The 75th anniversary of D-Day hadn’t registered on our radar when we decided to visit the Normandy region in early May. Our decision to plan a trip there was driven by a combination of random circumstances.
To wit: Another two-week school vacation was upon us; We would be spending the first week in Paris; A friend we had not seen in some time lives near Le Havre. So, hey, let’s visit Normandy!
It seems strange to admit this, but Normandy had not been particularly high on my list of places to visit in France. In part, that’s because it’s considered such a must-see for Americans, like Paris, Bordeaux, or Provence. The place where everyone tells you to go feels like a cliché for me, and becomes less enticing to me. So I avoid it.
But having been, and having experienced the sweeping history and emotion of the D-Day beaches, that avoidance instinct feels foolish now. I had seen photos and videos of the Normandy American Cemetery in countless magazines, newspapers, and films over the years. No matter. There is no denying the deeply emotional experience of visiting.
Spending a couple of days there with our two teenagers also offered a moment to contemplate the notion of patriotism and sacrifice. As Americans living abroad the past 4.5 years, we have a keen sense of how the world views American power and influence, a view that has deteriorated significantly the past two years. It’s to the point where we find ourselves trying to remind our children that, hey, the critics may have a point but the U.S. does have its positive points.
I think that’s the appeal for many Americans today of World War II and the D-Day landings. There is a feeling of moral clarity, of doing the right thing for the right reasons.
In contrast, when it comes to World War II, France’s own legacy is far more grey, morally and politically. So even the French seem to prefer to take moments like this to shine a light on America’s and the Allies’ heroism. It takes the focus off their own more difficult heritage from this era.
Memory, History, and Normandy
Living in the southwest of France, we have been hearing much more this year about the 80th anniversary of “La Retirada.” This is the name given to the flight of Spanish Republicans in the wake of the victory of Franco and fascism. As the country finally fell under his thumb in January and February 1939, about 500,000 Spanish refugees came streaming over the Pyrénées.
Though France had instinctively wanted to welcome them, it was wholly unprepared for the size of this exodus. Women and children were separated from men. Those men were herded down to beaches where they were placed in encampments that authorities called “concentration camps.” An estimated 15,000 refugees died in those camps, many families were scattered, a few were taken in by sympathetic French families. When the Germans finally took control of Southern France, many of these Spanish families came in for a whole new round of suffering.
This history is being examined at one of our local museums in Toulouse, Les Abattoirs. The current exhibition is called “Picasso and the Exodus,” and examines the artist’s reaction to the Spanish Civil War and his support for the refugees, particularly exiled Spanish artists. Picasso had been living in Paris since 1900 and never set foot in Spain again before his death in 1973.
This exodus profoundly shaped the region where we live today. And yet, I doubt it has received even the slightest mention in the U.S. as World War II histories and commemorations unfurl. From a global perspective, it’s something less than a footnote to the tragedies that would follow. For France, however, it was the prelude to a cloudy period in its history.
La Retirada would be followed by a surprisingly swift loss to Hitler’s troops the following year, a division of the country for a time under a puppet regime, and collaboration including rounding up and persecuting Jews. And yes, some joined the Resistance. In general, however, it’s a legacy that makes it hard to celebrate France’s role in World War II. The ceremonies are far more muted than the stream of 100-year remembrances for World War I that have unfolded over the past few years.
As an example of how France continues to grapple with this legacy, earlier this week a Paris court opened an investigation into a notorious episode that happened 66 years ago in the city of Marseille. Between 22 and 24 January 1943, after the Nazi’s had occupied Southern France, they ordered a series of raids to purge the city of “undesirables” and foreigners. With the help of local French police, more than 20,000 people were rounded up, including 800 Jews who were sent to concentration camps. An entire section of the city nicknamed “Little Naples” (because it was home to many Italian immigrants) was emptied and then dynamited out of existence.
The investigation was prompted by a lawsuit filed by a handful of survivors who want recognition and justice for an event that has nearly been forgotten. They are also wanting any officials or accomplices — German or French — who are still alive to be charged with crimes against humanity. “We are waiting for the facts to be acknowledged and to be included in the history books,” one of the plaintiffs, Antoinette Castagno, told the Le Monde newspaper. She was evacuated with her four brothers and sisters on January 23, 1943, when she was 9 years old. After being transferred to a nearby town for a week, the family returned home to find their home ransacked and emptied. “We lost everything and it was passed over in silence,” she told Le Monde.
Such unresolved and troubled memories leave the French reticent about claiming either heroism or victimhood from this era. And so during our visit to Normandy, we found it curiously difficult to find any mention of what impact the D-Day invasion and the ensuing Battle of Normandy had on the lives of local French residents at the time.
