On the coast of Normandy between Caen and Cherbourg, history is everywhere. A trip to the D-Day sites of Normandy is a trip to a historical Babel. History is spoken, narrated, displayed, remembered by a huge range of people in a cacophony of different languages, idioms, styles and tastes. A great victory in a “good war” loosens tongues. Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of the historical action. This is a first attempt at an inventory that extends across three days visiting 9 D-day sites and the roads and moments in between.
Some sites in Normandy aim for solemnity, emotional intensity and intellectual depth. The Caen memorial is the most impressive effort to create a historical museum in Normandy. It offers an up to date account not just of D-Day, but of Europe and the world in the age of “total war”. Though in a professional capacity this is “my” kind of history, the result, when organized as a series of visual displays, is overwhelming, especially if one seeks to translate it as a guide for casual visitors.
The remarkably wide-ranging Caen exhibit forcibly reminds one of the all-too convenient framing of World War 2 that D-Day offers: “clean”, “military”, “classic”, positively “theatrical” in its compact arena. By contrast, the Caen museum offers a dark panorama of a global war, with vast complexity and multi-dimensional violence. It spares nothing: the holocaust in all its phases, the persecution of the Sinti and Roma, the mass killing of Soviet POWs and the bombing of civilian population centers and infrastructure in France in the run up to the invasion.
The overall impact is horrifying and somewhat jarring. “We came to see the D-Day beaches. Now you are telling us, we have to absorb all this …”.
On exiting the museum one craves something simpler, a sense of resolution. A narrative of triumphant liberation would provide some satisfaction. What else would offer a satisfactory answer to the horrifying images of mass murder and the persecution? After the ghastly images of the Warsaw ghetto, one feels that one understands better what Eisenhower meant when he declared D-day a “crusade”. Of course, D-Day wasn’t justified in precisely those terms. But it wasn’t called liberation for nothing.
As if to respond to this need to “get back to the beaches”, the Caen museum does offer a dedicated section with a more conventional narrative of the D-Day landings. But even that fails to conform to type, offering harrowing images of the destruction of Caen and Le Havre by allied bombardment. Sponsored by a city ruined by heavy fighting and massive allied bombing, the Caen memorial celebrates not the terrible swift sword, but the call for universal peace.
Even from the point of view of a strictly military history, Caen has a problem. The city was not a battlefield on 6 June. It was not a battle of the landing. It was the first big battle of the campaign that followed. It was a fight in which the British and Canadians prevailed only after long and bitter struggle. The fighting around Caen was more reminiscent of the horrible slugging match in Italy in 1943 and 1944 than the daring landing or the break out battles waged by the Americans after the breakout on 25 July 1944. Beyond the broader politics of the museum, even the military history narrative of Caen must challenge the business of D-day commemoration further down the coast. Not for nothing the final film of the Caen museum makes the point: the Normandy campaign was not confined to the Longest Day, to D-Day. The landing was merely the first phase, leading to Caen, Cobra, the Falaise gap, Cherbourg.
Leaving the museum, traveling West over the low-lying and flat terrain on which British and Canadian forces clashed with the 21st Panzer Division and 12th Waffen SS in some of the fiercest fighting of the entire campaign, what is striking is the near total absence of historical markers. Compared to what follows at Omaha and Utah how do we account for this absence? One explanation is that D-Day in the modern imagination is above all an American event. As one guide told us, even British visitors prefer to see the American beaches. The battle on the Eastern flank of the bridgehead does not fit in the American narrative of D-day. Indeed, Montgomery’s handling of operations around Caen has long been the butt of American criticism. The outcome of the battle was indecisive. Who won at Caen? The British and Canadians defended and slowly expanded the bridgehead, but they failed to break out. That was down to the Americans in operation Cobra at the end of July.
Wreckage of German and Allied AFV from around Caen 1944
Furthermore, there are technical and intellectual issues of presentation. Unlike the battle of the beaches, which took place in a natural arena, how do you commemorate a fast-moving tank battle in open terrain? How do you represent a battle fought at long range, shaped not by fixed positions and clear lines of movement, but by fields of fire and lethal exchanges between antagonists who did their best to remain invisible to each other and were constantly on the move?
None of the memorials at D-Day succeed in conveying this basic reality of modern war. The point is brought home starkly when a visitor asks why a gun emplacement would be located 500 meters back from a cliff with no line of fire to the beach.
