The Meaning of D-Day

The news may have been slow coming through the middle of this past week (as I complained in my previous entry – or maybe I was just manufacturing an excuse to go review the “Europa XL” entry on Italy), but that has quickly ceased to be the case, what with President Bush’s embarking on Air Force One to pay another visit over to Europe. Naturally, Iraq will be foremost in everyone’s minds, as he attempts to gain a little more assistance for that country from our European allies, perhaps with a view towards engineering formal NATO involvement at the upcoming Istanbul NATO summit. The ceremonial pretext, however, is the 60th anniversary of the Allied landings in Normandy during World War II – although, as we’ll see, the ceremonial and the practical political spheres have already impinged upon each other.

Looking at the on-line Dutch press for D-Day coverage, it’s almost totally absent, save treatment in the leading serious evening daily, the NRC Handelsblad. But there the coverage is extensive and truly multi-faceted.


First off, a bit of continental-European “hold-your-horses,” expressed in the title of the NRC article D-Day Was Certainly A Milestone But No Turning-point, by Menno Steketee. Steketee starts out with an interesting story, that I had never heard of before (perhaps it’s not entirely authentic): in the fall of 1942, at the height of Nazi Germany’s power, one of the heads of the German Intelligence Service, one Reinhard Gehlen, went to the Führer to plead with him “Stop it all!” His line of thinking was simple: Nazi Germany might have seemed unconquerable then, but “the Soviet Union, the British Empire, and the Amis [German slang for the Americans] together have an industrial production that far exceeds ours. And we can never catch up. So stop now.” The article records Hitler as being “speechless”; what it does not go on to describe is the new and imaginative treatment by German penal institutions with which the Nazi dictator was likely to reward such early public expressions of defeatism.

The lesson here? As the article’s title puts it, D-Day was no turning-point. Even if it had failed, the Allies would still have been able to try again to confront the Nazi armies directly on European soil, and eventually would have succeeded. Steketee mentions doing so in Italy – indeed, the Allies were already fighting in Italy, Rome had just recently been liberated as the D-Day landings got underway – or via the Balkans. Actually, he leaves out here the most likely possibility, namely that of simply trying an amphibious invasion of France once again. After all, Operation Dragoon, the invasion of southern France, did also happen shortly after the landings in Normandy, starting on August 15, 1944.

No, if you want specific turning-points in World War II’s European Theater of Operations, those were at Stalingrad and at El-Alamein (“ETO”? Well, yes.), not at the Operation Overlord beaches – no matter what Hollywood may want you to believe, Steketee adds. Indeed, D-Day turned out to be a battle in which only slightly more than one percent of the Allied soldiers involved perished. Maybe that happy fact is the thing worth celebrating, he suggests.


Returning back to the present, NRC reporter Pieter Kottman’s article D-day, joie de vivre (which is French for, shall we say, la dolce vita) covers French celebrations of D-Day in the run-up to June 6 this year. The very real problem here, of course, was that the French feel an obligation (and no doubt want) to be grateful for what happened on those Normandy beaches sixty years ago; it’s just that they are not so in tune with what America and its President are up to in contemporary times, meaning mainly in Iraq. The title of the pre-D-Day French celebratory event in Paris’ Théâtre Marigny was “Remember America”; Kottman quickly grasps that what they really meant there was “remember America as she used to be, back when we liked her.” There was no mention of George W. Bush, but there was plenty of mention of “chewing gum, the Lucky Strikes, the cola, the jazz, the swing, Hollywood!” In this spirit, the orchestra there serenaded those in attendance with golden oldies such as “Moonlight Serenade,” Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” and of course “In the Mood.” Meanwhile, word out of the French president’s Elysée palace did indicate that Jacques Chirac would know how to hold his tongue and stay within the spirit of the commemorations. The three speeches he was scheduled to deliver over the weekend would be about “friendship and gratitude from the French people for the Allied peoples.”

