World

REMEMBERING D-DAY

Normandy and the end of the great consensus

Normandy and the end of the great consensus
Britain's King Charles III (centre), Britain's Queen Camilla (third left), France's President Emmanuel Macron (third right), French President's wife Brigitte Macron (second right) and Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (second left) attend the UK Ministry of Defence and the Royal British Legion’s commemorative ceremony marking the 80th anniversary of the D-Day Allied landings in Normandy, at the World War 2 British Normandy Memorial near the village of Ver-sur-Mer on 6 June 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Ludovic Marin / Pool)

The Allied landings at Normandy 80 years ago – to confront Nazi control of Europe – ultimately led to nearly four generations of peace and economic prosperity in that battered continent. Sadly, that is now at an end and no one can tell just what will happen.

The 6th of June 2024 is almost certainly the last time veterans of the massive Allied landings on the beaches and cliffs of Normandy in 1944 will be able to participate in ceremonies commemorating this epochal event. 

This Normandy landing was the beginning of the Western Allies’ drive to end the hold of Nazi Germany on Europe. Now, even the youngest of the small remaining cohort of elderly veterans is approaching the century mark in age. The earlier ranks of hundreds of thousands of veterans from the landing have dwindled to just a few, frail survivors.

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British veterans attend a commemorative ceremony marking the 80th anniversary of D-Day near the French village of Ver-sur-Mer in northwestern France on 6 June 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Ludovic Marin / Pool)

Canadian veteran Jim Spenst (centre) attends a commemorative ceremony for the 80th anniversary of D-Day landings in Normandy at the Canadian cemetery in Courseulles-sur-Mer, France, on 6 June 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Christophe Petit Tesson)

D-Day, the date of Operation Overlord, as the Normandy invasion was codenamed, had drawn upon hundreds of thousands of men from the US, Britain, Canada, Poland, the Free French forces and others to carry out the most difficult of all military operations. 

It was a seaborne landing on to heavily defended beaches, and then a drive inland to occupied Paris and on to Germany itself. The landing required the combined resources of vast naval, land and air forces, and a massive supply chain — all while under fire from German defenders.

The plan was designed to gain a constantly growing foothold on Europe’s coast so that a continuing flow of reinforcements, transport and supplies could be landed as the perimeter of the liberated zone expanded, French ports could be used, and the onward movement of Allied forces could continue without letup.

Allied forces liberated Paris on 25 August 1944 and the Allied armies were then poised — or so their commanders thought — to advance quickly into the German heartland to deliver a final blow to Hitler’s army.

However, eight more months of fighting remained, including dealing with surprise German counterattacks such as at Bastogne and even a doomed Allied advance into the Netherlands. (That movement had been aimed at gaining access to Belgian ports to provide faster ways to supply the Allied juggernaut.)

By the time the fighting came to an end, Soviet and American forces met at the German town of Torgau on the way to Berlin, thereby cutting what remained of Nazi Germany in half and forcing an unconditional surrender soon afterwards.

Unlike in earlier years after the end of the war, we can no longer hear first-hand accounts (or even tall tales) around the tables at family gatherings, in pubs and taverns, public lectures or veterans’ gatherings. 

None of my relatives who had served in World War 2 remain alive, nor do any of my wife’s. 

Remembering through cinema

Instead, beyond reading about it in history books, we increasingly draw our “memories” of that 6 June landing and the battles that followed (as well as those on all the other battle fronts) via film or television.

Few of us can arrange visits to the main battle sites in Europe to trace the course of the fighting, or to visit museums offering exhibits of the weapons used in those battles.

Instead, our understanding of the fighting now comes principally through film and video. These include films like The Longest Day, The Big Red One, and Saving Private Ryan. (While the latter is a fictitious account of a military rescue, it offers a harrowingly realistic vision of the fighting, according to veterans who were there and who saw the film.) 

For the broader picture of the issues that mattered, that comes through films like Judgment at Nuremberg, The Monuments Men, Shoah, or Schindler’s List. Those bring into focus some of the reasons the Allied armies fought their way across Western Europe to liberate nations from Nazi domination. 

There are even a few films, like A Bridge Too Far, that describe Allied defeats on the way to that final victory. Reams of other films like Dunkirk and The Gathering Storm give insight into how things happened such that the Normandy landings became necessary.

Of course, besides all those British and American films, there are many German films, as well as works from filmmakers of the conquered nations offering comparisons and contrasts about how war was waged as seen from the German side, or how life was endured while those filmmakers’ nations were under occupation, such as the Norwegian television series, War Sailors.

That cinema archive of the Western European campaign, of course, is also complemented by Soviet-era films depicting the enormous struggles that had taken place on the Eastern Front. 

Moreover, there is a huge archive of cinematic works portraying the Pacific campaigns from American, British and Japanese filmmakers (including the lives of prisoners of war, such as Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, The Bridge Over the River Kwai, The Empire of the Sun, and The Railway Man), along with works from filmmakers among the conquered peoples of the so-called Japanese Greater Co-Prosperity Sphere. (For just one example, the Indonesian film, Romusha, depicts the harsh treatment of so-called labour volunteers the Japanese had recruited for construction work in occupied Burma.)

In the absence of real veterans and their tales, audiences are now learning about Normandy and the battles thereafter through television series. One of those, A Band of Brothers, follows an American military unit from their initial training in the US, on to Normandy and the fighting in Europe, and then through to Germany’s final surrender.

War movies have a strong hold on audiences, showing heroism as well as the brutality and cowardice of men at arms and the nature of war itself. 

