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D-Day, Protecting Europe from Its Demons

D-Day, Protecting Europe from Its Demons
 Dominique Moïsi
Distinguished Senior fellow

The commemorations on the 5th and 6th of June celebrating the 75th anniversary of WWII landings took on a particular symbolic dimension. Could it be that they put on hold the differences of opinion between countries, once allies, but now more suspicious of each other? Dominique Moïsi gives his analysis of this important event for Europe and the United States, commemorating an important date which let Europe liberate itself from its demons. Interview.

What does the memory of the landings represent on both sides of the Atlantic? What made this 75th anniversary so special?

These commemorations were particularly moving for a strong reason: it was probably one of the last times that so many veterans could be seen together (more than 300!). How many will be left when we celebrate the 80th anniversary of D-Day landings in five years? The 5th and 6th of June were marked by a feeling of wonder over what could be the "last time". Emmanuel Macron understood this well, by addressing Léon Gautier, one of the 177 Frenchmen who took part in this landing. Over time, these veterans have become icons: we want to touch them, surround them, and thank them for what they have done. Their embodiment of our memory is essential, and raises the question of what will remain of it, while, as they die, it grows more and more evanescent.

The 5th and 6th of June were marked by a feeling of wonder over what could be the "last time".

This raises another question: is the event of equal importance on the other side of the Atlantic? Does it matter to the entire American population, especially to the younger generations? Does it make sense for individuals who did not have a parent, grandparent or great-uncle who landed, and who did not inherit this piece of history and memory? Isn’t there a risk of that memory being erased, or even misunderstood in the face of seemingly unjustified deaths? Do the Americans wonder about the reason they intervene in Europe? Did Europe really give it back to them? 

Oblivion and distance may seem inevitable. While the presence of veterans slows this process down, it is nevertheless accelerated by the commercial and geopolitical conflicts of our time.

How did you perceive the different speeches that marked this day? What are the highlights and strong messages?

The European message, as well as the British press and some British personalities, echoed Churchill's words "There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them"

While Donald Trump declared his love for the United Kingdom, and stressed that the relationship between London and Washington was fundamental to him, London replied that this bond should also extend to NATO, since solidarity between States must be expressed through this organization. In this respect, the English speech desired to stress that bilateralism can no longer be favoured over multilateralism in a world marked by the rise of China and Russia. In other words: the bilateral American-British relationship is no longer enough.

Emmanuel Macron also went in the direction of denouncing the American temptation for unilateralism, and developed on the idea that "America is never as great as when it fights for the freedom of others" (and, implicitly, "not in the name of its own interests"). This is a clear denunciation of a state’s "sacred selfishness" and exclusive nationalism. 

In other words: the bilateral American-British relationship is no longer enough.

In my opinion, there were two strong messages

  • In the real world, we need allies. If America was great 75 years ago, it was because of the British who stood by it in June 1940, the Canadians who participated in the landings, the Australians, and the French resistance fighters. This greatness is the result of the Allied’s combined efforts. Commemorating the landing in 2019 is different from celebrating its 50th anniversary in 1994: today, we are not reminding ourselves of the possibility of war and the need for alliance; we are almost warned against it. 
  • No one should mess with freedom and democracy. Emmanuel Macron somewhat used the commemoration as a way of warning against populisms, as a form of populism led Europe into WWII.  Wouldn't it be betraying the veterans to allow evil to return to Europe? Did thousands died in vain in June 1944? One of the great lessons of this historical episode is an invitation to admit that all these men would probably not have had to sacrifice themselves if Adolf Hitler's rise to power had been prevented. 

Finally, I find it useful to highlight the symbolic weight of those 177 Frenchmen who took part in the military operation. 177, it is of course not much compared to the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who arrived on our coasts, but they embodied the best of France and the values for which they were ready to die. I would therefore like to summarize the commemorations as follows: they have shown the value of alliance and the importance of values.

Some were present... and some others were absent. How do you analyze the chosen list of invited countries?

Let's start with those who were present. Angela Merkel's presence in Portsmouth on June 5 was, again, a beautiful symbol. Since the 1980s and the presidency of Richard von Weizsäcker, Germany has developed a speech according to which June 6, 1944 was also the day of liberation for the country. The landing is seen as the trigger for a process that allowed Germany’s liberation from Nazism. 

About those who have not been invited, we hear a lot about how Vladimir Putin's absence is regrettable. I consider this criticism unjustified, because the veterans were to be honoured, and there were no Russians on our beaches, and therefore no Russian veterans. The present must obviously not seize the past and steal it: Russian sacrifice during this world conflict exists and is always celebrated and honoured. But it is also important that the past does not distort the present: we honoured the fighters of June 5 and 6, 1944, and, among them, Germans. Let us appreciate the beauty of the European construction that, out of once enemy peoples, made brothers and allies so unwavering that they can tell: "By landing, you have freed us from our demons".


Copyright : MANDEL NGAN / AFP

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