There’s even more to the NRC’s coverage, and it’s even more interesting. Take for example the opinion piece by editor emeritus J.H. Sampiemon: Bush Misuses the Commemoration of D-Day. Sampiemon’s target in particular is US National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, who earlier in Berlin asserted that those Americans who died in the Second World War can serve now to point Europeans towards their present-day duty, at least as Washington sees it. Iraq is the modern-day parallel to Nazi Germany; Europeans should join the Americans in being willing to sacrifice to bring democracy there. But Sampiemon counters 1) Be careful with historical parallels generally; and 2) Beware historical parallels with World War II especially. Even though he invaded both Iran and Kuwait, Saddam was never any threat for Western democracies. (What if he had gone on, unchecked, to Saudi Arabia and thus secured many of the oil supplies Western economies depend on, Mr. Sampiemon?) And “Munich,” i.e the British-French abandonment of Czechoslovakia to Hitler there in 1938, offers no lessons that are of any use in ensuring stability in the MIddle East. What’s more, the invasion of Normandy turned out to be a great success, whereas currently in Iraq the Americans and their “coalition of the willing” are “stuck in a morass of ethnic and religious conflict and bloody resistance against their presence.”


It has been widely noted that the German Bundeskanzler will be attending these D-Day ceremonies for the first time ever, and NRC correspondent Michel Kerres delves deeper into this point in D-Day for Germans Now Also Means Liberation. For the longest time, ever since the war, D-Day had meant nothing more to Germans than yet another bloody wartime defeat; it was no wonder that previous German Chancellors stayed way, most particularly Gerhard Schröder’s predecessor, Helmut Kohl. Kohl was Germany’s head of government both at the time of the fortieth (1984) and fiftieth (1994) D-Day anniversaries, and Kerres reports that, behind the scenes, he urged the French government not to invite him to attend the ceremonies, so that he would not have to refuse. Remarked Kohl, “For the German Chancellor there is no reason to celebrate at an occasion where others remember a victory in battle in which tens of thousands of Germans died.”

But now the view of D-Day in German eyes has changed, to being the first step in Germany’s liberation from a dictatorial regime. (Not that Germans generally pay much attention to June 6 or to D-Day; Stalingrad means much more to them historically.) Kiran Patel, professor of history at Berlin’s Humboldt University, estimates that things started to change this way about five years ago, but that the whole mental shift got its start with the momentous speech then-Bundespresident Richard von Weizsäcker gave before the Bundestag on May 8, 1985 – the fortieth anniversary of Germany’s surrender – in which he termed May 8, 1945 “a day of liberation.” Finally, Kerres also mentions that Germans also give short shrift to what is taken to be President Bush’s claim that D-Day shows that America is always in the right. No, says Patel, “in Europe the Americans were received as liberators, in Iraq that is not so.”


As the last of the NRC’s contributions, we have an interesting article (by Hans Steketee, brother of the Menno Steketee mentioned above) examining British attitudes towards D-Day (Germans Have the War Behind Them, Do the British?). First sentence: “You can’t say this out loud, but is it not a bit of a shame that the United Kingdom was not occupied during the Second World War?” Steketee does not (presumably) mean that he wishes that the UK had sampled a bit of the misery of Nazi occupation that the Dutch were forced to live under for four years. Rather, consider that at least the destruction of the war forced European economies to renew their infrastructure, to build it all up again, where the British to this day still use “their original Victorian railroads, that are held together with ever-newer band-aids.”

More seriously, Steketee maintains that victory in World War II, without occupation, confirmed in British eyes that they lived in “a morally superior island-state” that could go it alone in the world indefinitely. This was quite likely a mistaken impression; Western European countries on the continent, in contrast, took as their lesson from the war the necessity of banding together in organizations that could ensure such a conflict could never happen again – and that could ensure ever-increasing prosperity via the abolishing of customs duties and so the flowering of trade. The British would have been well-advised to join in this effort; of course, they eventually did, but at a rather late point, in 1973, whereas the record shows that the original EEC six would have welcomed British participation and even leadership in their joint undertaking way back in the mid-1950s.

