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. This book examines the commonalities and differences in national collective memories of D-Day. Chapters cover the main forces on the day of battle, including the United States, Great Britain, Canada, France and Germany. In addition, a chapter on Russian memory of the invasion explores other views of the battle. The overall thrust of the book shows that memories of the past vary over time, link to present-day needs, and also still have a clear national and cultural specificity. These memories arise in a multitude of locations such as film, books, monuments, anniversary celebrations, and news media representations.
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D-Day in History and Memory
The Normandy Landings in International Remembrance and Commemoration
By Michael R. Dolski, Sam Edwards, John Buckley
University of North Texas PressCopyright © 2014 University of North Texas Press
All rights reserved.
"PORTAL OF LIBERATION": D-DAY MYTH AS AMERICAN SELF-AFFIRMATION
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.
The above details describe the 2005 video game, Call of Duty 2: Big Red One. This entry into the franchise focuses, as with other titles in that series, on heroic soldiers fighting grand battles for noble purposes. The D-Day landing scene that takes place midway through the experience constitutes one of the most exciting and challenging stages in the game. The player/soldier accompanies his squad of fellow named American soldiers as they defeat waves of nameless German enemies. Screams of pain or terror usually accompany deaths, though the player/soldier seems nearly indestructible as he can receive repeated hits while still moving to the ultimate goal. Borrowing from a cinematic "verité" style, shocking explosions daze, unbalance, and nearly drown out the sounds of the played world in several-second bursts. Despite a series of challenging encounters from the coastal waters, over the beaches, and inland, the player's squad secures its D-Day objective. The sergeant commends his soldiers for "kicking down Hitler's front door" and surviving the most difficult fight he had ever known.
First Person Shooters (FPS) are games of violence that employ a first-person perspective to navigate the game world. Prior to the late 1990s, most FPS games had borrowed heavily from science fiction tropes. Game developers recognized the allure of the Second World War with the commercial success of the 1998 blockbuster film Saving Private Ryan (more below). That film's director, Steven Spielberg, assisted in the development of historically themed video games, particularly those centering on the Second World War. The Medal of Honor suite of games that explored this direction and led to imitators like Call of Duty has often included D-Day as a major component of played activity.
These games are more than mere entertainment pieces. The vicarious experience imparted by playing, by inserting oneself into a virtual reality, constitutes an instructive immersion. These war games have constructed an engaging world for players too young to have participated in this real world past. This world is one of danger (albeit muted), action, individualism, heroics, initiative, killing without question, and saving the world for freedom. Yet worth pondering at some length is the selection of this particular past, presented in this manner. Over the past seventy years in America, the Second World War and its shining moments like D-Day have transformed into a celebratory story of national sacrifice for liberty and freedom. Although D-Day-related video games present this story in a rather innovative manner, they represent merely the culmination of decades' worth of memory work centered on this battle.
BUILDING THE MYTHIC FRAMEWORK
From the day the Allies stormed the Normandy beaches, efforts to ascribe meaning to D-Day arose in a number of forms. The high-toned war era rhetoric coincided with other American efforts to emphasize the moral correctness of their position in this conflict, often espoused as one of freedom versus tyranny (such as in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" speech). Collectively, these propagandistic activities began setting the temper in American collective memory regarding this battle, the larger war, and indeed, the entire direction of the American Century. Often the emphasis of these messages resided on the moral authority of Allied, particularly American, forces and their fight for liberation.
President Roosevelt addressed his nation on 6 June 1944 over the radio at 10:00 p.m. Eastern War Time. Beseeching "Almighty God," Roosevelt focused attention on the difficult battle raging on French soil in June 1944. He presented a morality lesson regarding this phase of the Second World War. Roosevelt explained that the American peace-loving forces "fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate." Not only did Roosevelt have to acknowledge the sacrifices of American combatants in this "mighty endeavor," but he also had to soothe their loved ones on the home front. This prayer also presented another chance to indicate what the Allies fought for and how they differed from their opponents. Stressing the Allies' intent "to set free a suffering humanity" lauded the soldiers, inspired civilians, reassured those in Nazi-occupied lands, and vilified the enemy. When families throughout the United States, such as in the small town of Bedford, Virginia, gathered around the radio to listen to Roosevelt's benediction, this message struck home. The president assured all that American soldiers fought in Normandy to save the world in a righteous cause.
Invasion jitters abounded in the United States well before D-Day. As a result, the American public was primed to react to the earliest indication that fighting had erupted in Normandy. The abrupt disclosure of this much-anticipated event triggered a cathartic release of pent-up tension. Residents of New York City halted for observances, including a moment of silence before the opening of the Stock Exchange, before it went on to a new high for the year. Work absences were low, while bond purchases and blood donations hit tremendous highs. Returning to work, buying a bond, or giving blood all served as ways to feel connected to the war. Movie theaters throughout the land continued playing films, but usually in conjunction with prayer services, bond sales, or group singing of the national anthem. Most of these activities came before Roosevelt's prayer that evening. The president lent his authority, his insight, and his eloquence to the process of shaping D-Day in the wider public understanding. His interpretation, however, hardly arose in isolation.
