The Normandy Omaha Beach and Utah Beach Memorials: A Methodological Model for the Anticommunists in Prague?
3. 1. 2023 / Muriel Blaive
(All photos Muriel Blaive)
I visited the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer and I was stricken at how easy and effective it is to present complex historical events to the wider public in a way that is both engaging and multifaceted. Contrary to the arguments often heard in Prague on the part of the self-proclaimed “anticommunists”, to admit that there was collaboration does not amount to denying that there was oppression. Only in the mind of anticommunists is the world so black and white. In real life, there was all at once collaboration and resistance, repression and compromission, measures of hatred and approval towards the regime – under both Nazism and communism, and really under any form of dictatorship anywhere.
To acknowledge collaboration does not amount to denying repression
This exhibit makes no secret of the brutality of the Nazi occupation: “The four years of occupation were long and brutal. In total more than half a million French civilians lost their lives in World War II.” But the museum’s narrative does not deny the reality of everyday collaboration on the part of the French population either, in fact it juxtaposes this complex reality all within the same panels – as it should. “For the vast majority of the French”, claims one, collaboration “was a question of survival.” However, “many were not in the resistance movement, nor active collaborators” – in other words, they were part of the vast grey zone in between. Moreover, in a very similar way as Josef Škvorecký describes it in his novel The Cowards, “Work was mandatory but we could do it without putting too much effort.” So, the historiographical effort invested into understanding people’s behavior during the Second World War in Normandy does not in any way negate the extent of the Nazi repression: it only underlines that collaboration and resistance happened at the same time.
I am recurrently accused of being a communist supporter or a denier of communist crimes for making comparable historical claims as adapted to the Czechoslovak situation under communism: yet to acknowledge that many Czechs collaborated with the StB and to try and understand their motivations does not remotely imply that communist repression did not exist, that the Warsaw Pact invasion was legitimate, or that living in a dictatorship was pleasant. The historians who are vilified because they are thought to be “revisionist” in the Czech Republic are in reality “mainstream” almost anywhere else in the Western world. What these “revisionists” do in the Czech case is only to emphasize that the communist regime could survive for four decades only thanks to the fact that a majority of people lived a life full of simultaneous micro-compromissions and micro-resistance, i.e. a spontaneous and universal tactics of everyday survival. Jan Čulík described for instance in a series of interviews for Britské listy how in 1977 he signed the anti-Charter so as not to get into trouble, yet withstood the pressure to become a StB collaborator: in short succession he “compromized himself” with the regime yet “resisted” it, in a universally human attempt to find a balance between being left in peace by the secret police and safeguarding his moral integrity.
Living under a dictatorship is never pleasant
My next collage of the memorial’s exhibits brings together several other dimensions of the occupation in Normandy, all taking place simultaneously: food was rationed and life was harsh, repression was brutal, many Frenchmen were deported to work in German factories; “most people had little choice but to accept their situation, yet many French men and women found ways to resist the occupiers, both actively and passively”; people couldn’t have lived with themselves if they had done everything which the Germans asked them to, so again, there was micro-resistance, active and passive; and finally, the country had been thoroughly humiliated by the 1940 German invasion, as seen on the lower right picture with a Nazi victory banner over the French parliament in Paris. Again, the parallels with communist Czechoslovakia are obvious and numerous: occupation and humiliation, the collaboration dilemma, shortages and queues, forced labor camps, micro-resistance, etc. We will now see how the Omaha and Utah Beach museologists dealt with this reality in their approach of the survivors.
Heroes, collaborators, victims, and the grey zone always coexist: everyday life history
Does recognizing that there was a measure of collaboration or that people were ready to accept a minimal level of collaboration in order to survive imply that there was no heroism simultaneously involved in the story either? Again, not at all. Adequate tribute is paid to the French resistance, despite its numerical weakness, as well as to the American military sacrifice. It is nearly impossible not to be moved in the truly beautiful cemetery of Omaha Beach by the dignity of the tribute paid to the American, British, and Canadian soldiers who lost their lives in Operation Overlord. If the casual visitor remained unconvinced, the immense popularity of the American military in this part of Normandy, the numerous streets bearing the names of American heroes, and the multiplicity of American flags in every village cannot leave any doubt as to where French loyalties and gratitude lay.
Yet simultaneously the history of everyday life presented in these museums includes the extraordinary story of ordinary French and the way they experienced the Nazi occupation in Normandy. The story can thus acquire a much more complex dimension. Several people testify in the neighboring Utah Beach D-Day Landing Museum, for instance Louis Huet, 16 years of age in 1940: “Ask anybody what they think of the occupation. They’ll tell you ‘Yes, we were occupied, but we weren’t bothered all the time.’ People continued to work, to milk their cows in the field.”
