Patriotism: An Important but Incomplete Motive on Omaha Beach

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always known and learned about World War Two. From grade school all the way through my current college courses, we’ve always been taught about how America and the Allied forces fought against the atrocities committed by Japan, Italy, and Nazi Germany. I learned about the surrender and German occupation of France as well as the Normandy landings plenty of times and thought that I possessed a clear understanding of these situations. These crucially important moments in history became a simple fact in my brain that occurred in a matter of fact fashion. However, as we traveled throughout France visiting many of these famous historical sites, my perception of these events changed drastically.

The place we visited that had the greatest impact on my perceptions of history was our visit to Omaha Beach. I’ve read plenty of articles regarding the Normandy landings and the many Americans who were slaughtered on Omaha Beach. However, it never really felt real until I was standing on the actual beach. The tide was completely out, and I was able to see how far the soldiers had to run to reach the bluffs. I could see the old hideouts up on the hills where the Germans would have had their weapons ready to defend the high ground. I was able to see how easy it would have been for the Germans to target and kill the American soldiers storming the beach. Seeing this in person was truly surreal and put the Normandy landings into a new perspective to me. I was able to picture the brutality of the battle scene and now understood why so many Americans were killed that day.

Omaha Beach, where we were able to see how treacherous the conditions would have been.

However, my new perspective also included a challenge to what I was conventionally taught in school about the Normandy landings. We learned that the men fought and gave their lives on the beaches out of sheer patriotism. However, after seeing the conditions on the beach itself I doubt that this was completely the case. Contrary to what I’ve been taught, I believe that what really drove the men to storm and secure the beaches was the simple need to survive. The conditions during the landings were dangerous and gave the Germans an advantage, and the soldiers knew quite frankly that they would be killed if they did not fight with all of the vigor that they had and as quickly as possible to secure the area. Visiting these areas in Normandy   challenged what I’ve been previously taught and to come to a more realistic interpretation of what happened on these beaches during the Normandy invasions.

I was in disbelief as I stood in the same exact place where so many American soldiers fought and lost their lives.

How Bombs Brought Forth Art

View from the cliff face

Though we can read books about warfare, we will never know what it was like to be showered with bombs. Growing up in the early 21st century, I have lead a privileged life that has been safe in my own country. In history classes, a picture was painted of families fleeing to the London Tube tunnels during bombing and fearing to return to a pile of rubble that used to be their home. I could not begin to comprehend the sheer power that these bombs harnessed until I walked the grounds of Pointe du Hoc.


Example of a bomb crater at Pointe du Hoc

This site is the most striking thing we’ve visited on our journey thus far. Pointe du Hoc was the highest point between the American landings on Utah and Omaha beaches. Though the area had been fortified by the Germans, the United States Army Ranger Assault Group attacked and captured Pointe du Hoc by scaling the cliffs from the beach. The Rangers accomplished this by using borrowed ladders from the London Fire Brigade and grappling hooks while under fire. I finally saw the damage that was caused by bombs dropped by the allied forces during the pre invasion strikes. All around me were gouges in the ground, some 20-30 feet deep. To fully understand the impact, I walked into a crater and I almost felt like I was in another world.


The bottom of the crater was a new ecosystem, one that was magical and seemed almost safe. Among the yellow flowering bushes, vibrant green lichen, and chirping birds, I found a surprise. As the bombs ripped through this land, they created art and new life. The impact had ripped away the substantial concrete blocks, leaving the metal support spikes, or rebars, exposed. This created an organic, found art experience. These clumps of metal spikes reached up towards the opening of the crater in an almost snake-like manner and they seemed a logical part of the earth they were protruding from.

Metal spikes exposed after bombing

These spikes didn’t seem to be a result of a bomb impact, they seemed to be slithering out of the ground to rejoin and intertwine with the new plants growing. Seeing something that is usually man made become something that could interpreted as many organic forms was an inspiring moment.


Trying to comprehend the power of bombs is impossible until you’ve seen the damage and walked the path of destruction.

