Seventy-five years ago today, almost 160,000 troops from the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States — including smaller contingents from Australia, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, Greece, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Poland — invaded Nazi-occupied Europe on the beaches of Normandy. Over the next three months of fighting, 209,000 Allied troops would die before the Nazis were pushed back across the Seine.
June 6, 1944 — D-Day — should never be forgotten. It was a time when the countries of the world came together to combat bigotry, racism, and hatred. Many men and women made the ultimate sacrifice in that fight.
To be in Britain for the 75th anniversary is a reminder of our better natures. We began to see the remembrances of the anniversary as we stepped off the bus in the small Cotswald village of Chipping Campden last week. There, in the center of this beautiful High Street, was a small World War I memorial covered with poppies, the now almost-universal symbol of remembrance for those killed in war.
This week, we are staying with friends in Hampshire where American troops camped in preparation for the invasion. We enjoyed an evening of dining and opera at The Grange, a historic estate where on March 24, 1944, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and General Dwight Eisenhower met in the Picture Gallery (our venue for dinner) to discuss the invasion of Europe. Places here stand as living memorials to that fateful day.
The English lost an entire generation of young men in World War I. English cities were bombed night-after-night in 1940 and 1941 during the German campaign known as The Blitz in World War II. Their memories of the price of war and the price of the fight against hatred and bigotry remains closer to the surface than in the U.S., where our World War I memorials are sometimes forgotten or threatened with demolition and where so-called leaders wish the troops a “Happy Memorial Day” without understanding the gravity of the sacrifice we are honoring.
Michele Heller, whose father served at D-Day, has an op-ed in today’s Washington Post to help Americans remember what our parents generation was fighting against and how that contrasts with our current amnesia over the importance of leadership. She ends her remembrance of her father — a Jew who escaped Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and eventually found safety in the United States, only to enlist two years later in the U.S. Army “to fight, as many immigrants still do, for their adopted country” — with the following:
“They all were war heroes — the captured, the killed, the wounded, the mentally maimed, the lucky survivors such as my dad — because of circumstance, not desire. They went to war because of what happened when xenophobia and demagoguery supplanted real leadership.”
Even with all their current troubles, the English clearly remember the sacrifice, and they keep that remembrance front and center. The U.K.’s primary day of remembrance for their war dead remains November 11th, when the armistice ending World War I was signed and went into effect on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918. This year, however, the countryside was filled with special honors and memorials in June, just in time for the 75th anniversary of one of the bloodiest days in history.
Memorials are about memory, which is an essential part of consciousness. Individual and collective memories, connecting over a continuum of time to create community and national identity, are at the heart of why we save old places — why old places matter.
Diane Barthel, writing in Historic Preservation: Collective Memory and Historical Identity, speaks about places where moments in personal history “become part of the flow of collective history. This collective history transcends individual experiences and lifetimes” and are very much tied to place.
The beaches and fields of Normandy certainly stand as reminders of what those who came before sacrificed for future generations. A simple memorial in the middle of a historic, thriving Cotswold High Street helps bring our individual and collective memories together. It helps us understand the price required to push back against bigotry, racism, and hatred.
With thanks for the sacrifice made by the men and women on D-Day. May we never forget, and may we be forever vigilant in fighting leaders who spawn hatred rather than condemn it.
More to come…