The Longues Sur Mer Battery, heavy guns divorced from the beach battle.
Why would those big guns not point down to the beach where the fighting was? The concentration in popular narratives of D-Day on the “battle of the beaches” creates a fallacy of proximity and intimacy. How do you explain, dramatize and render intelligible the remains of a gun emplacement that was never intended to fire at the beach? Its purpose was to engage ships barely visible on the horizon, on remote guidance from an observation post located a few miles away. We see the gun. We see the beach. How could they not be related? At least naval gun emplacements leave dramatic ruins. Along the road from Caen to Bayeux the fierce fighting has left virtually not trace at all. Nothing remains of the tank wrecks and shell craters that once littered the terrain.
In terms of “memory politics”, the American memorial above Omaha beach is Caen’s antithesis. Its beautiful landscaped grounds, immaculate rows of white crosses and stars against lush green grass deliver a clear and stirring message. This is how the victors in a just war honor their fallen heroes. The American dead on Omaha are not so much buried in French soil as enshrined in a territory that seems American even down to the dressing of the roadside curbs and grass verges. Approaching the memorial down a long avenue screened by trees you could imagine you were in Virginia, not rural France.
But even in this manicured and immaculately staged setting, a visit on memorial day weekend May 2017 offered a stark clash of realities: security guards of indeterminate status – French or American? – screening for terrorist threats; slick, new, slate grey memorial facilities, complete with an infinity pool with a spectacular view of the yellow Omaha beach that would not be out of place in a luxury hotel. Not the kind of hotel where most of the American visitors to Normandy are ever likely to stay, Middle Americans enthusiastically disgorged from buses with labels like “The beyond band of brothers tour”. Theirs is a rawer, red-state patriotism.
Meanwhile, re-enactors, impeccably kitted out in GI garb, wander the grounds apparently hoping to be engaged in conversation. They turn out to be French. Many belong to groups of locals who have “adopted” American graves and hold small ceremonies to honor individual soldiers. They narrate short scripts and lay flowers. Some even stand to attention. One wonders what the young men of the 1940s, zoot suited, tough guys from New York, or Phillie, who lie buried here, might have made of these strange rituals of commemoration, these weird acts of cultural appropriation.
Playing dead on Omaha Beach for the 70th D-Day anniversary
Omaha morning of 6 June 1944
Dressing up is everywhere on the D-Day battlefield. On a holiday weekend, the roads are populated by men and women in period dress taking outings in beautifully restored Jeeps. Middle-aged civilians sporting meticulously out-of-date soldier’s uniforms. Meanwhile, discrete groups of crew cut, serious-looking, heavily muscled Americans do an unconvincing job of pretending to be civilians for the day. In a few day’s time, hundreds of élite American airborne troops are due to reenact the parachute drop of the night of 5-6 June 1944, descending once more on the Norman landscape. Some of them are clearly taking in the sights.
Down the bluff to the East of the American cemetery at Omaha, the battered monument to the Big Red One stands atop the German bunker complex, WN 62 (Widerstandsnest 62). The memorials to the 1st Infantry Division and the 5th US Engineer Special Brigade that accompanied them ashore, with their long lists of the dead, offer a reminder of the toughest beach battle on 6 June. In the manicured cemetery above, the endless lines of white crosses represent the losses of an entire nation. On top of WN62 we are called to remember the individual units that paid the price. Their lists of hundreds of names convey the death toll if anything in starker and more intimate terms. These men belonged to our unit. This is our glory, our victory. This is the price that we paid. Unconsciously one finds oneself doing the math in ones head. What percentage? How many of the first wave?
At the same time, the superimposition of the American unit memorials on the actual German bunker system, and the placement of both in the dramatic coastal landscape, tugs one in different directions. Should one admire the monuments in their stark drama? Or should one turn away from these markers of American historical commemoration, locked in their own history – unmistakably that of the 1960s, 1980s or 1990s – to imagine, instead, the scene on 6 June 1944? And from which side? From the hill-top the beach is a long way away. Where we stand, the dramatic view we enjoy, is how the Germans saw the beach. Right next to the American memorials stands a large plan outline of WN 62. With a little map reading you can decipher the outlines of the German positions beneath the grass. You can find the battered bunker from which Hein Severloh, manning a lethal rapid-firing MG42 single handedly killed hundreds of Americans that morning. How do we know this? Thanks to the vast community of non-academic military historians whose passion leads them to reconstruct battles, engagement by engagement.
