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Georges Magnane: Où l’herbe ne pousse plus (Where the Grass No Longer Grows)

On 10 June 1944, a German Waffen-SS troop entered the vilage of Oradour-sur-Glane looking for one of their officers, allegedly being held prisoner by the Resistance in the village. They destroyed the village and murdered 643 people, including many women and children. This book is a fictionalised account of the massacre.

We start off with Jean Bricaud, a farmer who, like most people in the village is struggling even if there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel with D-Day having taken place. He is haymaking with his much younger brother Francis when they hear noises of a lot of lorries. However, instead of passing through as he would have expected, they seem to stay. Moreover, his family do not seem to have returned as they should have done. The two men decide to go and investigate, separately. Jean comes across a group of French people being held in a ditch by armed Germans. To their surprise, the German officer lets him go as he is not from the village of Verrièges, the proxy for Oradour-sur-Glane in this book.

The officer is Colonel Wolfgang Rehm and we learn his point of view. He despises the French peasants- this backward population stuck in a rut, attached to dull meticulous traditions. Nothing spoke in its favour. Absolutely nothing. However, he recognises Jean as a worthy adversary which is why he lets him go. Jean, instead of going home which might have been wise, is determined to get to Verrièges to find his family.

Jean finally does go home and is, not surprisingly, in a terrible state. He is trembling with fear and takes it out on his beloved dogs. Most of the family, and the family of the neighbours, with whom the Bricauds are very close, are there but two are missing. Father Etienne has a habit of going off wandering but will often lie down by the side of the road, rest and then return home. We follow his wanderings and his ruminations about his family. Francis, Etienne’s youngest son, is his favourite and was named after his older brother François, killed in World War I before Francis was born. We soon learn where Francis is – he is in Verrièges, where the people have been rounded up, women and children in one group, men in another. He is very concerned as his (not so ) secret girlfriend, Juliette Ducros, is in the group of women.

The Germans are looking for a stash of arms that they have been told by anonymous letter that the mayor is hiding. They have searched diligently without success. Francis soon realises that, if there are any arms they probably will not be in Verrièges-la-Plaine, where they are now,as there has been little maquis activity in this village, but far more likely in Verrièges-la-Montagne, the neighbouring village where the maquis have been active. Indeed, Francis has just realised that the local priest may well be connected with this group.

Not surprisingly, Magnane makes no pretence at impartiality. The French may not be saints but they are normal, working human beings who just want to get on with their lives. The Germans are unremittingly evil, though some more than others. Magnane points out that Rehm is generally opposed to mass slaughter and so are most of his men. However, if Rehm were to order it, they could be sure God was on their side. They could pillage, ransacked, burn, inflict the worst torture, all in the name of virtue..

When no arms are found, Colonel Rehm and Sergeant Strauss take the view that there are no arms to be found and feel that the troop should just move on. Lieutenant von Greven is of a different view. He interrogates Juliette, warning her of dire consequences if she does not reveal where the arms are. She does not as there are no arms. As a result von Greven wants sterner measures. He has a reputation for being brutal and determined. Though he is clearly inferior in rank to Rehm, Rehm is somewhat scared of him as his superiors favour Von Greven’s ruthless approach. As a result the women and children are sent off to the church, the men to various barns and garages.

Magnane spares us no details of the massacre which is bloody and ruthless. Jean had gone, with difficulty, to Verrièges-la-Montagne both to warn the maquis there but also to solicit their aid in combatting the slaughter. Etienne is still wandering around like a lost soul and ends up in Verrièges-la-Plaine. The Germans, however, are determined and not only those that were there but those that arrive during that time are going to be victims.

Some arrive much later, after the slaughter, to find the results and to look, generally in vain, for friends and family. We even learn that the Germans will return twice, once to plant fake evidence and once to clean up.

The vast majority of the Germans are portrayed en masse or as mere automata, obeying orders. However, there are four we see as more or less individuals. In charge is the patrician Junker Colonel Rehm. He looks down on the French as inherently inferior to the Master Race to which he belongs but he is not very enthusiastic about slaughtering them. However, he is weak and is easily pushed by his much inferior officer, Lieutenant von Greven, fearful that von Greven and his ruthless approach are much preferred by his superiors. Rehm, however, seems to have few qualms about what he has done. Von Greven is a vicious nasty piece of work, thoroughly cruel and inhuman, your archetypal Nazi. Magnane tries a bit of psychoanalysis on him, blaming in part his mother for spoiling him terribly as a child, though he now seems to despise his mother. Sergeant Strauss is the typical soldier. He will do as he is told whatever that involves.Finally, at the end, we meet a nameless German soldier who is crying his eyes out, the only German that we see to show any remorse.

When I set out to read this book, I thought it would just be a fairly straightforward account of that awful day. However, Magnane shows himself to be a skilled writer, giving us an almost Gionoesque portrayal of an ordinary French village with ordinary people in it. Some are good, some less so. They fall in love, have children, work fairly hard, drink, argue, mock, chat with their neighbours . They misbehave – drink, children out of wedlock, a bit of minor violence. They had been fortunate, as much of the worst of the war had passed them by. The few survivors, both those who arrived later and the very few who were there, are naturally devastated and Magnane skilfully shows how difficult it is to put you life together after going through what they did.

The Germans involved in the historical massacre, for the most part, faced little or no retribution for their acts, though many were killed resisting the Allied advance post-D-Day. Magnane has no interest in what happens to his fictitious Germans. His concern is with the people, the ordinary decent people of the French village.

First published in 1953 by Albin Michel
First English translation in 2022 by Dedalus
Translated by Jerome Fletcher