In the introduction to their book D-Day in History and Memory: The Normandy Landings in International Remembrance and Commemoration, Dolski, Edwards, and Buckley cite William Hitchcock’s simple explanation of D-Day as “both a glorious chapter in military history and a human tragedy of enormous scope”.1 Regarding this human tragedy of D-Day, the civilian toll is particularly shocking. Thousands of French civilians were reduced to collateral by the Allied assault. Today, these civilian casualties are often referred to as martyrdoms—unfortunate deaths made necessary and meaningful by the context of total war against a tyrant—but the sting, for many, remains.
Kate Lemay, in her chapter “Gratitude, Trauma, and Repression: D-Day in French Memory”,2 discusses the delicate, excruciating interplay of emotion that survivors and inheritors of tragedy—specifically, the Norman French—experience because of D-Day. For the Normans of towns like Saint-Lô, Caen, and Cherbourg, where, in the assault, well over eighty percent of the buildings were destroyed and hundreds of innocent lives taken, the “landscape of war duly became a battlefield of memory invested with conflicting histories of both gratitude and resentment” (159). Liberation was horrific. Many are familiar with “Bloody Omaha” as Saving Private Ryan so vividly depicts, but few are as familiar with the bloody cataclysm visited upon the Norman people for the crimes of their German occupiers. On June 6, 1944, liberation and desolation became one.
As in “The Social Question,” chapter two of Arendt’s On Revolution,3 revolution (here, the violent assault against and overthrow of the Nazi regime in France and the rest of Europe), and Dostoevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor” (to which Arendt refers), freedom, though ideally better than subjection, is, nevertheless, a different sort of subjection, subjection to necessity, which is to say, abjection. The free person who exists entirely outside of the control of any state or governing body finds himself hard against the realities of survival. To be entirely free is to be entirely without support and protection as well. To this Arendt attributes the collapse of the French Revolution, and it is easy to extend the idea to the context of WWII. Germany, in the wake of WWI, was left abject, and so, when Hitler rose, many turned willingly to him, accepting subjection because he promised security, protection, and ultimately, greatness, a promise much better than the alternative. Similarly, the French, left abject by the Nazi war machine, accepted the subjection of the new order in order to find some stability. Vichy emerged, a puppet state, and in the North, directly under German control, many simply tried to keep their heads down and survive. The life of “freedom” that the Resistance offered was, for most, far from a viable alternative. Easier to collaborate, or even more so, abdicate responsibility and control all together.
So, when D-Day comes, and with it, wholesale destruction, how do simple people trying to live simple lives reconcile the loss of their livelihoods and loved ones with this abstract concept of “liberation?” Everywhere people must live under authority. For the most part, this authority goes unnoticed. As a Canadian, I live under the authority of the Canadian government, but most days, I give little thought to how such authority impacts my life. For the average French subject of the Nazi regime, it would have been far easier to accept authority than try to rise against it. Such ideals as patriotism, as liberté, égalité, and fraternité, as virtue, as goodness and justice, all pale in the face of starvation, of suffering, and of slaughter. Far easier to accept injustice than to starve. Far easier to collaborate than be virtuous and suffer. Far easier to betray one’s brothers, to demarcate groups of humans as lesser, to accept the yoke of slavery, than to be killed. And when people come in boats and planes and rain down fire upon everything you know and love, how do you accept their justice, their virtue, their patriotism, as good? This is D-Day for the Normans. Liberation at an enormous, unbearable cost.
For those of us on the side of the good, for myself as a Canadian steeped in war films that laud the courage and self-sacrifice of thousands upon thousands of soldiers in the War, it is easy to rationalize the cost. Though awful, it was, ultimately, necessary. But to see such sacrifice through the eyes of those caught in the middle, for those unable or unwilling to bear the weight of freedom, is to see the full horror of war as it falls upon the innocent and humble, upon those ordinary people, like you and I, who, when they wake, wish only for a good breakfast and a good day at work and the gentle warmth of the sun.
Dolski, Michael R., Sam Edwards, and John Buckley, eds. D-Day in History and Memory: The Normandy Landings in International Remembrance and Commemoration. Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2014. PDF. ↩
Lemay, Kate C. “Gratitude, Trauma, and Repression: D-Day in French Memory.” D-Day in History and Memory: The Normandy Landings in International Remembrance and Commemoration. Eds. Michael R. Dolski, Sam Edwards, and John Buckley. Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2014. 159-187. PDF. ↩
Arendt, Hannah. On Revolution. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print. ↩