"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.
"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 had 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.
'More Historical Material'
"We have been able to find a couple of more soldiers than had been turned up in previous investigations, partially because the methods today are better," says Brendel. "More archives have been opened and there is a great deal more historical material available. The Internet has helped as well."
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.
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.
Over a half century later, gathering proof has become much more difficult, and proving Barth's statement remains a significant challenge. Brendel himself notes that the East German court documents represent the only source that makes note of the aggressive comment.
And the search for additional evidence has proved challenging as well. Brendel obtained a number of search warrants in 2011 for raids undertaken on the homes of suspects in the hopes of finding diaries, drawings or keepsakes that might solidify their case. Little was turned up, however.
Furthermore, there were very few witnesses to the original massacre and most of those have since passed away. Robert Hébras, who survived by crawling out the back of one of the burning barns, is one of those who remains. "Lots of people concerned are now old men like me, who may well have lost their memories," he told BBC this week. "Nonetheless, it is good that Germany is taking responsibility for Oradour and remains concerned by it."
An additional challenge facing Brendel is the relative low rank of the suspects he has identified, largely a function of the amount of time which has passed since the massacre and their young age in 1944. "It is difficult to prove what individual soldiers did at the site," he says.
Still, Brendel says, he remains committed to gathering enough evidence for a trial. He is currently looking at the results from this week's trip to the French town, saying that such visits can sometimes be helpful in determining what individual soldiers may have seen from where they were standing. He plans to conduct further witness interviews and document analysis in the coming weeks.
"By no means is this merely a symbolic investigation," he says. "We are talking with people who were victims and to their family members. It is a significant burden for them. Were this merely of a symbolic nature, it would be a case for the historians rather than for the public prosecutor."