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 be bridged.
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 from it.
© lms 2013