By Matthew Bonner
We arrived in Bayeux, France on May 14th after sailing across the English Channel from Portsmouth, England. When visiting numerous museums along the beaches and other sites, I focused on both the commonalities and differences in the information compared to the discussions in our Spring semester class that revealed more about the French collective memory of the Second World War. In our class we analyzed the complex D-Day planning required between FDR and Churchill, firsthand accounts of the Operation Overlord, and the struggle for the French’s view of collaboration vs. resistance. The Caen Memorial Museum provided a good walk-through of the events leading up to the war, describing how World War I – “the war to end all wars” – set the stage for an even greater war, and provided details about the Fall of France and the Vichy regime from a unique French perspective. However, in the museum there was a difference in the total number of casualties per country depicted between other museums and in class, often with the Soviet Union casualties having most of the discrepancy. The difference reveals the challenge in quantifying the war and its impact on the countries, and how recent scholarship is revealing more accurate figures for the total losses.
Another difference was a majority of the French museums, such as the Memorial Museum to the Battle of Normandy, overly highlighted the French Resistance efforts during the war. During our class we had discussed how the French resistance was present in small numbers, but not an extensive movement that dramatically altered the course of the war. The resistance can be small and still very important to French life, but the museum exaggerated the movement to be more widespread and systematic. The emphasis on Charles de Gaulle and the Free French Forces reveal how the French are still grappling with the war’s effects and their country’s occupation. France is still coming to terms with how the country was quickly occupied by Nazis and how to remember French Nazi collaborators and resistors. The French resistance is a captivating patriotic story, but when analyzing the war it is important to realize how the country has used it as a way to rationalize and make sense of a collaborative Vichy regime, occupation, and numerous deportations. By choosing to highlight positive resistance efforts and not fully address French Nazi collaborators, the full French war story is ignored.
Through the comprehensive museums in Normandy, one of the biggest takeaways and differences from class was the emphasis on the Battle of Normandy after D-Day. From the way I have always learned about the war and through the United States perspective, D-Day was the main emphasis of the invasion, and then in a few short weeks Paris was liberated. However those few short weeks meant everything to the people in northern France, especially in small French towns such as Bayeux. It is often forgotten that in preparation for the D-Day invasions Allied strategic bombings, designed to cut off transportation lines to the coast, killed over 20,000 French civilians. Additionally, many civilians suffered as the war raged through their small towns and villages as the Allies began to liberate France.
For example, we visited Angoville au Plain, a village with a small church turned into a hospital during the war by a Ohio State alumnus, Robert E. Wright. Wright and other medics treated anyone in need at the small church – regardless of side in the war – as long as weapons were left outside. The small village where the church is located today had a population of around 64 people, and one can imagine how the war had a dramatic impact on the town as Allied troops during the liberation could have possibly doubled or tripled the total population! Additionally, the town of Bayeux had to add an outer belt circling around the city center to make way for the Allied equipment, as troops and tanks could not navigate through the small winding roads. Thus each French town and village on the road to Paris experienced the war, and their sacrifices and stories are a focus for the Normandy region. These sacrifices were not highlighted when learning about the war from the American perspective. On a larger scale the discrepancies between the museums and class highlight how each country remembers and grapples with the war’s legacy in different ways. Ultimately, it is important to compare the similarities and differences between the collective memories of the various countries to fully understand how the differences affect how each country thinks about themselves, others, and post-war events.