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Heinz Barth, 86; former SS officer joined massacre of French village

August 15, 2007|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Heinz Barth, a former SS officer convicted of participating in the massacre of an entire village in Nazi-occupied France, has died, said a priest in the town where he lived. He was 86.

Barth died of cancer in the last few days, said Heinz-Dieter Schmidtke, the parish priest in Gransee, north of Berlin. Schmidtke announced the death Tuesday but did not say where and exactly when Barth died.

In 1983, a court in East Berlin convicted Barth and sentenced him to life in prison for his role in the 1944 slaughter of villagers in Oradour-sur-Glane, widely considered the worst atrocity in Nazi-occupied France.

On June 10, 1944 -- as they headed toward Normandy to combat D-Day invasion forces who landed four days earlier -- German troops of the armored SS Division "Das Reich" slaughtered 642 men, women and children in the village.

Men were herded into barns and shot. The women and 202 children were locked in the church, which was set on fire with grenades, and then shot at with machine guns.

Barth testified that he took part in the massacre but argued that he was obeying orders, according to his trial record.

In "Murderer of Oradour," an East German book about his trial, Barth is quoted as testifying that he was "very ambitious and eager to fulfill the orders given to me. The order was to march on Oradour-sur-Glane by midday, to burn the whole place down and to eliminate every person, from babies to old men."

Several months after the massacre, Barth was promoted to lieutenant colonel.

"There are some events that can never be forgiven or forgotten," Alain Marleix, the top French official for veterans affairs, said in a statement. "The death of this sinister person, more than a half century after the victims of his own crimes, draws no tear or regret from me."

East German judges also found that Barth volunteered to participate in an execution of 92 Czech civilians in 1942.

After the war, Barth lived under a false name in communist East Germany, working as a decorator in Gransee and running a grocery store, until his identity emerged in 1981. He was imprisoned two years later.

In 1997, a state court freed Barth on health grounds after he had served 14 years of his life sentence. Barth, who lost a leg in the war and suffered from diabetes, high blood pressure and other ailments, returned to Gransee, where he lived a secluded life.

"I feel guilty about the terrible crimes in Oradour," Barth was quoted as telling the Berlin tabloid B.Z. at the time of his release. "But I have paid enough."

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