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D-Day in History and Memory: The Normandy Landings in International Remembrance and Commemoration

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Over the past sixty-five years, the Allied invasion of Northwestern France in June 1944, known as D-Day, has come to stand as something more than a major battle. The assault itself formed a vital component of Allied victory in the Second World War. D-Day developed into a sign and symbol; as a word it carries with it a series of ideas and associations that have come to symbolize different things to different people and nations. As such, the commemorative activities linked to the battle offer a window for viewing the various belligerents in their postwar years.

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Introduction

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INTRODUCTION

MICHAEL R. DOLSKI, SAM EDWARDS JOHN BUCKLEY

Over the past seventy years, the Allied invasion of Northwestern France in June 1944 has come to stand as something more than a major battle in an increasingly distant war. The assault itself formed a vital component of Allied victory in the Second World War. The hard-fought invasion on that sixth day of June opened a new European battlefront that would expand during the ensuing eleven months into the heart of Germany and thereby help ensure the eventual destruction of Hitler’s Nazi regime. Together, the military significance of the invasion and the broader social, political, and economic changes which accompanied European liberation and the end of the war, have ensured that D-Day—as the initial landing is traditionally termed (following military convention)—has developed into a sign and symbol, especially in North America and Western Europe. Most importantly, as a word it carries with it a series of ideas and associations all of which, while linked, nonetheless have a degree of national and cultural specificity. This book, therefore, offers a study of these specificities. It explores the construction and reconstruction in the period since 1944 of at least six different D-Days: the stories of the landings as told by North Americans, Western Europeans, and Russians. As the subsequent chapters amply demonstrate, from high statesmen to everyday individuals, many different people have spent the post-war period invoking, interpreting, and (re)inventing D-Day for a variety of reasons. As with all instances of collective memory, there is a politics at play because the past serves to help make sense of the ever-changing present (an issue we examine in more depth below).

 

1. “Portal of Liberation”: D-Day Myth as American Self-Affirmation

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CHAPTER ONE

“PORTAL OF LIBERATION”: D-DAY MYTH AS AMERICAN SELF-AFFIRMATION1

MICHAEL R. DOLSKI

If there has sometimes been a messianic note in American foreign policy in postwar years, it derives in part from the Normandy configuration. America gave its begotten sons for the redemption of a fallen Europe, a Europe in the grip of a real Satan with a small mustache.

–Lance Murrow, 1984

A VIRTUAL REALITY

The early morning gloom pulls back to reveal a foreboding shoreline dominated by stark bluffs. Looking to the right and left, you notice an armada of ships advancing toward shore. Geysers in the water announce nearby explosions, accompanied by the high-pitched whine of bullets ricocheting off the sides of water craft. You hear shouted instructions: note the obstacles, beware of the fortifications, target some return fire, watch out! Suddenly, a large explosion rocks your ship, dazing you and provoking cries from shipmates to jump overboard. This is 6 June 1944, the invasion by Allied forces of northwestern France on the Normandy Beaches, D-Day. You are an American, one of the thousands of Allied soldiers taking part in the early landings on this German-held coast.

 

2. The Beginning of the End: D-Day in British Memory

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CHAPTER TWO

THE BEGINNING OF THE END: D-DAY IN BRITISH MEMORY1

SAM EDWARDS

It has been said that the Battle of Alamein was the end of the beginning. The invasion of Normandy was the beginning of the end.

–Field Marshal Lord Montgomery, 7 June 1948

“D-day. Always D-day,” said Ragno. “It made a sideshow of us, of Italy. They forgot about us after Normandy.”