More rebar detail

Regardless of the sources that I’ve read for our spring class or for other history classes, I didn’t understand the reality. Beyond understanding the power of bombing, I never expected to find something so beautiful as a bi-product. The juxtaposition of the craters to the flower accented spike art was a true sight to behold. Art is always something that is unexpected and finding beauty in the midst of destruction was the most unexpected of all.  As an arts major, I find myself inspired by the organic art that I discovered at Pointe du Hoc and I plan to explore the idea of recreating this experience in an arts series.


I Cannot Plant Flowers of Memory


Headstone in British Cemetery, Normandy, France.

“They laid him where he fell, far from me, where I cannot plant flowers of memory.”

— Epitaph in British Cemetery, Normandy, France


While in Bayeaux and Normandy, I have seen thousands of grave markers. Many are inscribed with names, but many can only acknowledge that there is an unknown soldier lying beneath it. Boys as young as fourteen and men as old as forty-six are buried side-by-side. Some markers signify that the bodies could not be disentangled or identified other than by dental records. Thousands of markers are missing, along with the bodies that still haven’t been found. An additional and often overlooked loss is the near-20,000 French citizens who perished during their “liberation.” Allied and Axis soldiers and civilians alike suffered the same consequence of war: the finality of death.

Headstone for two German soldiers in La Cambe German Cemetery, Normandy, France.

While military cemeteries aren’t unusual in the United States, battlefields post-dating the Civil War are. To visit English, German, and American cemeteries and then also visit the beaches where many of them died heightened my sense of the sorrow and shock their comrades and families must have felt. The Utah and Omaha beaches would have been one of the first experiences abroad for many American soldiers, and for many of them the last. Their family members would never know the sight of the bluffs, the texture of the sand, or the clearness of the water.

Bomb craters at La Pointe du Hoc, a landing point for the Allies on D-Day.

Perhaps the lack of WWII-era battlegrounds in the United States allowed Americans to over-inflate the political victory of the Allied effort and discount the true extent of loss felt by Europe (and in the Pacific, for that matter). It was the European civilians that endured strategic bombing campaigns in England, France, and Germany; that rebuilt their towns after arbitrary military forces destroyed them; that lived under occupation and oppression; that experienced food and clothing shortages; that witnessed the brutality of war. To this day, craters and scorch marks can still be seen in French villages. The skeletons of artificial harbors remain along the beaches. German bunkers are still embedded in cliffs that overlook beachfront cottages.

Remains of an artificial harbor used during the invasion at Gold Beach, Normandy, France.

At best, Americans have the oral history of their grandfathers or great-grandfathers. WWII is remembered as the good, patriotic war where the Nazis were defeated and all of Europe was saved by the American GI hero. French memory is far more sobering. The physical sites from WWII lend themselves to a different kind of memory, one that had no choice but to endure the war. The sense of loss is not contained just to cemeteries but is found also in cliffs and churches and beaches and villages. Americans will be unable to comprehend the scale and sacrifice of the D-Day invasion, and the total cost of the war, without visiting the place where it happened.


The Ordinary Solider

While in Normandy I had the opportunity to visit the La Cambe German Cemetery. This cemetery honors the German soldiers of World War II; in the middle is a hill-shaped mass grave of nearly 20,000 German soldiers. Also, as opposed to normal headstones, the cemetery contained smaller plaques. Most grave markers had no flowers, crosses, or items of remembrance by them, giving the place a uniformly plain appearance. One grave, however, was adorned with the typical offerings: Michael Wittmann’s grave. Wittmann was one of the most famous Panzer officers. In comparison to the other graves, his had flowers, candles, coins, and a cross. Buried with other tankmen killed alongside him, only his grave received this level of recognition. Professor Steigerwald noted that there was concern over whether neo-Nazi fanatics made pilgrimages to Wittmann’s grave.

The La Cambe German Cemetery.

