Resistance in France and the Restoration of National Pride

In class, we learned about the French refusal to admit defeat against Germany and the overwhelming need to restore national pride to France after World War II. When visiting many museums and memorials in both Bayeux and Paris, we saw the over-exaggeration of the French role in military battles of WWII, resistance movements against the Reich, and even the liberation of many cities in France.

In some of these museums, there seems to be the justification of the Vichy government—who collaborated with the Nazis and were complicit in the genocide of Jews in occupied France—as the only choice to keep France from total annihilation by the Germans. Exhibits at the Caen Memorial Museum tell of the Free French Forces organized in France and their help in all fronts of the war. They also focus on the various resistance movements and their spontaneous acts of rebellion against the Third Reich. While it is true that there was French Resistance against the Nazis, the Resistance was not as strong as the museum exhibits often indicate.

In the case of the Charles De Gaulle exhibit, Vichy is indeed harshly criticized; being contrasted with De Gaulle’s help in French Resistance efforts. The Caen Museum also depicts resistance as any act along a broad spectrum—from reading a forbidden newspaper to planning armed assaults on German soldiers. The armed resistance that was stressed in almost all the museums we have seen in France, while not untrue, felt overemphasized. The French have also created a narrative that they would have liberated themselves and could have done so with or without the Allies’ help. This emphasis on their self-liberation, combined with the almost nonexistent mentions of the armistice with Germany, gives the impression that the French do not want to lose their sense of victory after WWII.

However, there were not many options for France at the time of occupation. While in retrospect it is easy to call for total resistance and to judge any form of complicity, the United States was fortunate enough to have not been put into that situation. From fear of social exile and self-preservation to pure survival and fear of death, there were many different reasons why most French people did not participate in resistance efforts. The Vichy government certainly committed atrocities such as the deportation and registration of Jews and other various initiatives that were taken by this government even without the prodding of the Nazis. Despite this, we still couldn’t imagine what we would do in that situation.

Though it is true France has been and seems to continue to attempt a restoration of their national pride after WWII. No matter the amount of resistance, the Vichy collaboration with Germany will never be forgotten. I feel it will be a long road for France to be able to finally prove to themselves and the rest of the world who they really are.

A Troubled National Memory: The French Perspective on D-Day and Nazi Occupation

During our time in Bayeux, we visited a series of French museums with exhibits on D-Day and the Second World War. It was interesting to see the French perspective, having only studied the events as they relate to American forces in any detail. There was far more emphasis on the efforts of the French Resistance movement, and not much mention of Vichy France and their collaboration with the Nazis. One exhibit in the Caen Memorial Museum went so far as to say that France would have liberated itself soon enough, with or without Allied help. Countries tend to tell their side of history, but this view is highly problematic, and I found it troubling to see it voiced so prominently in a museum display, especially as groups of young school children filtered through the museum with us.

Display in the Caen Memorial Museum stating the French didn’t need help from the Allied Forces.

Other exhibits, including a short film that we watched in Arromanches, the town that lies beyond Gold Beach, had a focus on the aftermath of the invasion and the toll taken on French citizens during the ensuing weeks of combat. Around 20,000 civilians were inadvertently killed during this time, and those that survived watched their homes be destroyed in the chaos. This was something we hadn’t discussed as much in class, and I found the images and stories presented to be of particular interest and value to our studies as they opened a new narrative that I hadn’t considered before. There’s so much focus on the Normandy beachhead landings and following military engagements that we often overlook what some of the French people caught in the middle of these events went through, and the true cost of total war.

Gold Beach and the town of Arromanches

When considering what was presented in these museums, it is clear that France wants to paint an image of themselves as victims under occupation, shading over any of Vichy’s complicity with the Nazis or the deportations of Jewish people that they allowed to take place. This idea of national victimhood also coincides with the memory of the Resistance, which got a great deal more credit in French museums than sources that we studied in class gave it. The French national memory of the Second World War feels troubled, and it is evident in every museum that we visited that they are not yet ready to come to terms with some of the ugly and difficult to process realities buried in their past.

