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Normandy and Tiananmen: Anniversaries of fighting for freedom

Normandy and Tiananmen: Anniversaries of fighting for freedom

Two events – Normandy and Tiananmen Square – almost fifty years apart, allow J. BROOKS SPECTOR to contemplate the meaning of freedom and memory.

Two pictures, one by Robert Capa for Life magazine and the other by Jeff Widener for Bloomberg TV, sum up – or stand in for – the twentieth century’s hopes and aspirations for freedom and decency. In capturing the first, Robert Capa had made the initial landing on the beaches of Normandy on 6 June 1944, together with over 150,000 American, British and Canadian troops, as part of the Allied assault on Festung Europa, what overall allied commander Dwight Eisenhower had termed the “Crusade in Europe”.



The Normandy landings were the largest combined arms landing assault in human history. They brought together thousands of ships, planes and all those thousands of troops in their massive movement across the English Channel to land on a tight semi-circle of beaches on the northern coast of German-occupied France. The objective was to achieve a full-on second front in Europe, an effort that would make it possible to crush the Nazi regime between Russian armies advancing in the East and those Allied forces now landing in the West.

In planning this assault on Normandy, the military had drawn upon the crucial lessons they had painfully learned from the earlier landings and invasions in North Africa, Sicily and across the Straits of Messina, Salerno, and Anzio (as well as a growing number of landings on the islands across the Pacific, as well as the disaster at Dieppe two years earlier). To carry it out, an enormous, multi-year planning operation ensued, an effort designed to ensure the troops would gain a toehold that would be inexorably expanded as a constant stream of men, arms and material flowed unimpeded into a constantly growing beachhead. Still, success was not a given. Eisenhower actually carried a handwritten draft of a message accepting full blame for the failure of the invasion, should it had come to that.

In managing his vast command, Eisenhower’s task became as much diplomatic as military. Throughout the run-up to the invasion and even thereafter as the invasion took place, he had to balance a group of headstrong, egotistical generals, all eager to gain the fruits of victory and consequent glory, as well as the jockeying of governments behind the generals.

The Allied forces, including American, British, Canadian, Polish and Free French armies, eventually broke out of the liberated pocket of those ancient Norman fields – the Bocage – a landscape that was divided by thick, nearly impenetrable hedgerows, perfectly designed for an army on the defensive. After weeks of go-slow, the Allies broke out in a broad, sweeping wheel of their armies that very nearly captured the main German battle line before the Allies rolled into Paris, virtually unhindered. (Of course, after that, it would take many more months of furious fighting before Germany finally surrendered in the spring of 1945 under the weight of those twin East, West onslaughts.)

Back when the invasion was in its earliest minutes, it had already produced some of the most startling photographic documentation of the battlefield ever. Robert Capa’s eleven rescued frames out of over three hundred pictures taken (his entire collection of images was nearly lost due to the overzealousness of a photo darkroom technician), with troops showing looks of mingled fear and determination and published in Life magazine, had brought the war directly into every home across the nation.

The ultimate success of the Normandy invasion – and the eventual movement across France and into Germany – has naturally generated a flood of books and films. There are numerous memoirs by the generals (some of them designed to justify the decisions they had made and to shift blame for mistakes on to someone else). There are rooms of studies by academics, military strategic analyses, as well as, more recently, books that look at the campaign through the eyes of the enlisted men who actually fought the battles. And, of course, the Normandy landing and its aftermath have also given birth to hours and hours of notable films. Cinema initially gave us those nearly bloodless Hollywood-style heroics, like The Longest Day, and then, most especially in those brutal opening sequences of Saving Private Ryan (and then essentially recapitulated in the HBO series, Band of Brothers), film has come about as close as one can to the actual terror of the battlefield – without actually being there.

Seventy years later, the rapidly diminishing band of veterans who can still return to the battlefield will, this year, compete with the gaggle of world leaders who will also descend on the official memorial ceremony situated on Sword Beach. The G-7 national leaders will have just come from their summit (this time around, minus Russia) to the Normandy commemorations (this time, with Russia).

Or as the Guardian wrote about this commemoration, “From across the Channel, the Atlantic, the other side of the globe, they are arriving, headed for the Normandy beaches where, 70 years ago, war exacted the ultimate price from their comrades. Now a dwindling band of brothers, D-day veterans from Britain, America, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, in their late 80s and 90s, will join 17 heads of state for an official commemoration of the biggest seaborne invasion in military history.”

