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Searching for Suspects

DPA news agency (win)July 11, 2008

On the day of France's liberation from Nazi occupation in 1944, German troops decimated a small French village. A German prosecutor is now trying to track down surviving suspects -- with slim hope for success.

A group of people with an American flag in Paris on liberation day in 1944
As Paris was celebrating, Germans were still murdering in MailleImage: AP

Little Hubert Menanteau was just 3 months old when he was killed by 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.

One trial so far

During a week at Maille, Ulrich Maass, a prosecutor from Dortmund, Germany, and his team will assess whether they can use their German knowledge to track down surviving suspects. Maass heads the hunt in the state of 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 armored 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.

Few surviving records

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 until 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.

Shot like rabbits

They described how one baby was bayoneted and the village was torched. It was shelled in the afternoon by the departing Germans.

"They shot us as if we were hares," said a man who was nine at the time.

Maille has a Web site and museum. The names of all the dead are listed, including 48 under the age of 15.

Survivors say that quite a few got away when some of the Germans yelled "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.