Remembering a past war as a new one rages in Europe – By Charles Schokman

Remembering a past war as a new one rages in Europe – By Charles Schokman

past war

Image Source : economist

Bob fagan was a 21-year-old private from Texas when he plunged from his assault craft into the cold sea off Utah Beach in Normandy, under the rattle of Nazi machinegun fire and air bombardment. “The water was red with blood,” he later recalled. “There were bodies floating all around us.” A fellow member of the 299th combat battalion landing on Omaha Beach had a simpler description: “Hell.”

Of the more than 150,000 Allied troops who arrived in Normandy on June 6th 1944, 9,000 were killed or wounded within the first 24 hours. d-Day (which stands simply for day) or Jour j (as it came to be known in France) was a turning-point in the Allied campaign to push back Nazis on the Western Front, liberate France and defeat Hitler’s Germany in 1945.

President Joe Biden, France’s Emmanuel Macron and Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky are among the leaders who will attend the 80th anniversary and celebrate veterans, present and passed. Those who fought on and survived d-Day are around 100 years old. This will probably be the last decennial commemoration where they are in attendance. Fagan himself persevered through d-Day, making it up over the dunes and on through France to Belgium, before being captured by the Nazis in December 1944. He died in March aged 100.

Normandy occupies a prominent place in the Allied mind, as the scale of the d-Day tourism industry attests. In 2023 nearly 22m people visited Normandy’s landing beaches, 56% French and the rest foreigners. Around 3.2m were either American or British, the two most common other nationalities. Among day visitors, the third-biggest foreign contingent was Germans, who have worked hard to reckon with their past. There are six German war cemeteries in Normandy, the biggest of which lies just inland from Omaha Beach at La Cambe, containing the bodies and remains of over 21,000 German soldiers transferred there after the war from scattered fields.

Since the first d-Day museum opened in Arromanches in 1954, the number of official sites and museums has climbed to 123 in and around the landing beaches, according to Normandy’s tourism office. These range from the remains of a single German bunker or “doodlebug” rocket launcher to the airy three-storey museum in Caen. Memorabilia are scattered everywhere. Sherman tanks, military jeeps and American flags punctuate the winding inland lanes. Dozens of war cemeteries lie behind the hedgerows.

For Anglo-American visitors, d-Day tourism is about reflecting on sacrifice and heroism. Some bring family stories, others a sense of national honour, shaped by Hollywood films such as “The Longest Day” and “Saving Private Ryan”. Some participate in annual re-enactments (see photo).

American tour operators offer package trips to France only to visit the landing beaches, bypassing all else. Such is the enthusiasm among amateur historians that, at international transport terminals in Paris, signs warn passengers that it is forbidden to export “war relics” such as shells, ar tillery or ammunition, including those turned into decorative knick-knacks.

Tour guides say visitors often expect to find the 90-kilometre stretch of beaches frozen in time. But along most of the coastline children play on the formerly blood-soaked sand. “Some American visitors find it inappropriate to see people sunbathing on Omaha Beach,” says Gwenaël Pierre, a d-Day tour guide. “But in France we’ve learned to co-ex  with the battlefields.”

The biggest change is that the cliffs are crumbling in some spots due to erosion. In 2016 the footpath was closed between Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery, a breathtaking site of white crosses and pine trees overlooking the sea. To the west of Omaha, at Pointe du Hoc, where 200 American Rangers scaled the cliffs, the American Battle Monuments Commission recently closed and rerouted footpaths due to landslides and heavy use.

Why does d-Day tap into such deep fascination, 80 years on? The answer is partly a reflection of its sheer military scale and ambition, daring and subterfuge. The Normandy landings on five beaches constitute the most successful amphibious military assault in the history of warfare. Nearly 7,000 Allied ships and landing craft took part, with troops from 13 countries. Combined air forces flew over 14,000 sorties to cover the landings; 18,000 paratroopers were dropped behind enemy lines. Another reason is that d-Day embodies a treasured but fading ideal: the triumph of courage and hope over adversity, as well as the virtue of personal sacrifice for collective purpose.

But for the French the Normandy landings occupy a more complex place in national memory. They regard d-Day as one element of a bigger liberation story, alongside campaigns in Corsica (by the French army), the Vercors (by maquisards, resistance fighters) and Provence (by the Allies). For them d-Day also evokes the darker memories of wartime France. On the morning of June 6th 1944, the Gestapo executed around 80 political prisoners at the jail in Caen, Normandy’s administrative centre. Many were résistants who had been rounded up by French militia, working as Gestapo auxiliaries.

Today the memorial planners are keen, as was Charles de Gaulle, wartime leader of the Free French, to give the résistants a firm place in the liberation story. But the organisers also want to talk about those French citizens who fought against them and collaborated with the Nazis. “This is a history that we have to look at in the face,” says a presidential adviser.

The French ambition for the 80th anniversary is to recognise what officials call the “plurality” of memories. This includes remembering the civilians killed by Allied bombardments. “Ever since the war there has been a tension between local family memories, which were profoundly marked by this destruction, and the collective memory,” says Denis Peschanski, a French historian in charge of the 80th anniversary advisory group. During the battle of Normandy 20,000 civilians were killed. Parts of several towns, including Caen, were razed to rubble. To acknowledge this, Mr Macron will also hold a ceremony in Saint-Lô, the wartime headquarters of the 84th Ger man Army Corps, which was flattened by Allied bombs.

The public theatre of the 80th anniversary in Normandy, therefore, will bring some moments of French national self-scrutiny and discomfort. The centrepiece, though, will be what the world expects and cherishes: a display of international gratitude and a tribute to extraordinary valour on the Normandy sand. The poignancy will be all the greater at a time when war has returned to European soil in Ukraine, and America has once again stepped in to help the continent repel an aggressor.

In this respect, the sight of Mr Biden and American veterans on the Normandy beaches will constitute both a solemn homage to the strength of the transatlantic alliance, and a sober reminder that it can no longer be taken for granted. Mr Biden may turn out to be one of America’s last great Atlanticists, of a generation that instinctively looked to Europe and made it a priority.

Whether or not Donald Trump returns to power, Europeans could face an uncomfortable new world order in which America may not always have their backs. Commemorating the 80th anniversary of d-Day will be a time for thanks giving—but also for reflection on what could come to be seen as the end of an era. 


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