While the Allied soldiers who struggled to gain a toehold on those beachheads may – or may not – have been thinking about the finer details of the grand strategy of freeing Europe at the precise moment they were hitting the beach, it is also clear they knew they weren’t landing there to conquer the territory for personal or national aggrandisement. At the moments of desperation, they were impelled to move forward by officers like Colonel George Taylor, whose words, “There are two kinds of people who are staying on this beach: those who are dead and those who are going to die. Now let’s get the hell out of here,” helped inspire troops to inch forward, eventually seizing the high ground overlooking the beach itself and then on across France and Germany.

But once Eisenhower had given his “go” order, after fretting for a night as to whether the weather would hold long enough to launch the ships and the covering aircraft, the success of the landings rested in the hands of thousands of men like Col. Taylor, and, then, even more so, with the anonymous individual pictured in Capa’s famous shot. No one knows who he was, whether he survived the landing, let alone the Normandy campaign or whether he returned home to California or North Dakota or New York City at the end of the entire war. But the grim determination on his face quickly came to represent an entire nation joined together to succeed in ending decisively the Nazi tyranny and thereby helping free a continent.

But now consider that other now-iconic picture. Here again it is of a solitary, anonymous individual facing the imminent possibility of death – half a world away and fifty years later. After Deng Xiaoping and his supporters brought order back to China after the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, and they had set China on its current course of economic growth in keeping with Deng’s injunction, “To be rich is wonderful”. The Chinese leadership set their course on economic expansion, but they put aside any ideas of any major changes in the political system.

But paradoxically, that very improvement in economic circumstances also helped produce a young, increasingly well-educated young Chinese population eager to think critically about the Communist Party’s closed world of political decision-making. The seemingly innocuous precipitating event was a spontaneous outpouring of mourning marking the death of Hu Yaobang, a former general secretary of the Communist Party. Hu had been a political reformer who had been drummed out of office by more conservative figures and he had become something of a hero to many younger Chinese intellectuals.

Eventually, thousands of students had gathered together in Tiananmen Square over a period of seven weeks (foreshadowing the nature of protests that would become so familiar years later in places as varied as Cairo, Istanbul and Kyiv). They erected a temporary statue as the symbol of their protest – a work that may have owed its inspiration to the American Statue of Liberty, or perhaps Soviet era sculptor Vera Mulkina’s “Worker and Kolkhoz Woman” – or perhaps both.

The students were widely supported by many Beijing residents who helped feed them in the square and the continuing occupation helped to generate a split within China’s political leadership over what to do with this occupation. Eventually, Chinese hard-line leaders ordered their military to supress the protests on 4 June – and the troops and tanks moved in to do the job. The military actions caused the deaths of hundreds, perhaps thousands. As a consequence of Tiananmen, Jiang Zemin replaced the more reform-minded Zhao Ziyang as secretary general of the party, turning the party inwardly, against further political reform. Labelling the Tiananmen Square movement a counterrevolutionary riot, up until now, the Chinese government has prohibited all public, print or electronic discussion or commemoration of the event.

But as the military violently quashed the protest, western photographers who had been covering these astonishing events had a ringside seat for the bloody repression that came on 4 June. Bloomberg’s Jeff Widener (among several others) managed to capture his now-iconic picture of a solitary man, bearing only a shopping bag or a jacket in his left hand, in an act of astonishing bravery, attempting to stare down a line of tanks, willing them to cease and desist in their mission. To this day, like Capa’s soldier still in the water at Normandy, the Chinese man’s name remains unknown. No one knows where he came from – or what happened to him after his quixotic statement had been made.

But the photograph of this unknown – indeed, unknowable – man in front of that line of oncoming tanks, has now taken its place as a deeply symbolic representation of opposition to oppression – and as a demonstration of a universal urge for freedom – even in the face of impossible odds. This man’s astonishing stand is now largely unrecognised inside China, at least publicly.

Instead, the country seems to have accepted its half-a-loaf portion. There is obviously great economic advancement and growing wealth, but the country’s political system and range of personal liberties still remain largely frozen in amber. However, if there is no commemoration of Tiananmen in Beijing, the memory of the man in front of the tanks, as well as all the others who had gathered a quarter of a century ago, was vividly remembered by many tens of thousands of people who did gather in Hong Kong to mark this sombre anniversary.

There, in fact, a more universal feeling about freedom is beginning to merge with more local concerns. More and more, Hong Kong’s population is growing frustrated with the very limited measure of democratic input they have been permitted for their own governance as a consequence of the city’s status as a special economic zone inside China. But the world being what it is, over the longer term, this impulse will almost certainly begin to flow back into China itself, some day, in some form. In the meantime, we are left to contemplate Capa’s grim-faced everyman beginning in his mission to liberate Europe, and Widener’s faceless man, attempting to halt, by sheer indomitable force of personality, the implacable, on-rushing tide of repression.

Honour them both. DM

Main Photo: Invasion of Normandy, Wikimedia Commons


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