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When war becomes a myth

It is the 80th anniversary of the Allied landing in Normandy. 80 years in which memories have changed. The renowned historian Leleu warns against a “simplification” of the war.

Stefanie Markert

Jean-Luc Leleu, in his early 50s, conducts research in Normandy at the University of Caen and has written standard works such as “1944 – The Wehrmacht in the face of the landing” and “Le débarquement – from event to epic”.

For him, the Allied landing in Normandy represents “a very important operation” of the Second World War, “like the Battle of Normandy.” “But it was not decisive. Nazi Germany lost the war essentially in the East,” Leleu emphasizes.

By the time of the landings, there had been more than two million German war casualties – more than 80 percent of them on the Eastern Front. It was no different in the second half of 1944: the Germans recorded about two thirds of their losses in the East.

“But the operations in Normandy were crucial for the division of the zones of influence among the victorious powers. This made the real liberation of the western half of the continent possible,” Leleu stressed. It was different “to be liberated by the Anglo-Americans than by the Red Army.”

Remembering civilian victims of the landing

This year, for the first time, the approximately 20,000 civilian victims of the landings are officially commemorated. More than a third of all civilians killed in France during World War II died in Normandy – most of them as a result of Allied attacks. They bombed their way through to cut off German supply routes.

But just a few years after the war, no one was talking about it anymore. It was only in the 1990s that the question of the legitimacy of these bombings came up again, Leleu continues:

The commander in chief, General Eisenhower, wanted to make the landing a success and relied on his trump card – the aircraft. The calculation: the price in lives was justified. So the landing deliberately targeted Norman settlements in order to block the German convoys with ruins. The civilians were sacrificed to this strategy.

Myths – created for the screen

Many did not believe they were in danger and did not find the warning leaflets. The Memorial Museum in Caen shows documentaries about the harshness of the fighting and exhibits a wedding dress made of parachute fabric. Everyday life hanging by a thread. But how do facts become myths?

“Historians are in competition with the media – especially the Hollywood film industry, in which the Pentagon also intervenes,” explains Leleu. The film industry has “forged myths that are now firmly anchored.” The author cites films such as “The Longest Day” or “Saving Private Ryan” about US heroes as examples. “This has led to an Americanization of memory,” says Leleu.

The victor writes history? That's also a myth – the US Army had the defeated write their accounts after the war, interviewed prisoners of war and ordered memoirs. The bestseller “D-Day” by the British author Antony Beevor is also based on these sources.

Commemoration in the shadow of the Ukraine war

Myths are difficult to combat, especially when you are at a crossroads – with almost no contemporary witnesses, says historian Leleu. You move from history, which you cannot change, to memory. But perception interacts with current events.

In 2024, the commemoration will take place in the shadow of the Ukraine war. Leleu recalls the year 2004, when Russian President Vladimir Putin took part in the celebrations commemorating the landing in Normandy:

People wanted to build a common Europe. War seemed to be averted. An illusion. I think that the speeches on June 6 will focus on values ​​such as peace and democracy.

“The main lesson is to make us think”

Russia is not invited this time, but Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is.

Germany, says Leleu, has an equal place. The memorial stands above a German command bunker. But this conflict must never be “normalized,” warns Leleu. Behind the bunkers of the Atlantic Wall stood the watchtowers of Auschwitz. Leleu warns:

There is always the risk of enclosing events like in a snow globe that you turn over every ten years because that's nice – without drawing conclusions. But the main lesson of the landing is to make us think. What price do you have to pay for freedom and democracy? And sometimes you just have to get involved!

Allied soldiers land on "Omaha Beach" in Normandy (France) on June 6, 1944

What is D-Day?

In Anglo-Saxon military usage, the term D-Day basically refers to a day on which a military operation is to begin, the date of which has either not yet been determined or is to remain secret. It was first used by the US Army in World War I. The exact meaning of the “D” is disputed. D-Day is supplemented by the term H-Hour, which stands for the hour at which the operation begins.

In common parlance, D-Day is primarily associated with the landing of Allied troops in Normandy during the Second World War. From June 5th to 6th, 1944, the Allies crossed the English Channel with a large number of soldiers, ships and aircraft and opened another front against the German troops in western France. The attack on the surprised Wehrmacht is considered one of the key events in the liberation of Europe from Nazi rule.

Culture of remembrance as a source of income

Leleu is a scientific advisor for France's application to have the five Normandy landing beaches listed as World Heritage Sites. The people in the region are taking part in the commemoration with passion, and it already has a festive character.

But this is how the violence of war is forgotten, observes the expert. The places are competing with each other. With up to six million visitors a year, a good third of the “tourisme de mémoire” – “remembrance tourism” – in France is in Normandy. Leleu believes that Normandy is industrializing this type of tourism. Its museums are in the top ten most visited memorial sites, alongside Verdun and the Invalides.

All the more painful for Leleu that Caen is planning a kind of D-Day land. The area has already been purchased. The project is called “Normandy Memory” and is intended to depict the Battle of Normandy in a very brief and concise manner.

“In a 45-minute spectacle, history is to be conveyed to a young audience in a clichéd way using light, sounds, acting, an amphitheater with ruins, tracks and so on,” says Leleu. “Normandie Memory” is expected to attract 600,000 visitors per year, while the Memorial attracts around 450,000, according to Leleu.

For researchers and teachers, says Jean-Luc Leleu, this simplification is a problem. The war does not only consist of the happy hours of liberation. “There is a black hole in the memory surrounding the defeat in 1940. Why do we remember the landing in 1944 so much? Also to forget 1940,” warns Leleu, raising the question: “How could a country that appeared to be the greatest military power in 1939 collapse in six weeks? A democracy can be defeated and that raises questions for the present and the future.”

Stefanie Markert, ARD Paris, tagesschau, 06.06.2024 09:33 a.m.

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