Memories of Mercy and Liberation after D-Day

On the morning of May 16th, I visited a tiny church at Angoville-au-Plain in Normandy, where medics Robert Wright and Kenneth Moore cared for 80 combatants and a child during Operation Overlord. Wright was a paratrooper in the U.S. 101st Airborne Division and an Ohio State Buckeye. By transforming the 900-year-old church into an aid station, Wright and Moore remembered their common humanity. They insisted on tending to both American and German soldiers who checked their weapons at the door. They draped the eglise (i.e. “church” in French) with a Red Cross banner from its steeple, making it neutral territory under the Geneva Convention on Warfare. Although Angoville changed hands several times during the heavy fighting, the medics risked their lives and remained in the church to treat wounded and dying soldiers. At one point, an artillery shell crashed through an aperture in the roof and thudded onto the stone floor. Luckily, it was a dud.

Like the church at Angoville, the crucifix above Gold Beach has palpable religious symbolism. I interpreted it as the redemptive value of suffering for something larger than one’s self.

Near Angoville, the town of Sainte-Mère-Église was an important crossroads in the plan to liberate Northern France. Operation Overlord demanded the capture of key transportation routes between Nazi-occupied Paris and the Cherbourg Peninsula. By capturing the town, American paratroopers prevented German reinforcements and controlled a vital causeway above Utah Beach, one of five Allied landing zones. If they did not secure the causeways leading through the high bluffs, then U.S. troops would have been trapped on the beaches.

Wright and Moore decided to operate out of Angoville because it was located between the heavy fighting at Utah Beach and Sainte-Mère-Église, where medics were sorely needed. They hauled injured combatants in wheel barrows and carried them out of the combat zone and into the sanctuary of the aid station, where the blood of American and German soldiers stained its wooden pews. These bloodstains cannot be washed out and must not be forgotten. They are the price of liberty from tyranny, of free religious expression, of democracy and equal justice under God. Although millions died without knowing the type of world that would be built from the horrors of war, men like Robert Wright eased their journey and lightened their heavy burden by practicing extraordinary works of mercy and compassion in the heat of battle.

Fittingly, Wright was laid to rest in the cemetery outside the church. Dr. Nick Breyfogle planted an OSU flag to commemorate Wright’s legacy as a Buckeye. It was a stirring moment for everyone present.

75 years after D-Day, Angoville remains a beautiful French hamlet of less than 100 residents, and it still memorializes the struggle for liberation. The town’s mayor and his spouse graciously received our large tour group, no doubt larger and louder than the usual foot traffic. At first, he thanked us for coming and highlighted the generosity of Americans in preserving the church as a historical landmark. He went on to express deep concern about future generations forgetting about the history of World War II and repeating the mistakes of past generations. His reception was a touching and inspiring example of French historical memory and its relationship to the United States. Although Angoville was one stop on our long journey, I will never forget my experience there. The church deserves to be visited, because it captures something beautiful, somber, and serene about the Second World War and its legacy today.

The Destructive Capacity of Mankind

The scarred landscape of Pointe du Hoc.

Southeast of Cherbourg, Normandy lies Pointe du Hoc, an area stretching above huge, jagged cliffs. The ocean crashes onto these cliffs up which a U.S. Army Ranger Assault Group scaled on D-Day to protect Utah and Omaha Beaches during the Allied invasion of Normandy. The hundred-foot cliffs are not the most stunning feature of Pointe du Hoc, however.

The land is pockmarked by craters from Allied bombing. Were it not for the concrete bunkers and tangles of rebar, one might think that the craters are a natural part of the terrain. The 40 foot wide and 20 feet deep craters are filled with grass and weeds and wildflowers. Nature always finds a way to make even the remnants of warfare stunning.

