Distomou. 10 June, 1944
In August I fulfilled a long standing interest in visiting Distomou, a small village close to Delphi, some four hours drive from Athens. I went to see the memorial to one of the worst outcomes of fascist right wing submission.
Distomou was, in 1944, a small village of a few hundred, living in poverty under German occupation. In that area, as in all of Greece, Communist resistance fighters, led by Aris Velouchiotis, continued reminding the Germans that they were illegal occupiers. The Germans retaliated by sending brutal Catholic fascist leaders. Well educated intelligent men from proud backgrounds, to mastermind massacres of civilians. Ordering conscripted German troops, some under 18, to commit cold blooded murder of women, children and even unborn babies. The 10th of June, 1944 was a Saturday.
Four days before the tenth, D Day began. On 6 June, 1944 Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy and for the fascists leading Germany the writing was on the wall. Fascists are bad losers and as the losing began the Nazis committed a series of atrocities that beggar belief. Executing 84 American POW’s in Malmedy, Belgium, leading to the American order “No SS troops or paratroopers will be taken prisoners but will be shot on sight.” Shortly after Malmedy 60 Germans were murdered by Americans in the Chenogne massacre. It was a bloody time of no holds barred anti fascist reprisals that would end in Nuremberg with many death sentences for war crimes. During the Nuremberg trials the accused were tested for IQ. The majority tested high.
But back to D Day. 6 June 1944. At that time Germany occupied Greece and France. And in both those countries there was a Resistance movement. In Greece the first major resistance group to be founded was the National Liberation Front (EAM). By 1944 EAM became a movement with more than 1,800,000 members (the Greek population was around 7,500,000 at that time). EAM was organized by the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) and other smaller parties, but all major political parties refused to participate either in EAM or in any other resistance movement. They were anti communist. On February 16, 1942, EAM gave permission to a communist veteran, called Athanasios (Thanasis) Klaras (later known as Aris Velouchiotis) to examine the possibilities of a victorious armed resistance movement. Soon the first andartes (guerrillas) joined ELAS and many battles were fought and won against both the Italians and Nazis (the sabotage of Gorgopotamos bridge, with the participation of EDES partisans and British commandos of SOE, the battle at Mikro Horio, etc. Countless stories of heroic guerilla resistance against the Nazi occupiers.) The Greek Resistance had many outstanding fighters and their leadership was based on a communist model. Their tactics were refined from the years of Ottoman occupation. Andartiko. Guerillas, operating from mountain bases in hit and run attacks on the Germans.
Moving forward to D Day and the reaction to the news from Normandy in this remote area of Greece. The occupying Germans must have begun to despair at the extent of the Greek resistance. Their vengeance for each attack was based on “For every German they kill we will kill 1,000.” Into this mix add youthful right wing indoctrinated ambitious wanna be leaders. Products of right wing Catholic submission.
On June 10, 1944, for over two hours, Waffen-SS troops of the 4th SS Polizei Panzergrenadier Division under the command of SS-Hauptsturmführer Fritz Lautenbach fixed bayonets and went door to door, ordered to kill everything in sight. With maximum prejudice. He claimed in retaliation for a partisan attack upon the unit’s convoy. A total of 218 men, women and children were butchered by young German fascists in Distomou. SS forces bayoneted babies in their cribs, stabbed pregnant women and beheaded the village priest. Several babies of 2 months in age were bayoneted.
The three leaders who gave this order escaped accountability. The three butchers of Distomo. Karl Schümers would go on to receive the Iron Cross even after Distomou.
Kurt Rickert. Bayonetter of pregnant women and two month old babies.
Karl Schümers (17 October 1905 – 18 August 1944) a devout Catholic, was a high-ranking commander in the Waffen-SS and Ordnungspolizei (police) of Nazi Germany during World War II. He commanded the SS Polizei Division in July – August 1944. He was directly or indirectly involved in many of the major atrocities committed in Greece during 1944. Men from the same 7th unit, under the command of Hans Zampel and Fritz Lautenbach committed the Distomo massacre, on 10 June, where 218 civilians were brutally murdered for retaliation, one of the cruelest atrocities of WW II; no one was ever tried for this war crime
He was killed on 18 August 1944 when his car stepped into a landmine planted by Greek resistance, in Arta, Greece. He was posthumously awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. A hero of fascism.
On 5 April 1944, Karl Schümers commanded the 7th unit of the 4th SS Polizei Panzergrenadier Division to the execution of 277 unarmed women, children and elders in the village of Kleisoura in Greece as a retaliation of the killing of 3 German soldiers. In the official investigations by his command hierarchy for the massacre he testified that his soldiers had to kill them all because guerrilla forces were hiding in the village, and was acquitted, while it was proven after the war that his testimony was false. On 24 April the his 7th unit committed the Pyrgoi massacre where 368 children were slaughtered.
On 17 June 1944 Karl Schümers commanded the execution of 28 civilians and total destruction of Ipati, and the next day, the burning down of Sperchiada and the killing of 35 civilians. After he was assigned the command of the 4th Panzer Grenadier Division, on 22 July 1944,the 8th unit of his forces took part in the operation Kreuzotter (5-31 August 1944) in a failed attempt to eradicate ELAS bases from the mountains of central Greece, Roumeli, Greece , that resulted, among others, in the killing of approximately 170 civilians and the partial or complete destruction of dozens of villages and cities.
Happily, as a devout practicing Catholic, Karl had accepted Jesus as his personal savior and went straight to heaven directly after that landmine ended his earthly commitment.