GEN Eisenhower's order of the day, issued before the landings, attempted to impress soldiers soon to engage in battle with the importance of their mission. Eisenhower's words also received wide distribution. In this order, Eisenhower expressed a paradigm that would characterize D-Day, the American role in the Second World War, and the man himself for a long time. He called the invasion the "great crusade," a resonant phrase that he would tap for the title of his 1948 book on the war. Eisenhower used such high-minded adjectives as "liberty-loving," "free," and "noble" to describe the Allied peoples or their wartime purpose.
A barrage of laudatory commentary on D-Day—such as that offered by Roosevelt or Eisenhower—blanketed the home front, crowding out other considerations. Within a week of D-Day, newsreels of the landings honored the American forces in France. The News of the Day clip that began playing on Thursday, 15 June, opened with a dedication to those men fighting and dying for liberty in northwest Europe. The newsreel's focus on common soldiers from across the country emphasized the democratic ethos of the fighting forces.
War correspondents also imparted a basic understanding of the events that comprised D-Day. Don Whitehead accompanied the troops who stormed Omaha Beach. In dispatches that Whitehead dated 5–9 June, he cast the invasion as a major turning point and recounted tales of heroism on the beaches. War correspondent Ernie Pyle landed on 7 June to find "bodies, uncollected, still sprawling grotesquely in the sand or half-hidden by the high grass beyond the beach." He stood there, the carnage filling his eyes, and wondered how the American troops had overcome such fierce resistance. Pyle wanted to tell people at home "what the opening of the second front in this one sector entailed, so that you can know and appreciate and forever be humbly grateful to those both dead and alive who did it for you."
The impressions journalists conveyed helped people at home understand at least some aspects of the battle. The still photographs of the invasion comprise, perhaps, one of the more resounding early influences on the wider understanding of D-Day. By far the most powerful photos come from the few surviving images taken by famed war photographer Robert Capa. Capa felt that in order to capture war with the camera, he had to plunge into the midst of danger and excitement. Upon landing on Omaha Beach, he snapped a series of photos before boarding a craft full of wounded men returning to the Channel. Due to a processing mishap, the photographs came out somewhat blurred. Yet the hazy images of men huddled behind beach obstacles seemed to encapsulate the dramatic intensity of the day.
Combined, all this reporting began setting the framework for D-Day in the public consciousness. President Roosevelt's main points reinforced the messages conveyed across the media. Stressing the collective achievements of common men, bonded together in the face of enormous difficulties, presented a way to laud supposed American values. This celebration stood out even more clearly when contrasted against the authoritarian system of the Nazi regime. These early depictions of the battle cast Americans, and their allies, as the heroes in a divinely sanctioned quest to liberate the oppressed.
LOCAL REMEMBRANCE: FRAMED BY GRIEF
Following the Second World War, there were small-scale, local community efforts to memorialize D-Day in the United States. Staged in locations affected by the battle because of the sacrifices borne by hometown combatants, such as Bedford, Virginia, these early commemorations did not resonate with much force in American society. In a period that witnessed the return of soldiers' bodies from overseas, public attention fixed on the losses of war. The resultant somber mood dampened feelings of success as individuals coped with the pain of lives torn apart by the Second World War. Nevertheless, the hesitant embrace of victory in mainstream society during these early postwar years proffered some sense of meaning for these losses.
Great Depression-related penury and a local martial tradition motivated Bedford residents, such as brothers Ray and Roy Stevens, to join the National Guard before the war. With the outbreak of hostilities came mobilization and unit reconfigurations. The 29th Infantry Division consisted mainly of National Guard units mobilized from Virginia and Maryland. A significant number of Bedford men—including Ray and Roy—had ended up in A Company, 116th Infantry, one of the groups that assaulted Omaha Beach in the initial waves on D-Day. The company landed on the far western end of the beach. Isolated from other units due to general confusion, Alpha Company faced a formidable German strong point, which had no other American targets in view. Nearly 100 of the company's 155 men who struggled ashore died in mere minutes, nineteen of them from Bedford County. Roy Stevens survived most likely because his landing craft hit a mine leaving the waterlogged men stranded until picked up and returned to England by a passing naval craft. Ray was not so fortunate; he died on the beaches that day.
Bedford residents did not immediately commemorate the battle that claimed so many local men. People instead dwelt on their own private grief, which began hitting home one day in July 1944 with a flood of War Department telegrams notifying families of the dead. As journalist Alex Kershaw poignantly noted, "All across Bedford County, joy died that summer."