One of the great elements of this study program is the opportunity to make real the places where historical events happened. Here, on these clifftops, American soldiers fought and held key positions to protect their comrades landing at Omaha and Utah Beaches later that day. As I walked past craters and stood in German artillery bunkers, the invasion of Normandy became real to me. Unlike Omaha Beach, where little but monuments remind the visitor of the thousands who died there, the craters of Pointe du Hoc tell a story all on their own—one I could never glean from books alone.

So many lives, so many resources were spent in the great battle against fascism. Standing among the craters I looked out at the sea. The waves broke against the brown and gray cliffs. A breeze swept through the tall grass as I stood amidst the destructive capacity of mankind.

Two Images of D-Day

Pointe-du-Hoc

 

Crater at Pointe-du-Hoc

Omaha Beach

Throughout my life, I have realized the many stages that learning can have. Sometimes stories and events can be understood relatively quickly without setting foot anywhere near where it happened. However, after visiting places like Gettysburg I realized that it takes being there myself to gain a greater appreciation of the history. My time in Normandy has been a prime example of this. Pointe-du-Hoc, where some 240 Army Rangers scaled the cliffs in the early hours on June 6, 1944, is a surreal place. Walking through the grass at Pointe-du-Hoc, across the craters left by Allied bombs seven decades ago, left me with a new perspective of D-Day. I climbed into abandoned German bunkers. Looking out across the cliffs below and along the coast I imagined the typical day of a German soldier who would have stood and gawked at this sight for months. What would it have felt like to look out one morning to see thousands of enemy ships floating towards me rather than the usually empty sea? Although it may sound obvious, standing on the same ground as those who made history so long ago adds an essential element to the understanding of what happened. The farmland and hedgerows throughout Normandy made me look at the war through the soldiers’ perspective more so than I would in a classroom. I found myself constantly putting myself in the shoes of an American GI or Nazi soldier seeing the same green fields as me under much different circumstances. One of the most dramatic sights I experienced was walking up Omaha Beach and glancing to my right at the bunker where a German machine gunner shot down dozens of Americans who stood near me. That bunker is still nestled in the hillside above the beach as it was in 1944. Though we had talked about this in class and I imagined standing there before, making that walk myself and seeing the bunker had a whole new meaning. The few days I spent in Normandy have had a profound impact on my understanding of World War II, and I am so incredibly grateful I was afforded this opportunity.

Fathoming the Unfathomable

View atop a bunker

In traveling to Europe, I had thought that I would be better able to understand the extraordinary experiences that our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines went through to liberate Europe.  Seeing the battlefields, for example, would better allow me to see how people my age displayed unthinkable acts of heroism seventy-five years ago.  On the day that we traveled to Pointe du Hoc, the American Cemetery, and Omaha Beach, I learned that this would not be the case.  Although these sites showed me how large the scale of the battle was, this very same large scale consequently made it even more impossible to imagine the experiences of those in the war.  In short, the unfathomable became even more unfathomable.

Looking East on Omaha

Arriving at Pointe du Hoc, I was immediately awestruck by the torn landscape.  At this landing zone, which was situated between Omaha and Utah Beach, American Rangers scaled 200-foot cliffs with grappling hooks and ladders in order to capture gun emplacements that threatened the rest of the invasion forces.  The effects of a powerful Allied naval bombardment and air attack – the only beach to receive such accurate and devastating bombing in advance of the invasions – were still visible.  Dotting the bluffs above the steep cliffs were several shattered bunkers—“monuments” to the events that occurred there. They told the story, in part, without saying any words.  Standing on top of one of these bunkers, I could simply not imagine the American Rangers attacking the cliffs under fire and fighting within this hellish landscape.