Above the village of Distomou is a memorial. An ossuary, containing the bones of many of the dead from that day. It is a magnificent design for its purpose. There was no one there when I visited. Just the silence. The names of 218 dead are engraved in marble next to the collection of their bones. Their ages are listed. I counted two aged 2 months old. I googled both names. No record anywhere.
Taking the picture on the left, the Greek flag reflected in the ossuary glass, I tried to imagine a strong young man from a good educated background like Germany putting a bayonet on his rifle and crashing through a flimsy peasant door into a room where a baby sleeps in its crib. What would make a young man do such a thing. Or the young German who saw a pregnant young woman and felt it was appropriate to bayonet her in the stomach. Does this ever fall under “I was only following orders.” How did young people stray so far from their own humanity. What did it take then to turn young men into savage murderers? Religion, right wing politics and a dash of white supremacy?
In the course of researching the events in Distomou on 10 June, 1944, I learned about a virtually identical attack in the French village of Oradour-sur-Glane. Also Saturday 10th June 1944, this time by soldiers of the Der Führer Regiment of the 2nd Waffen-SS Panzer Division Das Reich. On that day in Oradour-sur-Glane they killed a total of 642 men, women and children. As in Distomou they then torched the entire village.
The commander of the detachment, Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann. Who masterminded the massacre. Positioned the guns. Motivated the troops. Another product of Catholic fascist ambition. Well educated. Intelligent.
Here’s the most interesting story I gleaned from that Saturday afternoon after the killing began:
One kid ran. In running out of the school and climbing over the fence at the rear he lost a shoe, but started towards the woods behind the cemetery. At the corner of the road leading to the cemetery itself, he was spotted by one of the SS troopers, who shot at him. The boy fell as though dead and did not move even when the soldier kicked him in the kidneys. Later after the man left, the boy, Roger, started out again for the woods, but was seen by another soldier, who did not attempt to shoot, but told him to run away.
What made that German show compassion when so many around him were happily executing women and children? My first guess is he was an atheist. As I speak from experience in the subject of a conscript disobeying orders, it is clear that not all Germans followed their barbaric instruction and they above all should be remembered as a reminder that moral compass survives even the darkest shadows.
As is always the case when visiting terrible injustice, the subject of accountability comes to the fore.
None of the participants in the two massacres of civilians on 10 June 1944 faced any meaningful censure.
In Oradour, there was a trial in 1953. Confused by the participation of French nationals forced to assist the Germans. two Germans were sentenced to death. However shortly after France declared amnesty for the French participants. Soon after, the majority of the Germans were freed, as they had already completed most of their sentences whilst waiting for the trial to begin. The two men condemned to death, Carl Lenz (The Cmpany Sergeant major)and Boos were eventually pardoned and all 21 men who had stood trial in 1953 were free by 1958.
Here is a highly informative Phd piece on Distomo.
Distomou is only one of many Greek villages to experience horrific German war crimes. While there I learned of another I had not even heard of. Kandanos in Crete. Where 180 unarmed civilians were gunned down. The list goes on and on. Kalavyrta where nearly 700 died.
So what do we learn from all of this?
Given time, Right wing fascist politics makes the unimaginable a reality. Every time.
Here’s a list of German atrocities that were recorded in WW2.
|Massacre of Kondomari||2 June 1941||Crete||60||German paratroopers|
|Alikianos executions||2 June 1941 and 1 August 1941||Western Crete||180+||German paratroopers|
|Razing of Kandanos||3 June 1941||Western Crete||180||German Army troops|
|Doxato massacre||28–29 September 1941||Doxato||200+||Bulgarian Royal Army|
|Domenikon massacre||16–17 February 1943||Domenikon||150||Italian Royal Army|
|Feneos executions||March 1943-June 1944||Feneos||unknown||mainly OPLA||The local monastery functioned as a concentration camp.|
|Holocaust of Viannos||14–16 June 1943||Viannos and Ierapetra regions||500+||German Army troops|
|Massacre of the Acqui Division||21 September 1943||Kefalonia, Greece||5,000||German Army troops||Dramatized in the film Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.|
|Kommeno massacre||16 August 1943||Kommeno||317||German Army troops|
|Paramythia executions||19–29 September 1943||Paramythia||201||Cham Albanian paramilitary/German Army troops|
|Massacre of Kalavryta||13 December 1943||Kalavryta||1,200+||German Army troops|
|5/42 Evzone Regiment dissolution||17 April 1944||Phocis, Central Greece||200+||ELAS troops||Colonel Dimitrios Psarros executed also.|
|Pyrgoi (former Katranitsa) massacre||20 April 1944||Pyrgoi||346||German Army troops|
|Executions of Kaisariani||1 May 1944||Kaisariani||200||German Army troops|
|Distomo massacre||10 June 1944||Distomo||218||German SS troops|
|Massacre of Pikermi||21 July 1944||Pikermi||54||German Army troops|
|Massacre of Mousiotitsa||25 July 1943||Mousiotitsa||153||German SS troops|
|Executions of Kokkinia||17 August 1944||Kokkinia||300+||German Army troops/Security Battalions|
|Holocaust of Kedros||22 August 1944||Amari Valley||164||German Army troops|
|The Massacre of Chortiatis||2 September 1944||Chortiatis||146||German Army troops||Perpetrated by Friedrich Schubert|
|Executions of Meligalas||16 September 1944||Meligalas||c.1,000||ELAS troops|
|Executions of ULEN/Peristeri||December 1944 (Dekemvriana)||Athens||3,000+ (unknown exactly)||OPLA, other minor communist groups|