“All well and good – but the D-Day landings, please?” I’m getting there: In addition to joining rather late, ever since that point Britain has displayed an enthusiasm for the European project that has been lukewarm at best. What’s more, that lukewarm-ness reaches its peak at certain points in the year that commemorate events from World War II that seem to have demonstrated that the UK can fight “the good fight” alone, or at least with allies that aren’t European. These are the anniversaries of the Battle of Britain (September, generally), of the “Miracle of Dunkirk” (April and May) – and of D-Day. Steketee notes that it’s particularly unfortunate that the British (not many, probably, but some) will go to the polls next Thursday to elect their representatives to the European Parliament with the D-Day ceremonies of the weekend previous no doubt putting them in such a go-it-alone mood. One indication that this could very well happen is the seeming strength ahead of those elections of the new UK Independence Party (UKIP), which advocates a “friendly” British withdrawal from the EU and is scoring remarkable public opinion poll results – up to 35% support, although some dispute the polling methodology employed.

In Steketee’s analysis, this particular confluence of events could very well mean an especially strong anti-EU vote from the UK in those EuroParliament elections. (Meaning in plain terms that the British cold send many new representatives to the European Parliament elected on the premise that they shouldn’t be there in the first place, since Britain should be out of the EU. But that’s not so strange; Danish voters, at the least, also have political parties to choose among which offer EP candidates who believe that the EU shouldn’t even exist. I’m just wondering how difficult it is, once there, to establish the usual working relationships with fellow parliamentarians who do believe that their offices are worth having.) On the other side of the political spectrum, he predicts a surge of support on the part of those Britons who do support the EU to the party which is most openly in favor of it, namely the Liberal Democrats. That leaves Tony Blair’s Labour Party abandoned in the middle. A strongly anti-European EP election result this week, coupled with the weakness of Blair and his Labour Party, also has very grave implications for the referendum on the new EU Constitution (once the politicians has decided how that should read – if they ever do) that Blair has already promised his country.


We now finally get away from the Dutch NRC Handelsblad to briefly consider D-Day coverage from the Flemish De Standaard. This coverage is extensive as well (although most of it – and therefore most of the links that I give – is accessible only with an on-line subscription) and, among others, features a thematic angle that even the NRC Handelsblad didn’t think of – the D-Day landings as inspiration for art.

Or rather, perhaps, the surprising failure of the D-Day landings to serve as inspiration for much art. The central article here is Liberation is No Muse: Why D-Day Produced No Great Art, by an unnamed Standaard editor, who notes that war and battles have traditionally been fertile inspiration for art through the ages: Hastings (it inspired a tapestry, among other things), Waterloo, the Holocaust (“war”? “battle”?) and even 9/11 and the War in Afghanistan (no mention here of Iraq). But D-Day has not done this.

Well, I don’t know: “Saving Private Ryan”? And even before that: “The Longest Day,” from 1962, a film based upon a novel by Cornelius Ryan? I didn’t pluck those examples from memory; rather, they are at the top of yet another Standaard article on this subject, this time by Marc Reynebeau. And Reynebeau concurs in dismissing these examples: “the little Art for which D-Day is a theme is often limited to memories of the suffering during that day in Normandy.” He maintains that one reason is that anyone who was actually there could not really produce art in the hellish environments of Omaha or Utah beaches (as reproduced in the opening sequences of “Saving Private Ryan”) – “that is not the best circumstances for reflection or nuanced feelings,” he writes, “much less for Art.”

You can agree or not on this dismissal by De Standaard’s writers of such art as has arisen out of the D-Day landings. But there’s still “what might have been”: Yet another article in De Standaard’s D-Day coverage is D-Day Through the Lens of Robert Capa. That legendary combat photographer was there on Omaha Beach, facing the German fire during the initial landings early in the morning of 6 June. There he produced photographs which certainly had the potential to become classic, even classic works of art – except that, as the article (ironically, once more by Marc Reynebeau) relates, the negatives were mis-handled by technicians back in the photo-lab in London, who ruined most of them. Still, a special edition of Life magazine (for which Capa was working at the time) of June 19 did manage to feature nine of his photographs, “slightly out of focus,” the magazine reported, because Capa had moved his camera while taking them. In reality, of course, it was because of the botched processing job back in the lab.

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