The American Cemetery

Omaha Beach was just as awe-inspiring.  After we arrived at Dog Green Sector, the deadliest portion of the beach, I was shocked at how quickly the tide went out over the span of an hour due to how flat it was.  There were over 200 yards of beach from the water’s edge to a concrete wall, and with the tide being as quick as it was, it became clear to me how crucial timing was to the entire operation.  Along the wall and the hills were menacing bunkers angled just right to produce the maximum sector of fire across the beach.  Bearing in mind Ernie Pyle’s description of the colossal amounts of military equipment strewn across the beach a week after the invasion the entire time I walked along the beach, the same thought kept running through my mind:  How did they survive this?

The most memorable portion of the day was the American Cemetery where nearly 10,000 servicemen are interred.  In such a somber place, I was awestruck at how “alive” it was.  These men were laid to rest in a way that reminded me of a unit ready for an open-ranks inspection.  Walking along the graves and watching the rows pass between each other also produced an optical illusion reminiscent of the feet of a large formation of soldiers marching in step past an onlooker.  In seeing workers cleaning the marble tombstones, mowing the lawn, and sweeping the pathways, I was left with an indescribable gratitude at how these young men are taken care of, but this more than ever emphasized to me Ernie Pyle’s idea of the human cost of war.  In his articles about the invasion, he described seeing personal mementos strewn across the beach even weeks after the invasion.  These personal items, like family photos and letters, or even a tennis racket, belonged to men whose lives could have been extinguished forever.  These sons, brothers, and fathers will never slip into historical ambiguity; their efforts, no matter how unfathomable, will never be forgotten.

On that small plot of American soil overlooking the beaches of Normandy, they will forever stand in their final formation.

 

De Gaulle the Liberator and Macron the Alienator

Wavering and leaderless after the Second World War, the French had few to turn to but Charles de Gaulle. Never elected in prewar France, this general and self-appointed political leader of la France combattante won public approval in a landslide. Decades later, President Emmanuel Macron’s aloofness and elitism tests French confidence in the strong executive meticulously crafted by de Gaulle.

Once the confetti of the liberation parades had settled, the French looked to de Gaulle for guidance. After all, according to more than one deluded French museum, his Résistance could have liberated Paris without the Allies’ help (sorry, Eisenhower). To many French, de Gaulle stood resolutely against the whims of the liberating powers while restoring France’s internal stability and international leadership. As the first President of the Fifth French Republic, de Gaulle openly espoused a strong executive and wrote the Fifth Republic’s constitution to reflect his vision.Like a sleeping guardian, de Gaulle would awaken in times of great need to save the Republic before retiring back to isolation. Despite de Gaulle’s self-declared transcendence of party politics, the French Left saw traditionalism and Catholicism in his policies, famously pressuring him to resign in 1968.

This 1958 presidential campaign poster frames de Gaulle as a man without party, an unassailable centrist. It reads, in part, “Listen to me: Communism is servitude, party politics is impotence. Between these two extremes is the French People’s Rally.” Macron’s centrism made him similarly attractive in the 2017 election—the alternative was a far-right candidate. Note the Cross of Lorraine, a symbol of de Gaulle’s Free French Forces, in the top left.

Today, many French resent centrist President Macron as an énarque (a play on the name of his alma mater, ÉNA, and monarque), one of the distant French elite.  Our delightfully skillful bus driver, Pascal, explained that an ignored middle class opened the bleeding wound of the gilets jaunes movement: Macron’s gas tax punishes commuters who cannot afford to live near the city center. He pressed his thumb into the wound by dismissing protestors’ concerns as misinformed and fringe. Macron grows distant from his constituents: all around the Place de la Bastille hang posters of Macron bedecked in the royal robes of Louis XVI. Unlike de Gaulle, who even responded to resignation calls from outside his coalition, he takes for granted that the French will come around and continue to reject his far right opposition. Tonight’s European Parliament elections say otherwise.

“[Let’s] abolish privileges [of the nobility],” a reference to the French Revolution, featuring Macron as Roi des Français.

Today, some on the French Left call for a new republic, though support for such a measure has fallen ever since Macron began making concessions to the gilets jaunes. We most likely will not soon see a Sixth Republic, but disappointment with Macron has eroded French confidence in de Gaulle’s strong executive.