–Robert Ryan, After Midnight, 2005

In November 2003 Prime Minister Tony Blair was widely criticized in the tabloid press for comments questioning the British “fixation” with World War II. For Blair, this fixation hindered full participation in a forward-looking European Union. One newspaper even quoted the Prime Minister as remarking that:

The Germans were defeated in the war and have managed to come to terms with it, the French were humiliated in the war and have come to terms with it. Britain won the war and has never got over it.2

Blair’s suggestion that the British have a long-running obsession with the 1939–45 war was certainly apt. In recent years, considerable scholarly attention has been directed toward understanding the shape and structure of this obsession. The results of this attention have been illuminating, shedding light on the ways in which particular events from Britain’s war experience—especially Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, and the Blitz—have been the subject of recurrent memorializing, and mythologizing.3 Yet while these largely Home Front events of 1940–41 have often seemed to dominate British war memory, a few other episodes do stand out on the nation’s cultural landscape. In recent years, the Holocaust has been the subject of increasing attention, while the battle of El Alamein has long been remembered in Britain as the war’s turning point.4 Elsewhere, the heroics of British paratroopers at Arnhem in September 1944 have been the subject of several popular feature films, most notably A Bridge Too Far (1977), and the war fought by RAF Bomber Command—the “black sheep” of British war memory—has recently been acknowledged with the dedication of a new national memorial in London.5 Even so, and just as novelist Robert Ryan suggests in After Midnight (2005), the only overseas event to receive the same kind of attention in British culture as the “little ships” or the “Few,” the only military moment appearing to offer the attractive qualities of scale, significance and success, has been D-Day; the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944.6

 

3. Canada’s D-Day: Politics, Media, and the Fluidity of Memory

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CHAPTER THREE

CANADA’S D-DAY: POLITICS, MEDIA, AND THE FLUIDITY OF MEMORY

TERRY COPP AND MATT SYMES

When the idea of developing a book on the ways in which various nations had constructed a memory of D-Day was first proposed, we were pleased to have an opportunity to contribute a chapter. We have been involved in projects designed to “improve everyman’s memory” of Canada’s role in the Second World War for many years and have witnessed the process by which government and the media transform selected events into markers in a patriotic story of nation building. This analysis begins with an account of the Canadian role in the D-Day landings and then reviews the ways in which these events were portrayed to the public. While French civilians and some regiments in Canada placed emphasis on the commemoration of 6 June, D-Day only began to emerge as a major symbolic moment in Canadian history in 1994, reaching iconic stature in 2004. The changing political climate in Canada has led to increasing government emphasis on other events in Canada’s military history, especially the battle for Vimy Ridge in 1917.

 

4. Gratitude, Trauma, and Repression: D-Day in French Memory

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CHAPTER FOUR

GRATITUDE, TRAUMA, AND REPRESSION: D-DAY IN FRENCH MEMORY

KATE C. LEMAY

Beginning on 6 June 1944, Norman French were put into the challenging role of welcoming the Allied military forces that had inadvertently killed thousands of Normans, those citizens unfortunate enough to live in Norman urban centers used as communication hubs by the German military. For those Normans living through the bombardments of Caen and Saint Lô, among other towns such as Mortain, Vire, Falaise, Caen, Lisieux, and Le Havre, 6 June was the traumatic renewal of Norman war experience. Other Norman cities like Bayeux, undamaged by the bombardment, had to accommodate thousands of neighbor refugees.1 In the end, no one in Lower Normandy was left unaffected: 13,000 lost their lives. After enduring the devastating bombardments, Normans warily waited for their liberation as the battle, which started on the beaches in the departments of Manche and Calvados, tore through the Cotentin Peninsula to capture the major port city of Cherbourg, then headed south, and with the brutal battle through Saint Lô, broke out into the department of Orne to finally force the German military back east. The bloody struggle had enormous cost to the Norman landscape and its civilians. Men, women, and children were eyewitnesses to a grisly combat that routed the German forces out of their cities, villages, and all expanses in between. The landscape of war duly became a battlefield of memory invested with conflicting histories of both gratitude and resentment. As a result, the memory of trauma in Normandy has continually surfaced in political, economic, and social arenas, first figuring prominently in local remembrance during the postwar period, but then evolving into repressed underground expression as French memory shifted as early as 1984.2

 

5. “Sie Kommen”: From Defeat to Liberation—German and Austrian Memory of the Allied “Invasion” of 6 June 1944

