Orders are orders
Die Schelmengeschichten sind nur auf Englisch verfügbar.
This blog is originally published in Dutch on August 1, 2020.
Confused, Marguerite, her husband, son, daughters, and grandson have themselves shepherded from their homestead to the village by three soldiers. Chaos dominates the village. The town crier calls the villagers to the market square as soldiers bang on doors and windows, break doors open, and gesture villagers from their homes to the market square. “Raus, raus …” sounds everywhere.
It is terrifying. Uniformed Germans rarely show themselves in the village, and the war would have passed it had the village not been flooded with refugees, Spanish republicans fleeing Franco's nationalists, ya-yas from the Alsace, Jewish people from Eastern Europe, and had not so many men from the village been taken prisoner of war, back in 1939 and 1940, or been deported to Germany for the arbeitseinsatz. Meat and tobacco are in short supply, true, but in the cafes the question who will, tomorrow, replace the football team’s injured goalkeeper is a more important topic of conversation than last Tuesday’s allied landings in Normandy. Someone carries an old, crippled man to the market square, and Mrs. Binet, ill for almost a week, in her pajamas, stumbles ahead of Marguerite and her family.
A check of identity papers, the town crier calls out. Marguerite and her husband, Simon, doubt the sincerity of that call. Once at the market square, Marguerite loses sight of her daughters and grandson; the square is packed with frightened people, some unduly composed. Mayor Desourteaux argues with a German officer, and a soldier shouts in poor French that women and men should form separated groups at both sides of the square.
Just before some soldiers start pushing the women into the main street, Marguerite gets a glimpse of Simon. Jean, her son, 23 in two weeks’ time, is standing next to him. They both wave. She waves back and then shifts her attention to finding her daughters, who must be among the hundred maybe two hundred women surrounding her.
The soldiers guide the women, of whom most protest or cry, in the direction of the church. Marguerite is one of the few women not pushing a pram, carrying a child, or leading one by the hand. Genuinely frightened now, she has herself forced into the church, where, with most other village women and their children, she waits for almost two hours for what is to come. Every now and again, the unknown sound of machineguns is heard. Then suddenly, soldiers enter the church. They put a box on a chair, light the fuses hanging out of it, walk backward out of the church, and barricade the doors. Before anyone is able to react, the box explodes. Smoke fills the church. In panic, the women and children storm the barricaded doors, that succumb under their weight. A wave of fresh air passes through the church, but at the same instant, machinegun bullets spray the inside of the church. Women and children scream and drop to the floor, wounded or dead. Paralyzed with fear, gasping for air, Marguerite crouches down in a sheltered area of the nave as soldiers throw incendiary grenades into the church, shooting at anyone who dares moving in the direction of the doors. Andrée, one of Marguerite’s daughters, emerges from the smoke, in which Amélie and the seven-month-old Guy probably still fight for their lives. It seems like Andrée is lifted into the air before she hits the ancient tiles that make the floor of the church, ablaze now and filled with smoke and screams. Andrée is dead, a truth that hits Marguerite as if she herself is hit by a bullet although what is really happening no longer reaches her brain. On her hands and knees, she crawls to the altar, and … strolling toward what remains of the church of Oradour-sur-Glane, surrounded by the ruins of houses that cry grief, I try to break away of what I read over the years about the massacre of Oradour and allow my thoughts to drift to a discussion that recently raged on my LinkedIn page.
In that discussion, a senior army officer and a lawyer challenge my freedom to speak out about the conduct of the Dutch armed forces in Afghanistan. A philosopher came to my aid and introduced Sartre into the discussion, who, like many people, me included, rejects the decree orders are orders, based on the freedom he attributes to all people. However correct the context in which the philosopher used the words orders are orders, he dug his own Nazi trap, and kicking around wildly in inappropriate prose, the senior officer caught the ball easily and jogged on for an unchallenged touchdown: I am not the right person for a bulshit [sic] bingo with someone who shamelessly draws a comparison with doubtful regimes. The philosopher did not draw the comparison, and neither did I although I more than once witnessed the Dutch armed forces drop bombs, lob grenades, or open fire on people of whom could not be said with certainty whether they had good or bad intentions, with which, some other questions aside, the question arises whether people, without a preceding trial, deserve the death penalty for having bad intentions.