Severloh was an undistinguished soldier in the undistinguished 352nd infantry regiment. On the morning of 6 June 1944 whilst his commanding officer directed artillery fire, Severloh manned the MG42 position, firing a total of 12,000 rounds of ammunition by the early afternoon, as well as 400 rifle rounds. He was forever after haunted by the hundreds of Americans that he killed.
Hein Severloh’s firing position in WN62 as captured by Capa on Omaha beach
Here, is how the Washington Post described the surfacing of Severloh’s story: “Severloh said he first told his tale to an inquisitive correspondent for ABC News during the 40th anniversary of D-Day in 1984. But the real breakthrough came when an amateur war historian named Helmut Konrad von Keusgen tracked Severloh down. Von Keusgen, a former scuba diver and graphic artist, said he had heard from U.S. veterans about the machine gunner they called the “Beast of Omaha Beach” because he had mowed down hundreds of GIs that day. Severloh confessed he was that gunner. Von Keusgen ghost-wrote Severloh’s memoirs, published in 2000, and still visits him regularly. The two men contend that Severloh might have shot more than 2,000 GIs. That’s an impossible figure, according to German and American historians, who say that although the numbers are far from exact, estimates are that about 2,500 Americans were killed or wounded by the 30 German soldiers on the beach. “My guess is yes, he helped kill or wound hundreds, but how many hundreds would be hard to say,” Roger Cirillo, a military historian at the Association of the U.S. Army in Arlington, wrote in an e-mail. He added: “Omaha is like Pickett’s Charge. The story has gotten better with age, though no one doubts it was a horror show. Men on both sides were brave beyond reason, and this is the sole truth of the story.””
Severloh and an MG42 being toasted by a group of British Wehrmacht reenactors, 1980s.
The map next to the American memorials guides you to the bunker from which Severloh fired that morning. You peer into the dark concrete blockhouse collecting puddles, rust and trash. Should one go inside? How will it feel? How will it smell? Like a grubby underpass or a historic monument? Are these ruins or merely dereliction?
Looking out at the tiny figures down on Omaha beach perhaps the overwhelming feeling it simply of space. One of the deepest impressions of visiting Normandy is of the sheer scale of the battlefield. Utah and Omaha, each stretch as far as the eye can see. The British and Canadian beaches are more tightly bunched, but the five landing beaches stretch 80 km from West to East. To take the whole thing in, you would need to be up in an airplane on a clear day.
Far to the West from Omaha you can make out Pointe du Hoc, the cliff top battery stormed by US rangers. Refurbished as the “Ranger Memorial” it is now one of the most manicured sites on the battlefield. A heavily armored bunker system, which was bombed and shelled relentlessly, the gigantic shell craters are deeply impressive. Unfortunately, the shelling did little damage to the bunkers. The Rangers had to scale the heights, only to discover that the Germans had in fact removed the superannuated French field artillery, which supposedly threatened the invasion. The guns had been hidden in a field further inland, where they were discovered and destroyed by two intrepid rangers on a reconnaissance party.
Craters on Pointe du Hoc
The ensemble is impressive. The shell craters are 10 feet deep and more. The massive bunkers are daunting. So thick, naval shells simply bounced off. Climbing the cliff under enemy fire only minutes after landing on the beach below was an extraordinary feat. But one is left wondering what Pointe du Hoc a monument to? To the strength of reinforced concrete? To the misplaced Allied faith in the weight of firepower, which is such a controversial aspect of the D-Day campaign? The bravery of the Rangers and the British instructor who accompanied them on the climb is astonishing. Out of 225 in the landing party, 135 became casualties. Rightly, this is what the memorial highlights. But what was the military effect of their sacrifice? The story seems better suited to illustrating the fog of war.
Rangers lead prisoners away and identify their position with US flag, morning of 6 June 1944 Pointe Du Hoc
The place where the American landing was most successful was Utah, the Western-most of the battlefields. The landing force suffered less than 1 % casualties and pressed rapidly inland to link up with the 82nd and 101st airborne. Spared the heavy weight of military sacrifice that dominates commemoration at Omaha, Utah offers a more unkempt and cheerier variety of history. You can even buy college-style “Utah beach” sweatshirts.
