in Dortmund travelled to Oradour-sur-Glane as part of this search for evidence. Should they ultimately be successful, a handful of aging Germans could finally be brought to justice for a crime that has never been adequately atoned for.’

[Barth himself was sentenced to life in prison by the East German court. He was released in 1997 due to his poor health and died in 2007.]

‘The facts of the carnage are undisputed. At 2 p.m. on the afternoon of June 10, 1944, SS troops arrived in Oradour-sur-Glane, located northeast of Bordeaux, and herded the population on the town’s main square, those who were too old or infirm were shot in their homes. The men were then separated from the women and children, with the latter being crammed into the village church, into which German troops then lobbed hand grenades and fired machine guns. Those that weren’t killed instantly died in the ensuing fire. A single woman survived.

The men, meanwhile, were crammed into nearby barns, shot at and then set on fire.

There were but five survivors. In all, 642 people lost their lives in the June 10, 1944 slaughter, including 240 women and 213 children.

It is thought that the motivation for the attack was revenge. On the previous day,

Obersturmbannführer (the SS equivalent of Lieutenant Colonel) Helmut Kämpfe had been taken prisoner by a local partisan cell and later killed. Barth’s blood thirst seems consistent with the widespread Nazi practice of taking revenge on local populations following such partisan attacks.

[Ninety nine people were hanged at Tulle on (June, and 48 shot by firing squad at Mussidan on 11 June. Pierre Boursicot Commissioner of the Republic wrote in the official publication of the Remembrance Committee and the National Association of the Families of the Martyrs of Oradour-sur-Glane in 2003 ‘’ for several months an angry thirst for blood had been given free reign in the area. It was horror raised to the level of a political policy with the aim of terrorising French people …’]

An initial trial undertaken by the French in Bordeaux in 1953 involved charges

against dozens of soldiers belonging to the German unit that attacked Oradour-sur-Glane. Ultimately, however, despite several guilty verdicts, most of the suspects were set free on the strength of a political amnesty.’

“As a state prosecutor, one of the things that I must prove is that the perpetrators knew that murders were taking place,” Andreas Brendel, head of the central Nazi war crimes investigation unit in Dortmund, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. “Barth’s statement means that members of the unit knew what was going to happen on that day. That was one of the main things that encouraged me to reopen the investigation.”

An initial attempt by Dortmund prosecutors to investigate the massacre in the 1980s made little progress and was abandoned. But in 2010, having been tipped off to Barth’s statements by a book outlining the 1983 trial against the junior officer carried out by East Germany, Brendel reopened the case. The book, based primarily on trial records kept by the East German secret police, the Stasi, led Brendel to the court documents, starting a process which has now resulted in an investigation focused on six living members of the German unit that perpetrated the massacre. The trio of suspects that remain fit enough to stand trial, says Brendel, are all in their late 80s.