Professor Steigerwald’s comment made me think about the recent rise in the alt-right. However controversial this might be, I think removing Wittmann’s grave would be a positive thing to do. It stymies neo-Nazis’ opportunity to worship a horrible killer, but at the same time would not hurt the remembrance of the ordinary Nazi solider. Through my research and reading during our spring seminar class I had the chance to learn about the ordinary German soldier. As in other countries they were drafted into the army without much of a choice. Thus, I think recognizing them is most important because it is a testament to the folly of war experienced on all sides, of the lack of choices many men faced. And with the 75thanniversary of the D-Day Invasion approaching, the persisting relevance of Nazi philosophy appears striking to me. There is a grave in the La Cambe that might be contributing further to the very problem that these men so bravely died fighting against. How does one grapple with this honoring of both sides fallen soldiers and the indiscriminate toll war takes on all sides? To me, I see recognition of the ordinary soldiers on both sides as the key to that answer.

The mass grave at the La Cambe German Cemetery


Michael Wittmann’s grave is pictured at top, surrounded by flowers, candles, and a cross. Coins have been laid on his marker. The two grave markers below are the tank crew members that died in the same incident at Wittmann, but no similar remembrances are left for them.


Close-up of Wittmann’s grave.

Shaping Young Minds: How We Share History

Throughout our time in Bayeux, I often noticed the way that the French memory of the war is presented to the people there. The first place where this was evident was in the museum in Caen. There was little to no ownership taken for any of the atrocities committed during the war. In their exhibit about the Holocaust, most of the examples of deportations given were from the Ukraine. As we had learned in this past Spring, France was often complicit in the deportation of Jews from their country, and yet this was never mentioned. There was also no mention of the collaboration of Vichy France with the Nazis. Besides a small exhibit about Petain, the leader of Vichy France, Vichy was only mentioned one or two times throughout the museum.

There was also a high level of dedication to the memory of the Resistance. While the Resistance was valuable in some ways, the museums made it seem like every person in France was actively resisting the Nazi occupation, which was not the case. This myth is played up to the point where one of the signs explaining the liberation of France stated that liberation would have been achieved “with or without the help of the Allies.”

While these sources of information are concerning to me as a historian, they are even more concerning to me as a future educator. There were many French school children at these museums. This is the information that they are receiving as the complete truth, which could be problematic as they continue their education. In each museum I grappled with not only how the information was presented to those children, but how information about war and history is conveyed to American students at our own historical sites. It is easy to look at museums in another country and pick them apart, but it is just as important to do this back in the US. It is important to me that my students are able to understand history in a holistic way, and thinking critical about the information we were presented with in Bayeux solidified this as a necessity in my classroom.

One of the panels explaining the role of the Resistance at the Museum in Caen.

One of the only pieces of propaganda which discussed the situation in France…

A Historian’s Perspective

Our time in Bayeux, France was a reflective experience. If you take twenty-four history nerds to half a dozen museums and then deposit them in a quaint, Wi-Fi-deficient town, reflective commentary on their experiences is inevitable. The invasion beaches were sobering; the American Cemetery was numbing, but the museums were invigorating. Our museum visits sparked discussions from hushed exchanges in the museums’ dimly lit corners to fiery debates in the park over our cheese-and-baguette picnics.

Our first stop on our Normandy tour was at the Caen Memorial Museum, and Mary introduced the site with her report on the citizens’ experiences in Caen during the Normandy invasion. Additionally, she discussed the museum design, specifically the initial spiral ramp that takes visitors through the interwar period representing the deterioration of the political climate during this time. The design pushes visitors from the bottom of the spiral into a gripping film exhibiting the fall of France. However, the film took a different approach to the capitulation than what I learned this past semester. Instead of discussing France’s own faults in the defeat, the intentional, strategic placement and language of the video removes French responsibility in the defeat and paints the country as a victim of a historical oddity instead. While watching this film, I began to question how the museum presented this information and how I was absorbing the information.

My suspicions elevated as I continued through the museum; I started searching for biases, and they were prevalent. The exhibits suggested that France played a much larger, useful role in the war than the material I studied this semester suggested. While I was scrutinizing every word and finding “mistakes” in the way France was presenting its own history, I realized this problem was not unique to the French: there were certainly biases in England, and I expect Poland and Germany to have biases as well. I also realized that if I could recognize these national biases in France, I need to reconsider how I so obediently absorb the history of my own country without questioning and challenging its presentation.

