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Column: History is scarred by our fallible wisdom

  • Will Lange. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 6/11/2019 9:00:21 PM
Modified: 6/11/2019 9:00:15 PM

In one of my favorite movies, Gettysburg, there’s a scene in which Joshua Chamberlain, colonel of the 20th Maine and two days away from performing a prodigy of defense that will earn him the Congressional Medal of Honor, and his staff sergeant, Buster Kilrain, two days away from receiving fatal wounds in the same engagement, take a brief break on a hillside above their encampment and fall into a discussion about the nature of humankind.

Chamberlain, a seminary graduate and professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin, reflects that in each man there resides “a divine spark.” Kilrain, an emigrant from a brutal life in Ireland, demurs: “Divine spark? There’s many a man alive of no more value than a dead dog.” Chamberlain persists, even quoting Hamlet: “What a piece of work is man, in form and movement how express and admirable. In action how like an angel.”

Buster: “Well, if he’s an angel, all right then. But he damn well must be a killer angel.”

I’m writing this four days after the 75th anniversary of the Western Allies’ desperate gamble on an amphibious landing on the beaches of Normandy to begin the bloody campaign to clear Europe of the scourge of Nazi Germany. That battle was much larger, but no more desperate, than the one that Chamberlain and Kilrain fought. Both were irresistible and inevitable, born of clashes of ideals that probably could not have been settled any other way. But I always wonder: What possesses us collectively to create such ghastly, lethal dead ends for ourselves?

Today, the 10th of June, is the anniversary of two other tragic events that evoke the question of the nature of our species, which we choose to call sapiens, “the wise ones.” In my opinion, wise people are not so easily moved by fear and anger as we appear to be.

On June 10, 1692, the authorities of Salem, Mass., hanged Bridget Bishop, the first of many alleged witches executed during a period of community hysteria. Gallows Hill in Salem soon became as notorious as Golgotha in Jerusalem — and for the same reason.

On June 10, 1944 — four days after the first landings — it appeared the Allies had established a firm beachhead and were, in fact, moving inland. In response, the German High Command began consolidating its forces to stem the advances. The 4th SS Panzer Grenadier Regiment was among others ordered north from southern France. On their way, its commander, Adolf Diekmann, was told by French collaborators that a German officer was being held captive in a town named Oradour-sur-Vayres, reputed to be a center of the Resistance.

Diekmann, however, confused the town with another several kilometers distant, Oradour-sur-Glane. On the sunny afternoon of June 10 its residents heard the sound of engines, and a few minutes later the village was sealed off by the Panzers. Everyone was ordered to the common, where the men were separated from the women and children. The men were herded into barns, machine-gunned in the legs, doused with fuel, and set afire. The women and children were put into the church (with their priest, who wouldn’t leave them); the church was set ablaze; anyone fleeing the flames was machine-gunned. Then the entire town was torched.

Mother and I visited Oradour some years ago. At the gate, a sign decrees, Silence. We walked, stunned, through the ruined buildings, where rusting bicycles, sewing machines, and burned cars sit where they were left 75 years ago, before the inscrutable savagery of human nature at its worst transformed them into rusting memorials to their slaughtered owners. In the ultimate irony, a child’s metal stroller lies in the church, melted on the sanctuary floor beside the altar. Another sign asks, Souvien toi — as if anyone who has once seen the place could ever forget it. I’ve visited the slumbering field at Gettysburg, the Salem Witch Museum, and the ruins of Oradour-sur-Glane, and probably will never, ever understand the wise ones.

Willem Lange can be reached at

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