 

Tension Between Mourning and Memorialization

The British Cemetery at Bayeux (photo by Ian Mintz)

Some of the most emotional sites that we visited in France were the British, American, and German cemeteries for those lost in World War II.  The differences in the designs of the cemeteries revealed a lot about the intent of the builders and the nations that commissioned them.  The British cemetery was made up of thousands of personalized headstones for soldiers who hailed from all corners of the British Empire and died in France.  Each headstone included information about where the soldier was from, what unit he served in, when he was born, and when he died.  There was also an individualized quote from family members, friends, or the military if the soldier had no close connections.  The British cemetery felt incredibly personalized and seemed to be a place of mourning both for the nation as a whole and individual families of soldiers who had been laid to rest there.

The American and German cemeteries were much more uniform than the British cemetery.  While the British cemetery allowed

Max D. Clark’s grave, where I had the honor of planting an Ohio State flag alongside my roommate and friend Ashton Cole

unique inscriptions on the headstones, the American and German cemeteries included only standardized information on the largely identical grave markers of the soldiers buried there.  The American graves were labeled only with the soldier’s name, regiment, state of enlistment, and date of death.  Each gravestone was either a cross, if the soldier identified as Christian or Protestant, or a Star of David, if the soldier identified as Jewish (these were the only three choices of religion). The German cemetery had only small square grave markers laying flat on the earth that simply dictated the soldier’s name and dates of birth and death.  These less personal, more standardized  tombstones made the American and German cemeteries feel more like wartime monuments than the final resting place of people’s loved ones.

Overall, I think the intended function of the British cemetery as opposed to those of the American and German cemeteries are different.  British families were and are more likely to visit their nation’s cemetery and mourn those they lost in France due to their proximity to northern France, so the British cemetery was designed to be more welcoming and personal, while still retaining a militaristic dignity.  The British remember World War II as the “People’s War”, one in which each person’s sacrifice mattered, which is reflected in the design of their cemetery.

The American Cemetery at Normandy

American families were and are less able to visit the cemetery frequently, and even if they do make the pilgrimage to their loved one’s burial site, the cemetery workers remove anything placed at the headstones once a week to maintain the graves’ neat and uniform appearance.  It seems as if the American cemetery therefore was designed more as a military monument for the nation, rather than a place for mourning a family member or friend.  Instead of treating each soldier as an individual, the Americans chose to remember its lost military members en masse.  This layout seems to speak more to American military worship than to the supposed passion for individualism that the United States claimed made it superior to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

The German cemetery is similarly uniform, as German culture is historically militaristic, and the French government likely did not feel compelled at the time to allow Germany to represent its fallen soldiers as anything more than that –

soldiers.  Remembering them as people who were loved and died for a lost cause would have been more painful for both nations.  Germany struggled to cope with the loss of the war and another generation of men.  Its simple cemetery reflects the nations destroyed hopes for greatness while maintaining the need to remember each soldier, as many a grave was inscribed with “Ein Deutscher Soldat” – a German soldier, anonymous in death but still worth memorializing.

Using these cemeteries as primary sources that provide insight into the objectives of each nation allowed me to better speculate on each nation’s intention for their wartime dead.  Whether they were to be remembered as individuals with complex lives that were tragically cut short or as soldiers honoring their country by giving their lives revealed to me how each country wanted to memorialize the fighting in northern France directly after the war.  While each cemetery was emotional for me to visit – seeing the tombstones of people my age and younger really drove home how terrible the war was – it was also interesting to consider their differences and analyze why each cemetery might be so unique.

