WWII memorial and museum at Caen

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Our group spent Tuesday and Wednesday this week in an encounter with the beaches of Normandy and the long shadow cast by the events of June 1944–the D-Day landing and invasion of France. We began with the American Military Cemetery on the bluff overlooking Omaha Beach. Simple white markers identify the graves of nearly 10,000 men lost during the invasion and subsequent offensive. Most striking to me was that as you make your way through the manicured lawn away from the memorial, the vast sea of markers are oriented to the west, away from visitors. It’s as if this lost generation of young men has turned away from the living. The desire is to constantly turn back toward them in a hopeless effort to miss none of their names. Seeing their names, rank, company, date of death, and home state inscribed on each marble marked is staggering. The soundscape also made an impression: the waves below the bluff, the wind through the pine trees, and the birdsong unite to create an impression of peace in stark contrast to the day of the invasion just over 70 years ago. During our visit two F-16 fighters flew over the cemetery, coming in low and gently rocking back and forth, the sound catching up with them a few moments after they were gone. But it is the names of the dead that command your attention as you walk back toward the memorial.

Following the cemetery we headed to Arromanches where the allies fabricated a temporary dock, first envisioned by Winston Churchill, designed to offload tanks, troops, and supplies to fuel the liberation of France and the offensive toward Berlin. Remains of the once massive concrete and steel construction can still be seen offshore. Also in evidence in the towns in Normandy are numerous flags and signs hailing the liberators–reminders of the recent D-Day anniversary. A capstone to our D-Day history lesson was a visit to the World War II memorial and museum in Caen. This museum included an extensive exhibit that explored the events leading up to Germany’s invasion of France in 1940 and the entire history of the conflict. The French perspective was interesting, since we rarely consider the battles that ensued, the roving French government, and efforts at resistance. Little known are the concentration camps established in France–some of these before the war–to intern refugees from the Spanish Civil War and French Communist Party members, like those at Gurs or Vernet. These camps swelled after 1940 with anti-Nazis, Jews, and others.

I do take umbrage with one statement in the Caen memorial exhibit: that Adolf Hitler had legally come to power in Germany. The events leading up to Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor of Germany at the outset of 1933 were the result of more than a decade of fear mongering, bullying, intimidation, killing, and payoffs (including those to Paul von Hindenberg, President of the Weimar Republic), which characterize the Third Reich. Hitler’s unsuccessful attempt to seize control of the government in Munich in the early 1920s, the so-called Beer Hall Putsch, to the Reichstag Fire Decree, which gave him total control of the government could only be imagined legal in some bizarre mirror universe. Payoffs continued throughout the regime, often to secure loyalty of high ranking military officers.

The film at the Caen memorial, however, demonstrated without a word that the soldiers fighting on both sides on June 6, 1944 had much in common– their youth, for one, as well as lives scarred by war or cut short altogether. The world was robbed of their existence and that of countless generations of children and grandchildren that never were. If you visit the American Cemetery study the names. Can their sacrifice teach us how to avoid conflicts today?

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Hawker fighter plane in the Caen memorial.

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International flags at the Caen memorial.

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Steel piers called “whales” were components in the temporary harbor created at Arromanches.

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The Piette group in front of the Caen memorial.

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Piette group members join the French marines…for a photo.

One thought on “WWII memorial and museum at Caen

  1. On the matter of Hitler coming to power legally, here is a reference to consider:
    “Hitler now announced his second nationwide plebiscite, this one on his assumption of dictatorial rule. …. On August 19, 1934, after a week of massive Nazi rallies, torchlight parades, and storm troopers marching through neighborhoods roaring, “Wir wollen das Gesetz — sonst Mord und Totschlag!” (“We want power — otherwise death and destruction!”), the plebiscite was held. Over 42.5 million Germans went to the polls — 95 percent of those registered — and 38 million, nine out of every ten, voted ja.”
    Excerpt From: William Manchester. “The Last Lion 02 – Winston Churchill – Alone, 1932-1940.”

    Hitler came to power legally according to German law. (When I first read this I went through the house in a rage looking to destroy every German appliance we owned. But that is another story.)

    More recently, I was chillingly reminded of this during the last election in the US when organized groups were shouting down candidates with opposing views. If it worked in Germany, it can work here.

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