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75 Years Later, France to Allies: ‘Merci’

June 6th, 2019 · No Comments · France, Germany, Paris

Seventy-five years ago today, 150,000 American, British and Canadian troops landed in France to begin the reclamation of Europe and especially France from Nazi Germany.

Recalling D-Day, as June 6, 1944 is known in the U.S., has been a very big thing this week, here in France, and I am more than a little surprised.

France is a proud country with a long history of martial prowess, but World War II had seen French forces almost immediately fall to pieces in the face of a German invasion in 1940. A bit more than four years later, Yanks, Brits and Canucks were dropped into northwest France by parachute, or stormed the beaches from landing craft.

It was the beginning of the end of World War II, the outcome of which has led to seven decades of almost uninterrupted peace in Europe. But the French had not always seemed enthusiastic about conceding they were rescued from occupation by the Yanks, Brits and Canucks.

I have been around long enough to remember watching, on U.S. television in 1964, a special report entitled “D-Day: Plus 20 Years”, and as various recollections of the events of June 6 have rolled around, since, France has not always seemed keen to celebrate. Perhaps because the French in 1944 so clearly could not free themselves.

But this time … I sense a new, perhaps unprecedented French willingness to look back at a time when the country waited for the Allies to come to their succor.

This willingness has been obvious on French television, where the French president Emmanuel Macron, could be seen in the midst of celebrations in England and Normandy, the site of the invasion. Those celebrations included the British prime minister Theresa May and the U.S. president Donald Trump, as well as thousands of tourists keen to be part of the celebration — including hundreds of men who represent the final survivors of the generation that liberated France and the rest of Western Europe.In the decades following World War II, France seemed preoccupied with stressing the roles of “the resistance” inside the country and talking up its (minor) role in defeating Germany on the battlefield, as represented by the Free French units under the command of the nationalist leader Charles de Gaulle.

In the first decades after the war, De Gaulle, who became the French president, preferred to contribute or even champion a selective amnesia among the French, in which — in retrospect, if not in fact — every Frenchman was part of the resistance, the role of the collaborationist French Vichy government was overlooked and Free French military formations had been a significant part of the Allied victory in the West.

It all was fanciful. The late John Keegan, perhaps the greatest military historian of the 20th century, noted that the French resistance staged almost no significant attacks on France’s German overlords until the final weeks of the war, and he estimates as few as 6,500 Germans oversaw the policing of the whole of France, with the help of local French officials.

De Gaulle was keen to have a French armored division lead the liberation of Paris, but it was the Americans and British who did almost all of the heavy lifting in the drive from D-Day to Victory in Europe Day on May 8, 1945.

Looking back, it is understandable that France, collectively, did not want to see itself as generally inert under ruthless Nazi domination, and its fighting forces dismissed as an irrelevant sideshow in ousting the Germans from France.

(Americans, meanwhile, sometimes forget — or never knew — that the formation of the United States owed much to French ground and naval forces coming to the aid of the rebels, especially in the events that led to the decisive Revolutionary War victory at Yorktown.)

Eventually, French media and culture came to terms with France’s underwhelming role in beating down Nazi Germany. Maybe 75 years represents enough of a gap that the reality can finally be accepted — at least by those who have no personal memory of the war.

The French now seem more interested in celebrating D-Day than do those who actually led and fought it, which would be mostly the Yanks and Brits.

It has been one big lovefest this week between France and its allies from the United States and the United Kingdom — three of the world’s great democracies, reflecting on a time when they worked together to face down totalitarian threats, from Hitler and the Nazis right on through the collapse of Soviet Russia.

The specifics of France from 1940 to D-Day … let’s agree it was not France’s best moment, and move on. The French seem to have, even if it took a while.



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