As part of the D-Day strategy, the allies bombed the coastline steadily in advance of the landing, supposedly to soften German defenses. That left us wondering: What about the French living there? Were they evacuated? Did they flee? No. Thousands were killed by Allied bombings. And thousands more died in the ensuing fighting to take control of the region. In all, an estimated 15,000 residents of Normandy were killed in the weeks following the invasion, mostly by Allied bombing and attacks. This compares to 4,414 Allied deaths on just D-Day.
Such are the calculations in wartime, I suppose. But it is a calculation nonetheless. Allied commanders obviously felt a certain number of French casualties were acceptable to attain a larger goal. But whatever the historical justification, they were sacrificed all the same.
One of the casualties was a young man named Michel de Vallavieille. He walked out of his farmhouse near Sainte-Marie to greet Allied troops and was instead attacked by them and severely wounded. After being left for dead, some other troops found him and he was evacuated to London where surgeons saved his life. A few years later, he was elected mayor of the town and proposed, despite his own lingering bitterness, building a museum to honor the Allied troops. The plan was met with widespread opposition by locals who were still nursing their own anger over the levelling of so many of their towns that had been long emptied of Germans before the invasion.
Yet de Vallavieille persevered, founding the Utah Beach Association which eventually raised money to build the Utah Beach Museum. We visited the museum during our trip to Normandy and it was really a powerful experience, giving a complete view of this portion of the D-Day landing. Tucked in the far corner of the museum is a small exhibit detailing de Vallavieille’s own story in creating this monument that is now overseen by his children.
But don’t expect to hear much about this, or other sacrifices made by the French on June 6 when officials praise the bravery of Allied troops. Driving around the region, we saw signs for cemeteries honoring soldiers from Poland, Russia, even Germany. We never did see anything that seemed to honor the experience of the local French.
Indeed, the slogan for the Utah Beach Museum for the 75th anniversary of D-Day is: “Their sacrifice, our liberty.”
Only after we began to do a little planning for own trip did the anniversary start to pop up. It quickly became apparent that this was going to be a big moment for the region, made even bigger by a planned visit from President Trump. Already the anticipation and preparations were in full swing when we arrived.
Arriving at Paris’ Gare de l’Est for our train to Le Havre, we were greeted by this sign:
Around the region, it seemed just about every building and street was festooned with posters or decorations of some kind heralding the upcoming celebrations. Like this poster at the Bayeux tourist office:
Tourism is the most important part of the French economy, and it seemed no one wanted to miss an opportunity to attract their share of the legion of visitors expected to descend on the region this week. The vast over-commercialization of the day was perhaps inevitable, but at times it seemed to blur the line between hommage and profit.
American Cemetery at Omaha Beach
Yet as soon I set foot in the Normandy American Cemetery, any sense of cynicism or ambiguity about the events washed away.
In its design, its aesthetic, its simplicity, and its setting, the memorial delivers a powerfully emotional experience. Whatever generals or politicians decided sitting in offices far from the frontlines, this memorial provides a stark reminder that thousands of men boarded ships to cross the English Channel knowing that death was more likely than not.
The night before visiting, we watched Saving Private Ryan with the kids, to give them a sense of what D-Day would have been like. Opening with a veteran and his family visiting the American Cemetery, it feels familiar. The opening 20 minutes remain to this day one of the most grueling experiences I’ve ever had watching a film. It’s also a good example of how I assumed that essentially I had seen Omaha Beach, knew the cemetery, and felt those ghosts.
But there is nothing to compare with the feeling of actually standing there. Looking out at the ocean and beach that were drenched in blood and bodies 75 years ago. Understanding the seeming impossibility of what it was those troops intended to do in taking this stretch of coast.
There aren’t many attempts to overstate what happened. And there isn’t really a need to do so. There are some artistic, heroic elements. But largely even this colonnade and bronze statue served mainly to provide a gathering point to view two large maps giving an overview of the D-Day invasion.
Looking out from the colonnade, you see the actual cemetery. Those simple white crosses, the symmetry of their organization, create a powerful effect. The entire site is 172.5 acres, and there are graves for more than 9,380 American soldiers. The names bear testament that each had some story to tell, something they left behind, something they sacrificed.
Later, at the Omaha Beach museum, we would see a letter written by Antoine de Saint Exupéry, the author best known for “The Little Prince,” to future Americans. Entitled, “Letter To An American,” he wants to essentially remind future generations that those American solders embarking on boats like the ones that carried troops to the Normandy shores were doing so for selfless reasons.
“American mothers did not give their sons for the pursuit of material aims. Nor did these boys accept the idea of risking their lives for such material aims. I know – and will later tell my countrymen – that it was a spiritual crusade that led you into the war.”
America’s role in world events has only gotten murkier over the decades. But standing in the cemetery gives one a chance to feel, if only for a moment, unabashed patriotism for a country that undertook such a mission. That produced such people, whether through volunteering or the draft, were on the boats that day.
And hope that there is some way the county and its citizens can find their way back to those ideals without needing to be stirred again by the horrors of war.