Unlike at Omaha where refreshments would be out of place, at Utah you can lunch on the beach. A cheap and cheerful bistro is decked out with more or less fake memorabilia. What is authentic is the building itself, which is one of the few domestic buildings in the beach zone and not by coincidence. To this day it disguises a large German command bunker.
Across from the bistro, the well-designed Utah museum is the product of another type of historical encounter. In 2007 two successful Texan brothers, one a prosperous businessman, the other the Lieutenant Governor of the state, visited Utah beach in search of history. To their amazement they encountered an exhibit on Utah beach commemorating their father, Major David Dewhurst Jr, who had been killed by a drunk driver when they were small children. On 6 June 1944 Major Dewhurst had flown a critical bombing mission above the beach. Five minutes before H-hour Dewhurst led a squadron of B-26 marauders in a high-risk, low-level attack on German strongpoint WN5. For his sons the completely unexpected encounter with their father’s legacy at Utah was deeply emotional. The result was a transformational gift to a museum, which is now the best of any on the landing zones. Its proudest exhibit is a beautifully restored B-26 Marauder in the colors of Dewhurst’s “Dinah Might” that attacked Utah beach that morning and went on to survive 85 missions over Germany. France has honored the Dewhursts with the Legion D’Honneur.
The impressive B-26 display at Utah is typical of the logic of authenticity that operates across the D-Day museums. WWII was an industrial war. The weapons (and the soldiers) were disposable and interchangeable. This makes true authenticity – this thing, this time, this place, this person, this provenance – exceedingly rare. Nor are these museums in the first rank of historical or artistic institutions. So the artifacts they display in great abundance are in the second or third division of relics. The only things on display in D-Day that are genuinely and truly, unique relics are the things made of concrete, the German bunkers, the Mulberry harbor installations. No one has to pay for those and they are virtually impossible to remove. The rest of the things on show are “examples”. They are objects “like” those that would have been flown, or driven, or fired, or carried, or worn. They are not those that actually were worn, carried, fired or driven by any particular soldier in any particular place. The restored Dina Might B-26 follows this logic on a huge scale. It is a B-26 though the provenance is not emphasized. Like a gigantic model airplane, or a classic car restoration it is “done in the colors” of Dewhurst’s squadron and Dewhurst’s plane. After all, it had to be painted one way or another. So, why not?
Less personal than the B-26, but even more consequential from the point of view of D-Day history is a monument outside the museum honoring Andrew Jackson Higgins, whose New Orleans factory manufactured the basic landing craft that was essential to Allied victory. 20,000 of his Higgins Boats were the basis of Allied amphibious operations. Eisenhower credited Higgins with winning the war and Hitler dubbed him “the new Noah”. The shocking thing about the memorial is the tiny size of the landing craft whose sides, on a tall man come up barely to shoulder-height. It offered no protection to the head. Apart from the landing ramp it was manufactured at minimal cost from plywood. In the kind of spontaneous dynamic typical of D-Day commemoration, the initiative for the memorial was launched by Timothy Kilvert-Jones, a military historian and retired major in the British Army, and U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb. who became friends at the 70th anniversary celebrations and were inspired to reproduce in France the Higgins memorial in Nebraska’s Pawnee Park. The memorial was paid for by an independent fundraising campaign.
After getting ashore, the success of the Utah operation depended on the link up between the landing force and the airborne forces dropped in the rear areas. For several days after the landing they were involved in small-scale battles across the Western flank of the landing zones. The most famous of these engagements took place around Sainte-Mère-Église a few miles from the Utah beach.
To reach Sainte-Mère-Église you drive inland from Utah across what would once have been causeways in a flood landscape. The Normandy landscape bears testimony to the actual progress of real armies. But we cannot approach it except refracted to us through photos and films. Robert Capa’s blurry images, lovingly reproduced by Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan, define our memory of Omaha. But the film that dominates them all is the Longest Day of 1962 based on the book by Cornelius Ryan. Sweeping across all the scenes of the landing, it reflects the broadly based memory of D-Day that was still commonplace in the 1950s and early 1960s. Key protagonists in the battle served as historical advisors to the filmmakers and several of the actors had actually fought in the war. The pursuit of authenticity and historical accuracy did not reduce the film simply to a record of events. It was an artful dramatic construction – to modern eyes rather stilted. Today expert guides can point out how both the Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan mix fragments of actual events, filmed on locations that were in some cases not involved in the action at all, but by way of their representation in the films have retrospectively become part of D-Day.