To provoke this kind of undramatic, depoliticized answer is of course not neutral. It is the exact opposite historical methodology compared to what Paměť národa practices: the way people are interviewed in the Czech documentation about life under communism is explicitly designed to document a pre-existing thesis about how survivors of the period are “heroes of the nation” in their own right because such an approach cannot depict the popular experience of communism in any other way as tragic. Yet what is interesting is that the ordinary French interviewed here could have just as easily been turned into “heroes”, too, by eliciting appropriate victimized answers thanks to questions such as “Tell us how you suffered under the German occupation”, or “How scared were you by the Gestapo.” Instead, they were led to restitute the ordinariness of their experience or even the humanity of some of the German occupying troops, as told for instance by Geneviève Cousin, who was six years old in 1940: “This man has stayed in my memory. This German, I remember, had white hair. He came after curfew – I don’t know what you call that –, and he would bring us bread, clumps of white bread. He admitted he cried as well. It happened sometimes, with us. He would take my little brother on his knees and say: ‘I have children, too. I’d like to go back.’ One day he disappeared and we never saw him again.”
This is quite a different angle compared to the usual demonizing of the enemy and yet, crucially, it is no less historically true. The point here is that the witnesses’ answers all depend on the way we ask the questions. There is no such thing as “pure history”, a univocal “historical truth.” History is what historians make of it, and their design is never devoid of political intentions and political implications. Because historians can elicit to a large extent the contents of the answers they receive, their only way to be objective is to make explicit their own approach, their own angle, their own subjectivity. This is why historical methodology is a crucial field, and this is why the current leadership at the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, and generally the group of people who calls themselves anticommunists, are not only bad historians, but really no historians at all. To pretend to express “the historical truth” comes in utter contradiction to a genuine professional historical practice. Only someone who is not a (good) historian can believe in as flawed a concept as “historical truth.”
The microhistorical approach: from person to person
The historical narrative in these numerous Normandy museums and memorials focuses on the expected wide, political historical angle we are used to in schoolbooks (description of the battles, the weapons, the commanders, etc.) but it also leaves room to personalized history, i.e. to a micro-historical approach that tells the story of individuals. These individuals here were not necessarily chosen to illustrate heroic acts, not because these soldiers don’t deserve their share of glory but because the ugliness of war is actually better documented by reminding the anticlimactic fate of young soldiers who died in the first hours of the landing, see the case of First Lieutenant Jimmie Monteith:
PLOT I ROW 20 GRAVE 12
US ARMY 1ST INFANTRY DIVISION
During the Omaha landings, First Lieutenant Jimmie Monteith rallied his men in the face of withering fire and led them in a daring assault across the open beach. He then personally guided tanks through minefields to reduce enemy strong points. Despite fierce counter-attacks, he inspired his men to capture critical high ground and unhinge the enemy defenses. Monteith was killed in the fighting and received a posthumous Medal of Honor for his courage and leadership.
Of course heroes in the classical sense are also celebrated, for instance the son of former American President Theodore Roosevelt in the neighboring Utah Beach D-Day Landing Museum:
Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the son of President Theodore Roosevelt and distant cousin of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, leaves a lasting legacy at Utah Beach. Despite a heart condition and arthritis that forces him to walk with a cane he enthusiastically volunteers to land at the head of his troops with the first wave of the invasion, as he has done in previous landings in North Africa and Sicily. After his first request is denied, Roosevelt officially submits the request in writing, and General Barton cannot refuse.
On June 6, 1944, in a display of exceptional energy and courage, Theodore Roosevelt Jr. braves continuous German fire, running between groups of soldiers to galvanize his troops, encouraging them to move towards the front and safely off the beach.
On July 12, at the age of 57, he dies of a heart attack as the battle of Normandy rages. He is posthumously decorated with the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest American military award. At his request, he is buried next to his brother Quentin, killed during aerial combat in 1918. He is surrounded by his men at the American Military Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer and buried in Block D, Row 28, grave 46.
Yet again, the French victims of Allied bombings are also not forgotten. To speak of their unfortunate fate does not diminish the American heroic sacrifice, nor does it reduce the gratefulness of the Normandy population. What it does is to give these victims a memory, it allows them not to be forgotten and thereby to take their place in history. To remind one side’s mistakes or shortcomings is not a way to diminish one own’s merit but on the contrary to make it more universal. In other words, to be more inclusive is not disparaging one’s narrative but makes it more powerful: empathy pays off. At the Utah Beach D-Day Landing Museum, the fate of the 15,000 civilians who were killed during the liberation of Normandy is hence reminded:
FOLLOWING THE INITIAL WAVE OF RELIEF WITH THE ARRIVAL OF THE FIRST AMERICAN SOLDIERS ON JUNE 6, THE CIVILIAN POPULATION IN THE COTENTIN WILL SUFFER GREATLY DURING THE BATTLE OF THE HEDGEROWS.
On D-Day about 100 civilians are killed, wounded, or missing in the villages touched by fighting. But these losses are relatively small compared to the toll in the following days.
The local population is caught in the middle of a massive battle where each hedgerow, field, and road is ferociously fought over. An American military priority is to delay the arrival of German reinforcements, so Allied bombers target crossroads and rail yards, causing substantial damage to towns sch as Saint- Lô, Montebourg, la Haye-du-Puits, Lessay, Pont l'Abbé, and Valognes.
