August 25, 1944 – August 25, 2022.
78 years ago today, German occupying forces officially surrendered to General Philippe Leclerc in Paris.
The same day, General de Gaulle improvised a stirring speech at the Paris Hôtel de Ville, setting the tone for the narrative a bruised, divided, humiliated nation would embrace for decades to come. “Paris! Paris outraged! Paris broken! Paris martyred! But Paris liberated! Liberated by itself, liberated by its people with the help of the French armies, with the support and the help of all France, of the France that fights, of the only France, of the real France, of the eternal France!”
De Gaulle’s call to unity made its mark on the French collective memory. We all recall vintage reels featuring “le Grand Charles” marching down the Champs-Elysées a day later, cheered on by delirious crowds.
I am guessing these are the events you will read about today in your social media feed. And indeed, what a triumphal day August 25, 1944 was after four long years of Occupation, for so many in France and especially Parisians!
For others, tragedy awaited.
In the morning of August 25, 1944, a small village in the Touraine region, Maillé, population 500, was about to go through hell.
While Paris was celebrating (and the Germans were surrendering,) about 50 German troops stormed the area, gunning down everyone they met in their path, men, women, children, and animals. They slit throats, stabbed, and shot locals then burned the village down. A few hours later, Luftwaffe shells rained down on Maillé finishing the job.
Once the dust settled, 124 victims were accounted for, including 49 children. The youngest was three months old.
To this day, no one really knows, even if several theories unfolded overtime.
In 1944, many had heard of the martyred village of Oradour-sur-Glane and the terrible events of June 10, 1944. 643 victims. Ruins. A culprit: the Waffen SS Das Reich division.
How could this have happened just two months later in Maillé?
Everyone in France knows the gripping and terrifying story of Oradour. General de Gaulle ensured we would never forget nazi barbarism when he decided the ruins of Oradour would be preserved and the village would not be rebuilt, turning it instead in an effective and recognized landmark where visitors continue reflecting on the horrors of war.
Oradour-sur-Glane thus entered the French collective memory, its victims honored, year after year.
Things would be different for Maillé, the martyred village in the Indre et Loire region.
In August 1944, local gendarmes investigated and found two hastily written notes pinned to bodies. They read (paraphrasing) “This is what happens to terrorists.”
Were Maillé folks murdered in retaliation?
Probably. The French Resistance had been active throughout the region, especially during the summer of 1944. Located 50 km (30 miles)South of Tours in the Occupied zone, Maillé sat at the intersection of two major communication routes: The “Nationale 10” (a road used massively by the Germans that summer) and the railroad line between Paris and Bordeaux.
In August, local groups of the Resistance (trying to slow down the German’s retreat) staged several sabotage operations, occasionally exchanging fire with the enemy and killing some of their troops. They could never have guessed the terrible cost Maillé would pay.
Yet, the event hardly made national news.
The dead were buried.
Overtime, they rebuilt the village “à l’identique” (as it was) through fund-raising campaigns (and the help of a couple of generous American philanthropists.)
In the 1950s, a humble plaque was set up on the village square. It read: “25 août 1944”. Other markers appeared through the years, and in the 1980s a monument listing the 124 victims’ names was erected in the cemetery.
Finally, 50 years after the August 1944 massacre, an exhibit told the story of the martyred village and made national news.
By 1995, an association was created, “Pour le Souvenir de Maillé,” and survivors and their descendants started exchanging, looking for some closure.
It’s well documented the generation who lived through these events never talked about August 25, 1944.
Incredibly, responsibility was never established. It’s likely some of the executioners were young soldiers from the feared and ruthless Waffen SS.
Meanwhile, locals learned how to heal quietly, privately as France celebrated its liberation.
Finally, in 2008, President Nicolas Sarkozy visited the village and apologized to Maillé’s people, drawing national attention to their sacrifice.
Still, I am guessing you’ve never heard about the martyred village of Maillé, the second largest execution of French civilians during WWII. I hadn’t either until I moved to the Loire Valley a year ago and noticed a sign in my city mentioning the village.
If you find yourself in these parts, visit Maillé and the renowned “Maison du Souvenir,” an informative local museum where school kids often get a chance to meet survivors. The stories of Maillé’s people and their names are finally remembered too, just like the victims of Oradour-sur-Glane.
This story is dedicated to Maillé and all civilian victims of WWII and other conflicts, then and now.
To find out more about August 25, 1944 and Maillé:
- General de Gaulle speech at the Paris Hôtel de Ville: https://bit.ly/3clMG8u
- Maison du Souvenir, Maillé: https://www.maisondusouvenir.fr/en/
- Excellent blogpost recounting a visit to the Maison du Souvenir: https://adirp37-41.over-blog.com/2018/09/maison-du-souvenir-maille-25-aout-1944.html
- Documentary about the massacre with interviews of survivors (in French): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yB5a-UNMypk
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