In Sainte-Mère-Église at the center of the drop zone of 82nd airborne, an actual town, a movie set and the business of historic commemoration have merged. Following the scenario of the Longest Day, the town has permanently suspended the dummy of an American paratrooper from the side of their Norman Romanesque church, thus recreating one of the most memorable scenes in the movie, in which a parachutist, Private John Steele, lands on the church, dangles helplessly and survives by playing dead.
“Red Buttons” suspended from Sainte-Mère-Église chapel in the Longest Day
It is a true story, up to a point. On his return, the surviving veteran became a local celebrity and became a regular visitor. But in reality he survived only because he was suspended not on the side of the church facing towards the square, as both the film and tourist business require, but at the back where he would have been out of sight of the Germans and visiting tour buses. It was that initial protection that allowed him to survive long enough to be taken captive rather than being shot on sight. But what counts in Sainte-Mère-Église today is as much the film version as the actual events of the night of 5-6 June.
A more edifying product of this conjunction of commemoration and historical reality is to be found inside the chapel. To commemorate their liberation the local community in the 1950s commissioned a beautiful stained glass window. After they returned to Normandy for the first major anniversary, the association of the 82nd airborne added a second striking window. They thus added a twentieth-century update to the theme of religiously sanctioned just war, which in the chapels of Normandy goes back to the days of the original crusades. The parachutists appear in the 12th-century Romanesque church as mid-twentieth-century avenging angels.
The 82nd Airborne windows in the chapel of Sainte-Mère-Église
Togetherness, the special relationship between the 82nd airborne and this small French town, is one of the distinctive features of Sainte-Mère-Église. It has no equivalent on Omaha. At Pont du Hoc it is rumored that the Rangers actually shot locals they suspected of collaborating with the German battery.
The Airborne museum at Sainte-Mère-Église is one of the most eclectic and rapidly developing of the Normandy museums. It began with classic displays of gliders and aircraft, surrounded by masses of artifacts and detritus spilled by the airborne invasion. New pods added to the museum in the last decade feature elaborate multi-media “experiences”, including the chance to relive the sights and sounds that greeted the gliders as they descended on the night of 5-6 June. The display borders on kitsch – complete with more plastic dummies. But the claustrophobia inside the belly of the plane is real enough, as is the deafening effect of recorded engine noise. It may be hokey but you find yourself irresistibly sucked into asking the questions it surely intends to provoke: Would I have been brave enough? Could I have stood a cross-channel passage by glider? Would I have preferred to jump out of a plane? Despite oneself, one is sucked into the spirit of reenactment.
A completely different set of emotions and questions is thrown up by a display that debuted at the airborne museum in 2016. This covers not the allied side of the war, but the history of the enormous POW camp at Fourcarville that the allies constructed to house the tens of thousands of German prisoners. The display is articulate and politically and historically sophisticated. It describes in remarkable detail, based on German as well as Allied sources, the inner life of the camps including their complex politics. The highlight for me was the manual on Kant for German POWs. The show has now moved from Sainte-Mère-Église to Utah. It brings to the beaches a note of historical introspection more akin to that of the Caen museum than either the solemn heroism of Omaha, or the cheerful populism of Utah.
Entrance to the Fourcarville Camp 1945
The so-called “Baby Lager” at Fourcarville, where Hitler Youth soldiers were reeducated.
Reeducation manuals from the POW camp system: Kant for the Hitler Youth generation.
The POW exhibit is impressive in part because it is one of very few to put the emphasis on the German side. The Longest Day was very different in this respect than the Saving Private Ryan vision of D-Day that now predominates. In 1962 it made sense to present both sides of the hill. Today it seems that only once neutralized as POWs can the Germans be assimilated into the narrative. Otherwise, there is a near total absence of serious accounts of the German side. Given the horrors of the holocaust and the eastern front so graphically presented at Caen, it is hardly surprising. But it leaves a narrative void.