On Gratitude

Looking around Bayeux, France, one would assume that their gratitude for Americans and the Brits was always on their minds. The town is relatively small, only around 13,000 people, and on the surface has all the trappings of a typical coastal French village: cobblestone streets, thin winding roads, and patches of colorful flowers and green spaces throughout. Yet for so idyllic a place, it had an unprecedented amount of touristy attractions: standard gift shops with postcards and magnets, menus translated to English, and people in the service industry who also spoke fluent English. None of those things meshed with my preconceived ideas about an idyllic French town in the countryside. One of the most striking visuals that I saw, however, were paintings on the windows in preparation for the 75th anniversary of the Normandy invasion. They all depicted the stereotypes of French civilians and Allied soldiers, with saccharine slogans like “thank you for our freedom” written alongside them. I swear, we left the hotel for a day and came back to a new painting in the lobby windows. But, this image contrasts with one idea that we learned about during class: the idea of French resentment towards the ongoing American occupation of the country after the war. 

An example of the various window paintings found in Bayeux to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Normandy invasion.

The idea came up a few times in class discussion and in my research paper. Our readings kept referencing an attitude best summed up by the phrase “thank you for helping! When do you leave?” Even the Musée de l’Armée in Paris included a video extolling Charles de Gaulle, in part for his efforts to regain French autonomy from the occupying Allied forces. Based upon these French interpretations of the American Occupation, one would assume that the window paintings and souvenirs that have popped up in Normandy to be little more than trappings for American and British tourists coming over for the 75th anniversary. In some sense, they are trappings made to make tourists from the Allied countries feel appreciated. And the Allies did make possible French freedom from Nazi Occupation. It is a double-edged sword, however; to expect the French people to remain eternally grateful and in debt to the Americans and British seems fantastical, as if wanting a younger sibling to continue idolizing you well past one’s youth. I don’t believe that either side is happy with the current system, however; the French miffed at continuing to keep up an air of submissive thanks, the Allied tourists upset with the artificial sentiment that inevitably comes with tourist traps. That’s no way to celebrate such a momentous anniversary.

A Petit Parisian Experience

Paris has a reputation for luxury. Luxembourg Palace, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, Napoleon’s ornate grave, and the Arc  de’ Triomphe overlooking the Champs-Elysees, are only a few  of the extravagant scenes that meet city visitors. In the Louvre, I was captivated by an exhibit recreating Marie Antoinette’s palace with intricate patterns,  vivid colors, and gold-adorned furniture. The Eiffel Tower was the tallest structure in the world for a time, and its twinkling evening lights still mesmerize spectators. Napoleon’s grave is in a massive domed building, complete with frescos on high ceilings that frame his large marble coffin. On the Champs Elysses, swanky designer brands with high price tags and security guards don’t dissuade lines of shoppers.  In a city where luxury is plentiful, I was surprised to find the word, “petit” before so many restaurant names. As a non-French speaker, I picked out the word as I eavesdropped. Parisians seem to indulge only mildly in desserts, drinks, or fancy meals. Making things seem small felt like a contradiction to Paris’ extravagance.  As I listened to an interview on the Rick Steves Audio Europe app (I’m a sucker for his audio guides and downloadable walking tours. Check it out, future comrades!) entitled, “Stuff Parisians Like,” he talked about this same phenomenon. As Rick interviewed a Parisian wine expert, Oliver Magny, they discussed how Parisians often downplay luxury in their own lives. Instead of saying they’re going away for the weekend, Parisians say they’re going away for a petit weekend. When paying with a credit card, clerks ask for a petit signature, not just a signature. Anything big is bad, which was surprising to me in a city of palaces.

On our last day in Paris, I visited the Conciergerie. This old prison  witnessed thousands of executions, including Marie Antoinette’s beheading during the French Revolution. Her tiny concrete prison cell was definitely petite, unlike her rooms in her palace. Her arrest and execution were products of overindulgence, and I think this created a culture of modesty in Paris. Other events throughout Paris’s history, especially the World Wars, forced Parisians to live in scarcity. A few days in Paris taught me that although Paris abounds in luxury, Parisians are aware of their history—times when luxury has led to one’s demise and times when Nazi occupation made life there far from luxurious. Thus, Parisians naturally understate everyday joys in order to maintain their petite humility and class.