After coming to this realization, I stepped back from scrutinizing every word in the Caen Memorial Museum and focused more on the overall historical presentation. France was simply qualifying their strengths in moments of immense weakness; this trait is certainly not unique to the French. Biases are inevitable, but historians should not ignore biases; they need to recognize those biases and how our perceptions of the past are shaped by them.

The French Facade

Moving on from London, I spent about a week in Bayeux, France and a few days in Paris, France. During our time in France I was able to use my French language abilities to assist with translating for our professors and to get around day to day life. My travels in France interested me more than those in England, as the different language and the diverse types of spaces we saw made it a more fulfilling exploration. From the small town of Bayeux, the seaside villages near Caen and St. Marie Eglise, to the city of Paris, I feel I saw and learned quite a bit about France. I did not come onto this program with any particularly strong focus on the American involvement and experience in World War II, but my time in France- especially in the museums- bolstered a newfound expectation towards this.

Like many Americans, I have personal connections to the losses incurred during the war. Both of my [maternal] grandparents’ fathers served in the Army during the Second World War, coming from the same small, rural Ohio community. My grandmother lost her father to this at a very young age, and this is something that affected her deeply. Knowing this, and therefore valuing the memory of my late Great Grandfather, Joseph Ferrell, who was killed in action in Belgium, I found multiple French accounts of their version of history that did not do my family’s loss, nor those of other families, proper justice.

An example of this includes the framing of Allied Victory as French Victory in the Caen Memorial Museum (among others). One of the many text boxes adorning the artifact encasements, timelines, and portraits actually stated that the French would have liberated themselves (Paris) even if the Allies had not invaded. Many of my comrades also found this to be a shocking statement, as it goes against the facts. In addition, we came to this museum with the memory and images of the bloody destruction of American forces during the invasions (Utah and Omaha Beach, more specifically). Though the Free French Army was still in existence and moderately active (relative to not at all), it is not the case that the success of the invasions and of the defeat of Germany can be accredited to France at the level in which it was.

An Overstated Resistance

According to Sartre’s, “Paris Under Occupation,” the French’s misfortune under German occupation is understated because of their atypical experience. They escaped the fighting, so to many, including the British, they escaped sacrifice. However, the Parisians existed in a limbo where they lived in a skeleton of what used to be a lively city. During this time, Paris lost her identity to the Germans causing anguish among the already war-weary Parisians. Today, unsurprisingly, Paris has regained her status as the epicenter of French cultural and political life. However, like most countries affected by the war, the city is filled with artifacts and reminders of the war and its heroes. For instance, as evident from the abundance of things named after him, Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French during the war, is an integral figure in French history.

The Eiffel Tower, one of the most recognizable features of the city, stands as a national symbol of Parisian culture in the now thriving city.

In the Musée de l’Armée there is an apparent dichotomy between Vichy and the Free French. After France’s fall at the beginning of the war and the signing of an armistice, France was partitioned into a free and occupied zone. In the former, Phillipe Petain, a war hero and a political favorite among the rural conservatives and urban liberals alike, set up a new French state. Vichy France, the name of the new state, was set up in collaboration with their Nazi occupiers, adhering to and sometimes anticipating what they thought would please the Germans. Vichy executed anti-Semitic policies, deported thousands of French Jews, and implemented conscription laws that required French citizens to go to Germany to work. After the war, the collaborators of Vichy were denounced and punished. Although the French do not ignore the collaborationist state in their history, it seems they chose to emphasize the resistance led by Charles de Gaulle more than Vichy. Even more so, de Gaulle is often lumped into the Allied alliance with Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt.  A lot of the rhetoric used by the museums insists that de Gaulle’s contributions were as important, if not more important, than the Anglo-American contribution. One section of the museum boasts the role of French paratroopers on D-Day, something we had not previously studied in class. Finally, to tie together the WWII section of the museum, we watched a film in the Charles de Gaulle wing. The film, while educational and entertaining, had obvious biases towards the importance of the Free French and de Gaulle. The French emphasis on the resistance rather than collaboration implies the French remember the actions of side that won and ignore the cooperation with the Nazis and anti-Semitic policies of the other. Another instance of the French failing to come to terms with their involvement during the war is shown in their commemoration of those deported during the war. Although French Jews were largely deported to concentration camps, their Memorial des Martyrs de la Déportation fails to mention them and instead focuses deported people as a whole. Additionally, in the Musée de l’Armée, the Holocaust is all but skipped over. There is a tiny room that is very easily missed and focuses mainly on political prisoners.