All the more shocking is the encounter with La Cambe, the largest cemetery in Normandy, where the German dead are buried. Utterly unlike the American cemetery with its wide-open vistas and its white-on-green Palladian aesthetic, the tombs of the defeated are somber and grim. One enters La Cambe through a narrow portal and finds oneself facing clusters of squat black crosses surrounding a giant funeral mound. The impression is of mélange of the Neolithic and the early Christian with an admixture of Ernst Barlach. Here 22,000 men are buried in mass graves, or under small slabs, two by two. What is not noted explicitly but unavoidable given the units involved in the battle, is that the site is densely populated by the graves of Waffen SS soldiers, discretely hidden behind abbreviations – Oscha (Oberscharführer), Rottf (Rottenführer), Stubaf (Sturmbannführer). Amongst them are perpetrators from Oradour. The most frequently visited grave at La Combe is that of SS-Hauptsturmführer Michael Wittmann the panzer ace. His grave is a shrine for Wehrmacht enthusiasts.
The last time I visited it was decked out with small plastic models of Tiger tanks. At one point the gravestone of Wittmann and his crew was stolen as a relic. Offsite La Cambe features a rather sheepish visitors center dedicated to “all the victims of the war”, peace and cross-cultural understanding. It is not antidote enough to deal with the historical weight of those buried in the graveyard next door. Certainly not for German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder who after attending the 60th anniversary ceremonies on the beaches in 2004, as the first German Chancellor to do so, struck La Cambe from his itinerary. Astonishingly, when Cardinal Ratzinger visited Normandy as Pope Benedict XVI la Cambe was on his itinerary. And not only that, as the New Yorker reported: “At La Cambe, Ratzinger spoke about the German soldiers’ Pflicht-blind obedience to duty-which had been exploited for evil purposes. He insisted that this did not dishonor the service and sacrifice to the fatherland. He blamed the Allies for driving Germany towards Nazism through the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles.”
After the heavily politicized histories of Caen and the American and German commemorative sites, a very different image of D-Day is conveyed by the most commonly visited site in the British sector. The place that offers that most dramatic reminder of the scale of the landings as a technical undertaking is Arromanches. It was at the heart of the British landings and the site of the most remarkable engineering feet of the landings – the gigantic floating dock facility codenamed Mulberry.
Giant remains of the Mulberry harbor breakwater at Arromanches
Mulberry harbor at Arromanches fall 1944
Visiting the town it is like being thrown back into an England located somewhere between the 1940s and the 1980s. The museum at Arromanches was the first D-Day museum. Work began in 1948 and the museum opened to the public in 1954. With this in mind, it is striking how it still reflects earlier phases of D-Day commemoration. Its premises are those of a 1950s seaside cinema, a fitting setting for a classic British newsreel on the Mulberries. The museum display relies on the kind of mechanical diorama models that used to make the Science Museum in London such an intense object of fascination. It is also, however, striking for the cosmopolitan image of D-Day that it offers. This is not the American D-Day of the 1990s and the “greatest generation”. In Arromanches the exhibit highlights the contribution made by the Czechs, the Poles, the Greeks, the Norwegians. All are here, as are Leclerc and his remarkable Free French legion on their extraordinary itinerary from central Africa to Paris.
Giant “Science Museum” style diorama of the Mulberry harbor facilities at Arromanches museum. The dock slid on pillars to adjust for huge Normandy tides.
Outside, a derelict 88 mm gun prompted a British guide to an astonishingly brilliant mini lecture on that legendary German weapon. The guide does a wonderful job explaining how the gun on display was part of a complex system of electronic command and control hidden from view by the severed cables that sprout on both sides. Speaking like a man who had fired artillery in his time, weather-beaten, the guide wears what looks like a regimental tie. He illustrates his talk with an excellent imitation of the sound of the fearsome gun being fired – crack, slap, bang, crack, slap, bang. A good crew could fire an 88 every 3-4 seconds. It was a mini-lecture I wish I had given.
The 8.8 cm Flak canon guarding the car park at Arromanches
I come away from Normandy, as on previous occasions, feeling somewhat bilious, as though I have eaten a meal that is too rich. With dozens of contrasting historical expressions sandwiched in a space of little more than 48 hours, it is hardly surprising. I am tempted to respond by acts of classification and clarification. This essay is part of that process of digestion. One could draw a complex diagram along the lines of one of Bourdieu’s sociological charts to explore the contrasts and affinities between the different memory sites in Normandy. Perhaps someone has. There must surely be an expensive Routledge conference volume out there on D-Day commemoration. Even a modest amount of digging yields this.
