2014 is going to be a big year for looking back. It will be
the anniversary not only of the end of the First World War, but also of the
1944 D-Day Landings.
Now, quite apart from the sombre nature of these occasions,
there are practicalities to be considered: or, to put it another way, there’s
cash to be earned, on both sides of the Channel. There will be many, many people
who want to come and see where they, or their fathers, brothers, or uncles were,
at the time. They will be there to commemorate the lost, and the disasters, even
while they celebrate survival and ultimate victory.
War has a particular reverberation among the French that the
English can never understand. As we have
never been occupied (or at least, not since 1066), we can’t possibly comprehend
the emotions involved. Regularly there are stories in the paper about former Resistance
people – ordinary, extraordinary, men and women - who will never, ever talk
about their experiences, because they took an oath of silence 70 years ago and
will not break it. The memories live on behind the eyes of those who saw too
much, when they were very young, to forget now that they are old.
All over France there are plaques to those who were shot against
church walls or in village squares: the tiny human scale of warfare. There is
Oradour, the village that died one day, and stands as it was left, cars in the
streets, bicycles upturned, plates on the tables. Only the people are gone.
But here we are, looking forwards to 2014; and in Normandy,
a group of six tourism offices in a sector dominated by the Right, wanted to
band together and claim the Normandy Landings as their own. They would have a
sort of theme park monopoly on the celebrations, based around Utah, Omaha, Gold
and Juno beaches.
Unfortunately their plan omitted Sword Beach, where the only
French party of 6th June landed, and Pegasus Bridge, which falls
under the aegis of the Left; they were
going to be quietly set to one side, because current political divisions couldn’t
I was thinking about all this a few weeks ago, as we
travelled back through Normandy. It’s a
green and rolling country, famous for apple orchards and dairy cows, cider and
Camembert. It struck me how very French the architecture of the towns is, and how
strange it must have looked to those young men disembarking for the first time.
Amidst the war-torn ruins that lay
before them were people going about their business as best they could, working
land already ravaged by so many other battles going back for millennia – the Romans,
the Vikings, the English, who all came here armed to the teeth and ready to
grab what they could, or defend what they had.
The question of the D-Day Landings theme park was settled
from on high, when the regional politicos would only squabble over their share
of the spoils. Some see this as an imposition upon their rights as locals,
others as the only way forward.
Yes, there are practicalities to be considered, and hundreds
of thousands of visitors to be housed and entertained and fed: but if we want
to commemorate something so tragic, violent, miserable, heroic, victorious,
look into the eyes of the people who were there, of all nations.We can’t own that, or package it, or sell it.
Honour it; and be very, very glad that it wasn’t ours to deal with, and to live
with and to remember until we die.
Normandy is beautiful; it should be seen, and visited, and
enjoyed. Let’s not squabble over rights to the past – let’s get on and learn