Nowadays, the explosion of documentaries on video streaming services also reinforces a continuing fascination with the fight against Germany’s Third Reich, often using actual film footage obtained from archives from around the world. 

Soon enough, though, these television series, the documentaries, the fictional films, and some recorded interviews with deceased veterans will be all we have left. There will be no more survivors or actual witnesses — not even children who had been forced to endure deprivation in occupied nations or as young people put into the German concentration camps.

Multilateralism

There is still another major legacy flowing out of the success of Normandy and the fighting that led to the end of World War 2 we must consider. 

Dangerously, that legacy, too, is crumbling away, in large part by the actions of Russia, the major successor state to the USSR, and by a growing tide of right-wing political movements in various European nations. 

First, there is the remarkable legacy of stability across Europe following the horrors of World War 2. Since 1945, there has been no major fighting on the continent for nearly four generations — except for the bitter, fratricidal conflicts that destroyed the former Yugoslavia.

The post-World War 2 period, coming out of the economic near-collapse of Europe, and the vast destruction that had taken place from the fighting, paradoxically created an opportunity for an economic and democratic rebirth as a cohort of visionary European leaders argued that multilateral institutions were the best path to reinforce a peaceful Europe, later including a peaceful reunification of Germany once the Soviet Union collapsed. 

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People from East Germany greet citizens of West Germany at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on 22 December 1989. On 9 November, Gunter Schabowski, the East Berlin Communist party boss, declared that starting from midnight, East Germans would be free to leave the country, without permission, at any point along the border, including the crossing-points through the Berlin Wall. (Photo: Patrick Hertzog / AFP)

Four generations of peace thus evolved out of the growing economic integration of many of Europe’s nations — from Britain on to, most recently, an array of Eastern European nations (and several former parts of the former USSR — the Baltic republics) which became freed from a quasi-occupation by the Soviet Union or their actual incorporation in its land-based empire. This integration started in miniature with tariff agreements between the three Benelux nations, then grew into the six-nation European Economic Community, becoming the European Union as more states joined (even after Britain left). 

That institution has now largely overlapped with the development of yet other institutions such as the European Parliament and the European Central Bank, as all were largely under the protective umbrella of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. 

Nato eventually came to include many of those Eastern European nations with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The net effect has been an understanding that there was no space for military combat among the nations of Europe.

This consensus — together with global institutions like the UN, the World Trade Organisation and the International Monetary Fund — has, of course, weathered great changes globally over the years. 

These included the wave of decolonisation in Asia and Africa that began in the late 1940s and picked up steam into the 1960s; the rise of China as a major capitalist economic and industrial force (but not a democratic one), and the thorough reintegration into global institutions of Japan and Germany as democratic nations.

Shattered peace

Two developments have not been anticipated by most, however, as memories of World War 2 have faded into history. The first of these has been a troubling rise in right-wing, extremist parties and movements in many European nations.

In their less extreme versions, as in Italy, Hungary and even the Netherlands, they have entered governments, and in several other nations, they are now represented in national parliaments. 

It almost seems as if their members, adherents and leaders have chosen to ignore the lessons of the 20th century. And some of those movements and leaders have begun to express a kind of thoughtless appreciation for the strongman tactics and policies of Vladimir Putin (as has former US president Donald Trump, to be sure).

The second circumstance has been the destruction of a broader understanding that the boundaries and governments in Europe will not be changed by force (again, save for what happened in Yugoslavia).

If Czechoslovakia chose to split, peacefully, into two different republics, that was one thing. But, if columns of tanks and mobilised infantry attacked Ukraine from Russia, and as missiles rained down on Ukraine’s cities and infrastructure, giving force to dreams of re-establishing the old Czarist empire, that was something entirely different.

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Tattered National flags flutter at a cemetery in the city of Chernihiv in Ukraine on 6 April 2022. Some cities and villages had recently been recaptured by the Ukrainian army after the Russian invasion on 24 February 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / STR)

Even as this invasion has ruptured the norm that Europe was not a place for irredentist dreams of empire or the settling of old scores militarily, it now drives Western nations to consider how to reinforce their defence spending in response; for the Western nations to divert modern weaponry and economic support to a beleaguered Ukraine and, most improbably, to lead two long-time neutral nations — Sweden and Finland — to ask to be allowed to join Nato.  

Thus has the long peace of Europe been shattered as more extreme parties in various nations are taking positions significantly different from the broader consensus about democratic values and voices, and — crucially — the use of military force is once again considered possible to reassemble old empires and turn back the clock to a more brutal age. 

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Firefighters work at the scene of a fire after shelling in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on 23 April 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Maria Senovilla)

The hard-fought peace that evolved out of the Normandy landing and the fighting that followed it for almost a year, with all the sacrifices to help vanquish the Nazi nightmare, is now fraying — and there is no real sense that this has a happy ending. 

Leaders might look to how World War 1 marked the end of Europe’s long peace after the Napoleonic era, as rivalries over trade, colonial empires, a naval armaments race and upwellings of nationalism when one assassin’s bullet led to the whole stability of European peace collapsing.

In the end, after four years of warfare, there was the collapse of four empires (Russia, Austro-Hungary, Germany and the Ottoman Empire), and great reservoirs of dissatisfaction with the prevailing economic, political and social orders across the continent — even among the victors. 

Now there is virtually no one left from the fighting of World War 2 who can bear witness and urge caution.

But is there any real belief that these two forces — Russian revanchism and the growth of rightist parties — will not create a new, social media-enhanced version of that earlier collapse of the system? 

How these two forces will be reined in may be the biggest question of our generation — besides the planet’s climate crisis, of course. DM

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