This systematic approach is fascinating. But, if I am honest, I know the digestive issues are of the personal variety – personal in the sense that they relate to my particular inflection of a generational identity.
I was born in England in the summer of 1967, 23 years after D-Day. It was closer in time then, than 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall are to us today. My family were not particularly closely involved in the war. To my chagrin there were not stories of daring do to tell, at least not of the D-day variety. But, not surprisingly, as the impact of the Wiedervereinigung can still be felt in German today, D-Day was omnipresent in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s. More or less everyone who had fought in the battle was still alive. It was truly contemporary history. I grew up, not untypical of my generation in England, utterly obsessed with World War II. Star Wars came out in 1977 and deflected my preoccupations somewhat. But by then I was ten and already dabbling in “serious”, historical war-gaming culture. As far as I was concerned, and I am sure I speak for many over the age of ten, Star Wars “worked” precisely because it was a World War II scenario (complete with a Soviet style partisan base and stormtroopers in obviously German helmets) crossed with fairy tale. That fact that it was space opera was incidental. Added to which I had by that point been living in Germany for four years and saw Star Wars for the first time dubbed, which can’t have heightened the impression.
Though the war remained central to my interests, as a professional historian of my generation, it was not D-Day but the struggle in the East that came to dominate my interpretation of the history of the Third Reich. That was the “grown up” war that could only be understood in “political terms”. Getting to grips with the Eastern Front and fully integrating the holocaust into the narrative of the regime was the professional mission of German historians from the 1980s onwards. It was also where military history went to lose its “innocence” and get “serious”. The Anglo-American war has caught up with me only in middle age, in part by accident, but no doubt also, because I have allowed it to happen. Still today, every visit to Normandy awakens in me a man-child, unable to resist the lure of colorful popular histories and the desire to clamber over bunkers. The biliousness I feel after a day or two in Normandy, is the nausea brought on by binging on nursery food.
But the attraction is undeniable. Though I know better, I am unable to deny that I feel as though I have D-Day “inside” me. This is the war I actually “know”, the ground I have trodden again and again. Not only is the cross channel geography “mine”. Not only is the weather familiar. But in some weird sense I feel I “know” the tension of the long build-up to 1944, know it in the sense of hermeneutic “Nachempfindung” or “Nacherleben”, reliving, re-experiencing. In Normandy I feel as though I experience a strange kind of transport. I have a sense of knowing what the spring of 1944 must have felt like. The temporal structure itself feels familiar: the moment when that enormous invasion force, that enormous vector of military power was pent up on the British isles, the triumph of the day itself and the anticlimax that followed, the long slog to the finish and the depletion and austerity of the post-war. What could possibly justify this sense of “knowing” other perhaps than some Freudian motif? Perhaps simply that that sequence between 1939 and the early 1950s, was my parent’s early childhood and my grandparent’s middle age, the generation born just before World War I. Through those generations, the England of my early childhood was haunted by this world historic moment, played out between England and Normandy, Britain and its Empire, the United States and Germany. All the history I imbibed was inflected by it – Dunkirk and El Alamein, but Crecy, Agincourt, Waterloo too. When we played at war, our elders watched us with eyes that had seen the real thing, but were also, of course, preoccupied with Britain’s troubled present. But even the crisis of the 1970s could be read through the narrative of the late war. It seemed that the Germans had won after all. Star Wars wasn’t the only big “World War II” film that came out in 1977. No coincidence surely that after the “Longest Day” the second book by Cornelius Ryan to be turned into a major film was “A Bridge too Far”, describing the disastrous Arnhem airborne operation.
Brave, outnumbered and underpowered Brits overrun by German Panzers and left in the lurch by management – fitted the build up to the winter of discontent 1978-79 perfectly. In 2017 Arnhem seems a million miles from Normandy. If D-Day has a dramatic sequel today, it is not the British tragedy at Arnhem but the heroic American stand at Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge. Not by accident one of the few genuinely outstanding relics on display in D-Day this summer was a bullet riddled road sign to Bastogne. One of three surviving examples the Airborne museum proudly boasted.