Inside the Capitol

Friday, June 04, 2004

D-Day at 60

SANTA FE - June 6 marks the 60th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy. This observance is special for at least two reasons. It is the last decennial commemoration at which significant numbers of veterans of that invasion will be present.
And it is special because it is the first time a German chancellor will join the leaders of the wartime Allies for D-Day commemorations in France. President Bush, Prime Minister Tony Blair of England, President Jacques Chirac of France and leaders of other Allied nations will be joined this year by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany in a ceremony that will lean heavily toward reconciliation.
It is a sign that Europe is moving on and that Germany is being treated as a normal nation again. For 60 years, bad feelings have flared often. It has been hard for many to put aside the atrocities of Hitler's war machine. Ten years ago, Chancellor Helmut Kohl took offense at the Allied power's refusal to invite him to the 50th anniversary of D-Day even though he had strongly promoted French-German reconciliation.
For all these years, the fact that Germany started the war made it difficult to mourn German war dead or seek justice for ethnic Germans kicked out of eastern Europe at the end of the war. And of course, Germans could hardly decry the destruction of their cities by Allied bombing without being reminded that the bombing of cities was begun by Hitler.
While traveling through Germany last November, I was struck by how sensitive Germans felt about any display of patriotism for fear they would appear to their neighbors and to Americans as militaristic. They also wanted to explain that although the rest of the world still can't understand how a civilized people could let their leaders do the things they did, it seemed a logical progression of events at the time.
First Germans were led to fear the communists, then the Jews, gypsies and gays. When these people were rounded up and sent to Nazi prison camps, Germans were told it was because they were criminals and security risks. It was something the United States did during the war when we sent residents of German, Japanese and Italian descent to camps for the duration of the war.
Of course, we didn't kill six million of them. The Germans I spoke with said they didn't ask what was going on in the camps because the country was at war and it was a matter of national security.
By the time Armistice Day arrived on Nov. 11, we were in Belgium and enjoying the parades, speeches and decorations. American flags were everywhere and the famous Mannekin Pis statue in Brussels was outfitted in an American Legion uniform. I asked our German guide what was going on in Germany that day and was told it was just another day.
The lessons of the World Wars have created a deep streak of pacifism among most Germans, just as it has among the Japanese. It has made Germany one of the most outspoken opponents of the war in Iraq. Schroeder says Germans understand that dictators need to be dealt with, but they also know what bombing, destruction and the loss of one's home mean for people. He says Germany owes it to history to stress the alternatives to war.
With Memorial Day, Flag Day and the 4th of July occurring within a five week period, D-Day doesn't get much of an observance, except on TV specials. But it is an important day, marking the beginning of the end of World War II. It doesn't get much recognition in England either.
Two years ago, we returned from a cruise to Dover on June 6. The bus driver told us that on a clear day we might be able to see Normandy, but I had to remind him what was going on that day 58 years earlier.
Gen. Eisenhower knew what a huge gamble the invasion was. The tides had to be just right and the weather wasn't cooperating. The night before the invasion he wrote a press release announcing the calamity and taking full responsibility for the disaster. Fortunately he didn't have to issue that grim apology. But it was nice to know we had a leader with the strength of character to shoulder responsibility rather than explain that mistakes were made.


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