German prosectutors on the trail of French massacre leaders
Dortmund prosecutors are visiting France in an attempt to finally solve the mystery of a 1944 massacre in which hundreds of French were killed by occupying Nazi forces
Dortmund -- Little Hubert Menanteau was just 3- months-old when he was killed by callow Nazi troops in one of the worst German atrocities during the wartime occupation of France.
German investigators are to look for evidence next week in the central French village of Maille in the hope that they can spot connections between the massacre of August 25, 1944 and documents on German troop movements at the time.
The troops, described by witnesses as very young, killed 124 of Maille's population of about 500 in a bloody reprisal for a French Resistance ambush the previous night that had destroyed two German military vehicles in the area south of Tours.
On the same day, Paris was celebrating its Liberation; the Germans must have known their defeat was certain.
The massacre was the second worst in France after the frenzy of violence two months earlier in Oradour-sur-Glane where 642 villagers were slaughtered. To this day, no full list of the butchers of Maille has been drawn up. Witnesses spoke of 60 to 100 German soldiers being present
During a week at Maille, Ulrich Maass, a prosecutor from Dortmund, and his team will assess whether they can use their German knowledge to track down surviving suspects. Maass heads the hunt in North Rhine Westphalia for Nazi war criminals.
His team is to look at the village, inspect French archives and drive to the various places where German troops were camped in 1944. They are also scheduled to lay a wreath at the memorial to the victims in Maille.
Only one person has ever been tried for the massacre. In 1952, a French court in Bordeaux condemned to death in absentia Gustav Schlueter, a lieutenant in the German reserve. But he was never found.
He died in 1965 in Hamburg, the French media discovered years later.
Maass says the verdict that Schlueter directed the massacre is a plausible one, but it remains unproved which troops he commanded on the day. A reserve battalion of the 17th armoured division of the Nazis' private army, the SS, was camped nearby at the time.
"We believe that soldiers of that unit were involved," said Maass.
The Germans say it has taken this long to crank up the inquiry because there are very few records with a bearing on the massacre.
After the Bordeaux trial, little attention was paid to Maille till the United Nations released war-crimes files in 1987. The prosecutors in Dortmund did open an inquiry, but closed it again in 1991 after deciding no more could be found out.
But historians and journalists kept looking and four years ago the German inquiry was re-opened. Since then, French investigators have spoken to 50 survivors and other witnesses, who say the German troops were very young and wore green uniforms.
They described how one baby was bayonetted and the village was torched. It was shelled in the afternoon by the departing Germans.
"They shot us if we were hares," said a man who was nine at the time.
Maille has a website and museum. The names are listed of all the dead, including 48 under the age of 15.
Quite a few villagers got away when some of the Germans warned them by yelling "Get out!" at them instead of shooting.
Maass admits that after so long, it is not hugely likely he will trace the rest of the culprits.
"The French are glad that we are at least trying to uncover what has been obscured for so long," said Maass, whose credits include the recent indictment of an 86-year-old former SS captain for shooting three Dutch citizens between July and September 1944.