On the day that Paris was liberated, August 25, 1944, German forces shot and stabbed to death 124 residents, including 42 women and 44 children, in Maillé and left the town in ruins after a bombing campaign. The killings were in reprisal for an attack the previous day by a small group of resistance fighters on German troops north of the village, near a strategic railway crossing.
While France and Germany have cooperated in the past to track down wanted war criminals, the mission by Dortmund state prosecutor Ulrich Maas marks a rare attempt to collect evidence in a probe that could lead to indictments.
“I am ashamed by what the Germans did here and I apologize to everyone,” Maas said after his arrival, accompanied by police commissioner Bernard Schneider and an interpreter. “I am surprised and touched by the welcome that I received.”
The German team will spend three days in Maillé, which has some 500 residents, interviewing witnesses to try to determine which unit took part in the massacre and perhaps even obtain names of individuals who could be tried in Germany.
There is no statute of limitations on war crimes in Germany, contrary to France which has set a limit of 30 years.
Prosecutor Philippe Varin from the Tours region said it was “an extraordinary event” for German investigators to come to France to probe World War II atrocities.
After laying flowers at a memorial for the victims of the massacre, the team toured the town and was to consult archives at a local museum dedicated to the memory of the 124 residents.
Sebastien Chevereau, who heads the museum, has welcomed the investigation as an effort to honour the memory of those killed in the massacre, which he says is rarely mentioned in history books.
Another village, Oradour-sur-Glane, is known to all French schoolchildren, evoking one of the darkest chapters of World War II when 642 civilians were massacred, including 200 women and as many children on June 10, 1944.
The Maillé investigation first opened in 1988 after information was uncovered in just-released UN archives, but the case was closed in 1990 after not enough evidence was found to file charges. It was re-opened in 2004 after university research into the massacre yielded new leads, prompting German police to take a second look. A former Wehrmacht lieutenant, Gustav Schlueter, was convicted in absentia for war crimes in Bordeaux in 1952 for the massacre, but he remained at large in Germany until his death in 1965.
“We have a petty clear idea of what happened,” said Maas. “Young soldiers were ordered to carry out reprisals and everything leads us to believe that this massacre was of their own initiative.”
Despite the passage of 64 years since the massacre, the prosecutor said he had not given up hope of finding those responsible.
“We would like to know which troops did this and and why. We would like to be able to tell the truth to our youth,” said Maillé resident Serge Martin, 74, who lost his parents, brother and sister in the massacre. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think about August 25, 1944 and the massacre of my family,” said Martin, one of the 28 children who became orphans that day.