Oradour, the name of the village in the middle of South-West France, has an eerie tone about it. The onomatopoeic sound of the three vowels hints at something dark, dismal, dolorous. Oradour-sur-Glane, to give it its full name, occupies an infamous footnote in the history of the Second World War. On the 10th June 1944, the SS rounded up the entire population of the village and massacred them by machine guns, grenades and fire. In all, 642 men, women and children died that afternoon. Many were herded into the church, which was then set alight. The remains of one baby were found in the kiln of the local bakery. Thereupon, the soldiers proceeded to loot the village and raze it to the ground.
The reasons for this atrocity remain shrouded in mystery. It was said that the massacre was in retaliation for the shooting of an SS officer by the Resistance. It is also claimed that the Germans got the wrong village. Nearby Oradour-sur-Vayes was the original target. I doubt the soldiers cared one way or the other. Once blood lust is raised, reason flies out of the window. When France was liberated a couple of months later, General de Gaulle decreed the site of Oradour-sue-Glane should remain untouched as a lasting memorial to those who had died and a reminder to the rest of the world what atrocities had been committed on national soil by a cruel and evil invader. I have passed by the village on countless caravanning holidays in that part of France, always eager to visit the site but never doing so, deeming that it was no place to take young children. But I shall go sometime. My brother has been. He says it is sinister and distressing to view the derelict, blackened buildings and the burnt-out, rusty remains of cars and farm vehicles. It elicits much the same sobering reflection of man’s inhumanity to man, I imagine, as that of a visit to Auschwitz.
Imagine this. The Battle of Britain has been lost. The Luftwaffe, having total command of the skies, shielded the invasion of southern England in 1940, which had been a total success. Resistance had been sporadic, flimsy and swiftly suppressed. The prominent black swastika on a bright red background now flew from every government building and official residence as Britain settled down uneasily to occupation.
We Brits have a charming, self-indulgent perspective of our national character. We are basically civilised and law-abiding but push us too far and we become stroppy and uncooperative. The Germans would not have had an easy time of suppressing our rebellious streak and our natural distaste for being told what to do. “I’m not having that,” Captain Mainwaring would have barked, “Certainly not in my company!” And Corporal Jones would have been in his ear: “They don’t like it up ‘em, Sir.” Indeed not. The Germans would eventually have given up and returned home, complaining that they can do nothing with a race that plays cricket…..and stops halfway through a game to have tea.
The trouble with stereotyping is that the truth is usually more complex. Would we have cowered under the Nazi yoke just like other occupied countries? There would have been pockets of headstrong recusants and belligerent nonconformists who would have caused trouble and who knows…..perhaps they might have organised themselves into some sort of guerrilla force, much like the Resistance in France. But most of us would have kept our heads down and hoped, just like a bad dream, the Germans would go away. Another thought crossed my mind. How many of us would have actually worked for the Germans, assisted in some way with the machinery of oppression? How many of us would have turned coat, become an informer, a collabarateur?
Would it be too much of an imaginative leap to compare the current Corona crisis with a hostile occupation? Like many of us, I have detected signs of the best and the worst of human nature during the lockdown and all the social limitations imposed by a central government. People have gone out of their way to help in large or small measure those who are elderly, sick, infirm or incapable. Adversity has brought people together.
Or should I qualify that with some people? The majority have complied with the rules willingly enough because they have convinced themselves – or been convinced – that it is for the best. I wonder aloud sometimes at what point will Mr Average rebel against state intervention and join a massed protest of civil disobedience. Nothing I have seen so far hints that we are anywhere near that tipping point. What I have noticed is an unwelcome – and I have to say, depressing – number of two-metre vigilantes and mask sheriffs, busybodies who pointedly remind you of the ‘rules’, thereby unquestioningly occupying the moral high ground. You just know that they would wear the swastika armband if required and would happily shop you if you didn’t. God protect us from the compliant zealot.
Is it hyperbolic to compare having to wear a facemask with wearing a swastika armband? Probably. Nobody has yet put forward any evidence that wearing an armband is essential to public health, whereas there is some scientific evidence that wearing facemasks is. I happen to be sceptical on that issue – or at least I remain to be convinced – but that is not my point. It is the wholesale acceptance, with very little disagreement, of government advice, ‘led by the science’, that worries me. That is how totalitarian regimes control their population, not by brute force (though that may sometimes be necessary) but by disinformation, indoctrination and propaganda. If we are told to wear a mask outdoors, and I choose not to, I shall be shamed into doing so by the majority who have been seduced by the ‘evidence’.
Ah well, ‘twas ever thus. Just read A Tale of Two Cities or A Man for all Seasons or The Crucible or Nineteen Eighty-Four to remember how uncomfortable it is for any individual to raise his head above the parapet. One brave rifleman in the Maquis took out an enemy SS officer and 642 of his countrymen were slaughtered in reprisal. Comply or resist? It’s always been a moral maze.