A display from the Holocaust section of the Musée de l’Armée. In english it reads, “the deportation of political resistors, political hostages.” There was little mention of Jewish victims of the Holocaust and instead focused on political prisoners.

The Caen Memorial Museum in northern France mirrors a similar dichotomy between the Free French and Vichy. The museum begins with a broad overview of the interwar period down a winding decline to symbolize the deteriorating nature of the political state. Directly after this, without mention to anything specific about the French interwar period, France fell. Additionally, the museum posed the fall of France in a passive way, as if France was taken from them, despite the fact that an armistice was signed. Similar to the Musée de l’Armée, the museum mentioned Vichy and Petain once before moving on to an extensive discussion of the resistance. Finally, it seems that the French were again lumped together with the Allies, boasting when the Allies were doing well and disassociating themselves from the Allies’ mistakes. I believe this is the French’s way of avoiding responsibilities for the faults of World War II. While the French were certainly on the Allies power’s side, they were not an integral part of the D-Day landings and war effort as a while, as they portrayed themselves to be.

While it is apparent that they French have not entirely came to terms with the war, it is important to remember the comfort of the American experience. It is quite easy to become critical of other countries historical memory, especially because the United States benefitted from their involvement in the war. While the French must come to terms with their history on their own, there is an important lesson to be learned. Although the war experience was different in every country, in order to conduct meaningful and productive public history, one must take objective look at our own experience and convey it in an unbiased manner, something that even the United States has issues with.

A serene sunset on the Seine.

French Historical Memory

Our second stop of the visit was Bayeux and Paris, France. A central theme I encountered during the days of our France visit was the tension between Vichy’s collaboration and the French resistance during WWII. This caused a noticeable gap between their history and historical memory.

I found this evident in the first site we visited in Bayeux, the Caen Memorial Museum. Though the museum was nicely organized and presented a lot of correct information, I noticed a lot of passive voice in the way they described numerous Nazi actions. People “were deported,” property “was taken,” and it seemed that the museum wanted to shift the focus from Vichy’s own actions towards actions being done to Vichy. I also noticed this in the section on the Holocaust. There was a section about Jews and others “being deported,” but there was no mention of any Vichy France collaboration with the Nazi regime (which we, as WWII historians, know existed). A few interesting plaques at the museum were not translated into English. I was told that one of them claimed that since France had resisted they are among the victors of the war. This also aligns with the French desire to push collaboration under a rug and emphasize the role of the French resistance.

Once we arrived in Paris, I gave my site report outside the Memorial for the Martyrs of the Deportation. This memorial similarly showed the French desire to hide collaboration, as there was no mention of Vichy France collaboration in deporting Jews.

While the French actively emphasize their role in resistance, they downplay the role of Jewish resistance. When I gave my site report at the Memorial for the Martyrs of the Deportation, I analyzed possible reasons Tsilla Hershco, an Israeli historian and political scientist, gave for the French gap between history and memory. Hershco focuses on the French tendencies to emphasize the role of French righteous Gentiles while downplaying or ignoring entirely the roles of Jewish resistance fighters.

It was clear in many of the sites we visited how much France wanted to emphasize their prouder moments of the war and altogether ignore their more embarrassing and shameful moments, and how this struggle has become part of France’s historical memory.