In all of Normandy, the department of La Manche is the most heavily affected. More than half of the municipalities suffer damage. Out of a population of 438,000, nearly 15,000 are killed and tens of thousands are wounded. Nearly 137,000 persons are left homeless, amounting to 34,000 families.
If we apply this American example to the Mašín brothers, for instance, we can see that if the latter had expressed regret and sorrow for having killed several people in their otherwise legitimate endeavor to leave communist Czechoslovakia, their story would not be weaker but stronger – they would come out of the exercise as characters who have the moral stamina to apologize rather than as characters who hide their personal failures behind a discourse of hate. They would be more respectable, not less.
The acknowledge the humanity of the enemy is not to legitimize what the enemy did
In Normandy, crucially, the former enemy is not forgotten: the Germans also incurred heavy losses, and to recognize their tragedy does not, yet again, diminish in any way the American sacrifice. Quite the contrary: the nearby German cemetery of La Cambe celebrates the German soldiers who lost their lives during D Day and its aftermath. It is as dignified and moving as the Allied cemeteries in its vicinity, and the public is as numerous and respectful as in all the other memorials. When such projects will be able to take place in the Czech Republic, too, be it about the occupying German troops in World War II, the Sudeten Germans, or the communists, we will note real progress.
The German Cemetery
Conclusion: history is a constructed narrative that is never devoid of political implications
To pay tribute to the losses of the former enemy does not relativize in any way the price paid by the Americans, Brits, Canadians, and Free French Forces: on the contrary it elevates it. Crucially, it permits reconciliation, i.e. the building of a better future on the ruins of this tragic past. Reconciliation is indeed the master narrative of these Allied and German monuments in Normandy. Reconciliation is their political intent, a political intent which is incompressible in any historical narrative. Reconciliation means that only by recognizing the fact that all parties in the war experienced tragedy is it possible to build a respectful relationship. This does not mean that Nazism is excusable or excused in any way: instead, the main and most desirable result of this narrative of reconciliation has been to allow a nation of former perpetrators to move forward and become a very different people compared to their Nazi forefathers, one which faced its own past, one its former enemies can now be friends with.
If we translate this process into the Czech context, reconciliation and the building of a better common future, by contrast, is quite clearly a potential political project that the Prague anticommunists are taking great pain to botch. To hold on to a divisive narrative is a short-term calculation that might bring them a relative politicking benefit, but the refusal to endorse any form of reconciliation prevents the country from turning the page of the communist past. It tears the nation’s political fabric and hampers the development of its democracy. It is self-serving and selfish.
It is also a long-term miscalculation. The numerous D-Day memorials and museums in Normandy also serve to show that a museum does not need to be presented in a dramatic way to convey the drama of the historical events it purports to present. These museums do not assault the senses of their visitors by playing deafening music, blinding them, or trapping them in an excruciating slow lift to forcefully expose them to the horrors of Nazi or communist oppression, as the Warsaw Rising Museum or the Budapest Terror House do. And yet, refraining from grossly manipulating emotions actually pays off: the museum patrons are impressed by a quiet sense of dignity that is often sorely missing in the anticommunist museal endeavors of Central Europe.
Most importantly in the frame of the debate on the communist past that is taking place in the Czech Republic today, the lesson of these memorials is that a narrative that purposely ignores certain categories of the population and their everyday life is none the stronger or more convincing for it. To pretend that the people were not faced with unpleasant choices in their everyday lives does not turn them into victims, and victims only. The refusal of the anticommunist narrative to face the inherent contradictions of human life experiences does not only make for very poor historiography: it deprives this narrative of the dignity that can only be reached after overcoming the obstacles life places in each and everyone’s way. The American sacrifice in Normandy is all the more moving that it is acknowledged to have come at great cost: many American soldiers died for (almost) nothing as they were killed in the first minutes; many German soldiers died for a war they did not wish for and their memory deserves recognition, too; many French died at the hands of their liberators while being unwittingly caught in the crossfire; the French had to make do with the German occupation in ways that were not only glorious.
The slow maturing of the French narrative on the Second World War shows that the whole attempt to turn an inglorious history, the history of a dictatorship, into a glorious one thanks to its alleged grounding in pure sacrifice is not only clumsy and doomed to fail: it is counterproductive. Genuine heroism becomes invisible if it is purporting to be everywhere and is not being presented in contrast to a more realistic murky background. As seen above, acts such as those carried out by the Mašín brothers are blown out of proportion in their desperate attempt to represent “genuine” heroism. On the Normandy model we can imagine a different narrative, one that would have gone more or less as follows: “It was very difficult to do anything against the Czechoslovak communist regime; the Mašín brothers tried, but with terrible consequences, and they remained remorseful until their deaths. This shows how hopeless any opposition was, which gives us by contrast an even better idea of the ordeal endured by the dissidents.” This is an example of a much more constructive way to present history. It is worth repeating: history is nothing more than a narrative and the expression of a political intent. History can change for the better and serve the nation instead of serving politicians.