I feel myself getting restless and realize my restlessness is not related to the memories that suddenly haunt me. Lieux de mémoire Oradour-sur-Glane, today, seems to be visited by improbable obese people only. Wherever I look, they shamble on in little concealing leggings and tight T-shirts in between the ruins that once made a village in which the words joie de vivre were not yet synonym to binging and purging. From under mouth masks, they direct each other to the right spot for the best photo. Next to a sign that reads silence, a woman searches in between layers of overlapping body fat for her ringing phone. Under different circumstances, I would have taken less offence to what I observe. All I want now is to get away from it.
Without looking in, I walk past the entrance of the church. I jump over a fence, sneak through openings in crumbled walls and through gardens, sit myself out of everyone’s sight against the back of the church, and ponder on the idea that the world, some eighty years ago, almost came to an end because some people thought they needed more room to graze their cows and to plant potatoes while today, the world is effectively coming to an end because virtually no one can keep away from hamburgers and French fries, <<Après nous, le déluge>> more en vogue than ever although we shout the opposite from rooftops.
When it comes to what is being shouted from rooftops, I rather stick to what I remember from Sartre: people are what they do and live up to the few options – somehow not open for discussion – we have left to save our planet, and … my phone vibrates. A WhatsApp message from a friend who drove ahead of us to Asturias, in the north of Spain, where we were supposed to ride our bikes for some days. Forget Spain. Mouth masks obligated even while cycling out in the open. Back to France. Tourmalet and Aspin. Man, we would have laughed about corona had we by the end of World War II decided to turn hamburgers and French fries a cold shoulder, and I wonder whether today there is a single visitor of Oradour-sur-Glane able to climb to a shattered window via an altar in the purgatory Oradour’s church once was, climb through it, and jump to the ground four or five meters below.
Marguerite Rouffanche, 47 years of age, landed where I now sit after she jumped from one of the church windows above me. A woman with her child had followed her. Marguerite caught the child the woman threw her but could not prevent it from hitting its head, attracting the attention of the Germans with its cries. The woman and her child died in a shower of bullets. Five bullets hit Marguerite. Still, she managed to sneak to the gardens I just sneaked through. Pea trees were cultivated in those gardens those days, and it was between those pea trees that people, kindly disposed to her, found her the next day. Marguerite died in 1988, aged ninety, 44 years after the death of Simon, Jean, Andrée, Amélie, little Guy, and 637 inhabitants of Oradour-sur-Glane.
My thoughts drift back to colonel Bullshit-bingo, director of the Dutch institute of veterans, and his attempts to convince me of the limitedness of my freedom of speech. Next, my thoughts drift to PTSD. Six thousand PTSD-victims in the Netherlands. No such amount of incidents that could possibly traumatize a soldier has occurred since the Dutch participation in the Korea War, which can only imply that the concept of trauma is subject to deflation since Marguerite Rouffanche jumped from the window of a church in which she left her dead or dying daughters and grandson behind, not counting the five bullets that hit her. And although I feel sorry for those Dutch veterans who escaped possibly traumatizing incidents, unhurt, sometimes hurt – and of whom those I know keep their silence – most stories of PTSD-victims who do find the media and whose freedom of speech is still unlimited confirm my deflation hypothesis, and … Sartre. Sartre, if I remember well, claims we cannot be defined by our past, not even by the brutal facts of it, because we are responsible for the meaning we grant our past. “Well, that is easy to say,” I imagine a PTSD-victim complain. “The brutal facts of my past live their own live in my head.”
“No,” Sartre objects, “you choose to have the brutal facts of your past live a life of their own in your head, because there is one thing in which you are not free, and that is to quit being free.”
I lean back in the grass, stare at the blue sky, and realize that however perilous a situation, there will always be an open window for me for as long as I do not make joie de vivre synonymous to binging and purging and for as long as I embrace the freedom I have to leave the brutal facts of my past for what they are. And when the latter becomes difficult, when melancholy strives too hard to grab control, I think of Marguerite and of … “I knew I would find you here,” Heidi’s voice sounds. “Do you stay with your friend a while longer, or do you want coffee?” I get up and see her under me in a street, our Stanley thermos in one hand. Once again, I realize that life should be lived in the present and that I don’t want to miss a second of it. I take a few steps forward, jump down a wall not half as high as the church window behind me, and search for a spot where we can have our coffee without croissants au chocolat.