Some pictures of our adventures:



Flags outside the Caen Memorial Museum


Contrasting Perspectives

Staying in France opened my eyes to how perspective plays a role in remembering the war. I have learned about World War II in a way that I thought was universal; I have discovered that is not the case. I have studied the history of World War II all the way through high school and taken three college classes for my own interest, and each class was generally about the same. I started out by learning just the most basic parts of the war. I learned generally about battles and that was the extent of it. As I got older it became more specific, politics became more central and the approach more detailed. The way that I viewed not only the war but America was challenged during my time in France. I began to think about the role politics play a role in how things are taught and that just because I was taught something my entire life doesn’t mean it is correct. There is always more than one perspective to events.

When I went to the Arromanche’s 360 Theater, a 15-20-minute video showed the Battle of Normandy from a French perspective. I had not realized that I will probably see different perspectives of the war. We learned about the French perspective in class but it is one thing to read it and another to witness it.  At one point in this film showed, a map of France with flags of the invading and occupied countries and their movements as the battle progressed. The French flag was included in the invasion. When the Allies were surrounding Paris, the French flag was shown to be the first one advancing. Talking about the Battle of Normandy this past semester, we focused on Omaha and Utah Beach invasions. I never questioned learning more about these invasions than the others because I knew that these invasions were focused on because they were the bloodiest parts of Normandy. In the past, the French troops wasn’t focused on in the American school systems because they didn’t play a central role in the campaign as the other troops. However, the French made it look like they were more a part of the liberation of France than I have previously learned. The French portrays themselves more as victors than victims and align with the Allies even though they were the ones liberated by the Allies. The pride and ego of the French was seen in every museum that I entered and that portrayed themselves in the war.

In my time in Normandy I had the opportunity to visit German, American and British cemeteries. In each cemetery, you could see how the culture influences the design and structure of each location. The German cemetery was very simple. It had groups of larger headstones and the larger headstones were in groups of five stone crosses. The rest of the graves just had plaques. Then in the center of the cemetery there was a larger cross on a raised mound. In my opinion, this showed the German culture. The stone crosses aren’t the most beautiful things to look at but they do their job in memorializing the men who were lost. The German cemetery was very simple, to the point and very well kept. My dad’s side of the family is heavily German and the German cemeteries that my grandparents are buried in have a similar look to as the German cemetery that I walked through in France which is why I think it fits the culture.

The American cemetery was extremely emotional for me. I was moved by seeing the numbers of the dead in person and knowing that this is only a small portion of those who died in the war. The American cemetery is beautiful, massive and well kept; however, I think it was one of the flashier military cemeteries in Normandy, because I think its was design shows the people look at all our countrymen who died for you. This place overlooks the water and is designed very well, but I think that the intentions behind the design was that “we did this for you and we suffered saving you.”

The British cemetery is not as flashy as the American cemetery but it personalizes the dead soldiers. The British cemetery is medium sized compared to the previous two. There was a plant or flower placed in front of each tombstone and most of them had a personalized statement written on it. The British designed this with the idea of memorializing these men in the most honorable way possible. They personalized it and brought a piece of home to France for the fallen, and it was a truly beautiful sight.

The French film that I watched and the cemeteries that I visited altered my perspective and helped me to accommodate other cultures and histories. Each culture, American, Germans, British and French, all have a different take on the war. It was a check on reality knowing that just because I learn something one way does not mean it is the only way. After visiting all the cemeteries, I could glimpse how each culture represented the war and how they honor their fallen. By doing this, I can get a better outlook of the war. This will allow my perspective and opinions on the war to grow more nuance over time.


May 23rd:

A watermill in Bayeux.

Bayeux, France was a nice change of pace from London, England. The quiet and peaceful town was full of shops and restaurants, ready to please any local townspeople or tourists. Bayeux was one of the first major towns liberated by the Allied forces after the Normandy Invasion. The town is also home to the Bayeux Tapestry, which depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England in the 11th -century.