Eventually, locals like D-Day veteran LT Elisha "Ray" Nance pushed for a commemorative display. The impetus to mark the community's link to D-Day gained strength as the bodies of those killed returned home for burial. Due to the violent chaos that had defined the Normandy campaign, it took graves registrations personnel several years after the war to locate, identify, and then dispose of American remains. Official US policy permitted next of kin to decide on final resting grounds for their loved ones. Either the body remained in American cemeteries abroad or returned for burial in the United States. Brief ceremonies accompanied these returns in Bedford, but left some like Nance dissatisfied. By the end of the decade, Bedford township officials opted to install a plaque at the courthouse that listed the names of all local residents killed in either World War. On 30 May 1949, Memorial Day, approximately 200 citizens of Bedford dedicated a $500 plaque bearing 174 names of men killed in both wars.
In Bedford, where so many losses hammered a small community, commemorative activity centered on D-Day remained muted. Instead of highlighting the local connection to D-Day, residents at first focused on private mourning, often leaning on religion for support. Some people censured Eisenhower or Roosevelt, blaming them for the deaths. Only later did the community turn to public commemorations to deal with the hole left by those killed in France. Still, in comparison to the far greater losses experienced by others, such as the French communities where the landings took place, the particular form of the Bedford commemorations proves revealing. Although Bedford suffered far less than did these French communities, the eventual turn to D-Day commemoration served as a means to transform the story of the battle from just loss to one that assuaged grief by providing a meaning for that loss. This memory work, however, took time to develop.
For one Bedford veteran, a couple of early ephemeral commemorative works seemed insufficient tributes to the sacrifices made on D-Day. Ray Nance lobbied hard for years to push Bedford County toward a more fitting marker of just D-Day. Initially, Nance's proposal attracted limited enthusiasm. His constant lobbying eventually won the support of a few key people, like the editor of the local newspaper.
Bedford decided to erect a monument to its D-Day dead. This new marker consisted of a slab of rock cut from the bluffs in Normandy that overlooked the assault beaches. The French provided the rock, the funds, and a suitable escort for the official dedication ceremony held on 6 June 1954. A crowd of over 5,000 people gathered to hear of the gallant sacrifice of men sent to save France from despotism. GEN Charles Gerhardt, major general when he had led the 29th Infantry Division on 6 June 1944, helped dedicate the new monument in 1954. Summarizing Gerhardt's speech, Kershaw wrote, "The Bedford boys had been engaged in a great crusade, an ultimately glorious battle to preserve the very foundations of Western civilization of Christendom itself." Ten years after D-Day enough people supported Nance to ensure the creation of a monument acknowledging Bedford's contribution to a vital battle.
NATIONAL REMEMBRANCE: ODES TO LIBERATING VICTORY
The postwar period saw the rise of concerted efforts by the federal government to shape public memories of the past. Bedford residents understandably focused on their personal experiences or losses due to D-Day. Their local take on the battle did not shape national perceptions of D-Day—yet. Instead, federal agencies like the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) sought to influence national views by overseeing the commemorative interpretation of Second World War battle sites. The ABMC shaped remembrance activities on grounds ceded to American oversight by European governments. Once France granted control over parts of the Normandy battle zone, the commission's interpretations of artistic merit and its desire to avoid cluttering sacred space influenced commemorative activities there.
A process of honoring the dead took place in Normandy. It began with the erection of temporary cemeteries by the US Army's Graves Registration units, followed by the acquisition of permanent resting places for the dead. Identifying those buried in the area consumed much time, as did disinterring and repatriating those whose next of kin desired the bodies to be returned home. Consolidation, dedication, construction, and opening ceremonies for the Normandy American Cemetery spanned more than a decade. The US government pushed families to leave the bodies of their loved ones abroad. Historian Kurt Piehler explained why: "The overseas cemeteries served to symbolize US global military commitments undertaken after 1945. The Army, by placing most of the cemeteries in Europe, indicated that it wished to have even greater ties with the Continent." Choosing where to deposit American war dead, and where to honor their sacrifice, acquired political significance. Americans alive and dead remained in Europe to show a continued commitment to defend freedom.
Excerpted from D-Day in History and Memory by Michael R. Dolski, Sam Edwards, John Buckley. Copyright © 2014 University of North Texas Press. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Figures,
Introduction Michael R. Dolski, Sam Edwards, John Buckley,
1. "Portal of Liberation": D-Day Myth as American Self-Affirmation Michael R. Dolski,
2. The Beginning of the End: D-Day in British Memory Sam Edwards,
3. Canada's D-Day: Politics, Media, and the Fluidity of Memory Terry Copp, Matt Symes,
4. Gratitude, Trauma, and Repression: D-Day in French Memory Kate C. Lemay,
5. "Sie Kommen": From Defeat to Liberation—German and Austrian Memory of the Allied "Invasion" of 6 June 1944 Günter Bischof, Michael Maier,
6. "Their Overdue Landing": A View from the Eastern Front Olga Kucherenko,
Conclusion Michael R. Dolski, Sam Edwards, John Buckley,
The primary market for this book will be military historians, followed by a secondary market of American and world history enthusiasts and those researching “memory studies.”