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CHAPTER FIVE

“SIE KOMMEN”: FROM DEFEAT TO LIBERATION—GERMAN AND AUSTRIAN MEMORY OF THE ALLIED “INVASION” OF 6 JUNE 1944

GÜNTER BISCHOF AND MICHAEL S. MAIER1

The Battle of the Bulge was the bloodiest battle on the Western Front in World War II. Yet the Western Allies’ invasion of Normandy “has become the symbol of World War II in Europe” and is at the forefront of the former Allies’ remembrance culture and politics of history.2 For Germans and Austrians, meanwhile, the Normandy “invasion” marked a decisive defeat; only recently have the Germans begun to talk about the beginning of their “liberation” from Hitler’s terror regime in their remembrance of the Normandy campaign.3 While American and British D-Day veterans have been flooding the beaches of Normandy, German and Austrian veterans have quietly and unobtrusively visited the bunkers of the “Atlantic Wall,” or paid tribute to their fallen comrades at one of the six German cemeteries in Normandy (in which 77,976 Germans and Austrians are interred). The largest of these is La Cambe, where 21,500 soldiers are buried.4 Austrian soldiers made up roughly one-tenth of Nazi Germany’s armed formations of approximately twelve million soldiers. Proportionally we may speculate that among these fallen German Wehrmacht and SS soldiers buried in Normandy there may be as many as 8,000 Austrian nationals.

 

6. “Their Overdue Landing”: A View from the Eastern Front

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CHAPTER SIX

“THEIR OVERDUE LANDING”: A VIEW FROM THE EASTERN FRONT

OLGA KUCHERENKO

One cannot but acknowledge that the history of war knows no other similar undertaking as regards breadth of design, vastness of scale, and high skill of execution . . . History will record this deed as an achievement of the highest order.

–Joseph Stalin, Pravda, June 14, 1944

At last, the Allies have landed in France to share in the victory.

–Grigorii Baklanov, Piad’ Zemli, January 1959

During a meeting of cinematographers in June 1963, the Soviet director Ivan Pyriev shared his thoughts on the Oscar-winning American epic, The Longest Day (1962), which he had seen while on a business trip to the United States. Noting the film’s cinematographic qualities, authenticity, and attention to minute detail, the filmmaker chose to concentrate especially on its content. In Pyriev’s view, the film’s “underlying task” was to “falsify the history of the Second World War and to ascribe to the Western powers the main role in the victory over Hitler’s military machine, simultaneously restoring the tarnished reputation of [his] generals.” Pyriev found it preposterous that the American filmmakers failed to mention the fact that it had not been the sleeping pills taken by Hitler on the eve of the Normandy invasion but the “heroic Red Army” in the East that had prevented the generals from transferring additional forces to stave off the Allied “overdue landing” in the West. In Pyriev’s final analysis, The Longest Day represented “a series of ‘little truths’ [that] obfuscated a huge lie.”1

 

Conclusion

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CONCLUSION

MICHAEL DOLSKI, SAM EDWARDS, JOHN BUCKLEY

A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things, which, in truth, are really one, constitute this soul, this spiritual principle. One is the past, the other is the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is the present day consent, the desire to live together, the will to continue to value the undivided heritage one has received. . . . To have the glory of the past in common, a shared will in the present; to have done great deeds together, and want to do more of them, are the essential conditions for the constitution of a people.

–Ernest Renan, 1882

D-Day was a transnational event of obvious importance to those involved. While those touched by the battle naturally reacted to it in varying ways, what was not so obvious at first was the manner in which the participant societies would conceive of the day’s events. It was by no means certain as to how politicians, press, and the public would shape and structure the story of the “Longest Day.” Contests, disputes, and changing views over time aside, the most striking thing, therefore, is that collective interpretations of D-Day have tended to flow along national lines. Site specificity, as argued above, heavily influences interpretations of the past.1 Throughout this work, the contributors have shown in ample detail how specificity in cultural, geographic, political, and social terms all shade our views of history. Although, as some have argued, we may be entering a new era of globalization that gradually erodes the significance of national boundaries, when it comes to learning about, engaging with, and drawing upon the past, processes always performed for present purposes, many people still see the nation as the primary narrative framework. D-Day remembrance displayed this proclivity in stark relief. A transnational event quickly became a story shaped by national preferences, and it remains so almost seven decades later. As we have demonstrated here, there were and are many stories of D-Day, and in collective terms these stories reinforce national self-perceptions.

 

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