D-Day’s Going to Be a Bit Awkward This Year

Why the memory of the liberation of Europe is still a battlefield.


War is politics by other means and so is its commemoration. World leaders will gather on the beaches of Normandy on June 6 to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day and they will bring their political and historic baggage with them. Though the Battle of Normandy is over, the war over its significance continues and the day’s events will represent the latest in a long series of conflicts over the ever-shifting meaning of one of the most decisive days in modern European history.

Among the presidents, prime ministers, and chancellors in attendance, only the group’s lone constitutional monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, is old enough to remember the war. The other leaders will probably experience a certain kind of nostalgia for an age when choices were clear and wars were good. But clarity and goodness are as much inventions of each nation’s postwar narrative as they were part of the actual past. There is no single history of D-Day. There are, instead, only histories that vary from nation to nation and era to era, histories sculpted by changing political priorities and cultural concerns. Both as individuals and nations, we remember the pasts we choose to remember. All told, it is a pretty parochial exercise. And as the authors of the recent book D-Day in History and Memory suggest, "national parochialisms are shaped by transnational imperatives."

For many Europeans, perhaps no great power has been more parochial than the United States. But American parochialism has universal ambitions. Hardly had Europe been liberated from Nazi Germany before the American government began public commemoration. With the consent of the Élyseé, the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) took control of strategic sites along the Normandy coast. And when the Normandy American Cemetery was inaugurated in 1956, the beach became, in the ABMC’s inscription, a "portal of liberty." The stark simplicity of nearly 10,000 white crosses and Stars of David planted at Colleville would teach reverence to visiting Americans. No less important for the ABMC, however, the cemetery would also teach "alien people … the sacrifices made by Americans."

But as time wore on, these alien people grew tired of such lessons. They began to insist that the sacrifices they had made get their commemoration, too. Through the 1950s, the French had promised never to forget, in President René Coty’s words, their "infinite debt of gratitude" to America. But shortly after 1958, when Coty shut the doors to the Fourth Republic and gave the keys to Charles de Gaulle, the French debt suddenly became finite.

Indeed, in 1964, President de Gaulle refused to attend the 20th anniversary of the Normandy invasion. Instead, he sent one of his ministers, who declared that D-Day’s success was due to the French Resistance. De Gaulle’s absence was dictated, in part, by his own myth of liberation, in which the French alone threw off the German jackboot — a myth designed to heal the political and ideological divisions that had scarred the nation after four years of German occupation. But it also reflected de Gaulle’s effort to reassert France’s role as a power of the first rank after the damage wrought by Nazi occupation and military defeats to anti-colonial insurgencies in Indochina and Algeria. His absence at Normandy foreshadowed his demand, two years later, for NATO headquarters to absent itself from Paris. The general’s demoting of America’s role in France’s past went hand in hand with sidelining it in the present.

At the same time, the civilian population of Normandy began to insist on commemoration of its sacrifices, wrought mostly by American bombers. With 3,000 casualties, as many Normans died on June 6, 1944, as Americans. Over 20,000 civilians were killed by the time the Battle of Normandy ended in mid-August. Caen, a city of dubious strategic value, was pulverized, as were smaller cities like Saint-Lô. Allied shells transformed the countryside into a hecatomb, the fields pocked with bomb craters and rotting carcasses of cows and horses. In 1964, the same year de Gaulle absented himself from the official commemoration, French newspapers for the first time published the accounts of civilians who survived their own liberation. Forty more years had to pass before an official commemoration acknowledged the tremendous toll paid by French civilians.

For decades, two of Europe’s biggest players were frustrated by their marginalization from D-Day commemorations. Helmut Kohl had the dubious distinction of serving long enough as Germany’s chancellor to be snubbed twice at official commemorations. In 1984, France’s then-President François Mitterrand considered inviting Kohl to the 40th anniversary commemoration, but French veterans’ resistance put the kibosh to the idea. (By way of recompense, Mitterrand asked Kohl to join him later that same year at Verdun to mark the 70th anniversary of World War I.) Russia, while an ally in World War II, found itself on the other side of the West once the Cold War was underway. The American postwar emphasis on D-Day as the pivotal event of World War II had long annoyed Soviet Russia, just as American delays in opening a second front during the war had maddened Joseph Stalin. As the historian Robert Service notes, Stalin was "not amused" when he learned in 1942 that his new allies had decided to invade North Africa, and not Europe.

The shattering of the Soviet Union changed the choreography of commemoration once again — though it took 15 years. In 2004, President Jacques Chirac invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to the 60th anniversary of the storming of the Normandy beaches. Though Putin kept a poker face during the events, the Russian newspaper Pravda showed its hand, observing that, apart from Chirac, no other Western leader had thought to mention the staggering Russian sacrifices made during the war. A second newspaper, Izvestia, took the offensive: Putin’s presence, it declared, reminded one and all that "the Second Front was just that, second."

Chirac didn’t only reach a hand out to Russia, though. The 60th anniversary also saw the first German delegation on Normandy’s beaches since June 6, 1944. Chirac had already responded to history’s great weight when he acknowledged France’s grim role in the Final Solution. He invited German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to do the same. The chancellor justified Chirac’s decision when, in his official speech, he affirmed that the D-Day landings marked the beginning not just of France’s liberation, but Germany’s as well.

But a new front had since opened that threatened to poison ties among the Western nations gathered at Normandy. The Bush administration’s decision to go to war in Iraq had been denounced by all the leaders at Normandy, except Tony Blair. Shortly before he left for France, Bush had linked the liberation of Europe to the "liberation" of Iraq. While this claim evoked mostly derision among European leaders, the commemoration itself nevertheless served a vital purpose. Remembrance of things past forced the now-fractious group of leaders to recall a shared history, in spite of dramatic differences over American-led wars. Despite the awkwardness of ignoring the Iraqi elephant on the beach, the French president expressed his country’s gratitude for America’s role in her liberation.

This year’s commemoration will prove even more challenging. Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, now wound or winding down, have proved to be anything but good wars. The Obama administration’s
NSA spying and drone warfare, and even its position in the free trade negotiations that threaten the traditional French "cultural exception," have cast a pall on the United States’ historic role as the country’s liberator. Moreover, Vladimir Putin’s presence will serve not just as a reminder of Russia’s claims in Ukraine, but also of the support Moscow has given to many of the Euroskeptic parties whose recent success stunned European leaders.

While it is unclear how these events will influence the commemoration, it is quite clear that President François Hollande is ecstatic to play host. The perspective from the Élyseé has, of late, been especially bleak. In the wake of the European elections, the National Front, which ran against Europe, now claims to be the nation’s leading political party. Though nearly 60 percent of the French did not bother to vote, the party’s claim nevertheless must be taken seriously. As Hollande’s approval ratings continue to fall to depths no other French president has seen, the Gaullist opposition party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), is imploding under the weight of scandals and scams.

Little wonder, then, that Hollande has grasped at this commemoration with the desperation of a drowning man reaching for a plank of wood. His invitation to both Putin and the newly elected president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, is aimed as much at France as the rest of the world. It will be tragic for Hollande if the commemoration ceremonies do not help revive his presidency. But it will be far more tragic if they fail to convince the participating nations to overcome their own parochialisms. One of the truly good consequences of the "good war" was a unified Europe. Its future is now in doubt and it is up to the leaders gathered at Normandy to remind us all of this, the true meaning of D-Day.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of a forthcoming book on Simone Weil.


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