One of the better museums our study abroad group went to while staying in Bayeux was the Caen Memorial Museum. The Museum was built in 1989 and contains two main sections: one focusing on World War II and another on the Cold War. Our main objective was the WWII section, which started us off descending down a spiraling staircase. This indicated the falling infrastructure of France and other countries following WWI. Once we hit the lower level of the section, the magnifying glass was on top of France.

After Nazi Germany defeated France on 6 June 1944, France was split into a territory occupied by the Nazis and the newly formed Vichy France, under the control of Marshal Petain. The new puppet government went down a path of collaboration and offered little resistance. Petain believed the defeat was the result of plotting among “anti-French forces”, embodied by Jews, communists, and foreigners. He sought to bring the nation together; by excluding those he considered responsible for its defeat, and relying on traditional values: work, family, country, piety, and order. Europe falling under Nazi control was an apparent belief in Vichy France and fueled the collaboration between the two countries.

Revolution Nationale poster designed by R. Vachet in 1942.

In 1942, R. Vachet followed this trend when he designed a propaganda poster, Revolution Nationale. The poster depicted a house tumbling down under the Star of David on the left while the house on the right stands firm and peaceful with a resting French flag perched on top of it. This poster paints a clear picture on how the collaborative French state under Petain viewed the Jews as a faulty people. Alongside this poster were Petain memorabilia and other objects that made it obvious who and what Vichy France saw as enemies and its future corruption. With different plaques at other museums, like the Musee de l’Armee in Paris, stating that the French Resistance had a bigger role in liberating France than it actually did creates a disillusionment of the history these museums portray.

On to Poland now! Au revoir!

An American in France

Going into France, I knew that being an American would affect the experience I would have there. They speak a different language, one that I have not studied, and while the culture is similar to our own, there are distinct differences in societal norms. Americans often split the check when we go out to eat, which they don’t often do in Europe. In France it was also very apparent to our group that Americans are much louder than the French. Just by talking in our normal volume it felt as though we were disruptive in most of the places that we went. While these difference. They influenced the interactions that I had with the French people. I found myself constantly searching for ways to be less noticeable and stand out less as a “loud American” in public spaces.

Small cultural differences are also noticeable in the way that history is taught and presented in France. As I walked through Les Invalides in Paris and visited the Arromanches 360 Theater in Normandy, I noticed that the “facts” of World War II are presented differently in France than they are in the United States. In particular, I saw this in the way that they portray the involvement of the French in the liberation of France. At the Arromanches 360 Theater it was clear that they viewed, or wanted to show, that the French played a nearly equal role in the Battle of Normandy and the subsequent liberation of Paris. The focus of this video was very much on the French effort during Operation Overlord. The French flag was seen in every part of the video, quite often alongside the British and American flags. Towards the end, the focus of the video turned to the rebuilding of France and their rise out of the ashes of WWII. At Les Invalides these differences became very apparent in the emphasis placed on Charles de Gaulle and his role in the liberation of France. I also noticed that an in depth analysis of Vichy, France was really nowhere to be seen.  In my studies of World War II in America, this emphasis is almost opposite. Vichy, France is seen as a collaborationist state to Nazi Germany, and Charles de Gaulle played a minor role in Operation Overlord and the liberation of France. De Gaulle led the charge to liberate Paris because the Allies were more focused on chasing and defeating the Germans than liberating Paris. At Les Invalides his involvement was presented as though he led the charge into Paris because of his status among the Allied Powers.

My perspective as an American definitely influenced how I saw these differences in the portrayal of the history of WWII. Although the United States joined WWII late, they were one of the Allied Powers and played a major role in Operation Overlord, as well as the subsequent battles and the defeat of Nazi Germany. The French resistance did play a part in the Normandy landings and the liberation of Paris, which I do not want to undervalue. However, I found it upsetting that they placed their efforts on the same playing field as that of the other major Allied Powers. It seemed to me that they had warped their own history out of pride, and that they wanted to be seen more as victors than as victims. This makes sense because culturally, France is a very proud nation. They are focused on having a cohesive national identity, which could be damaged by looking too far into the involvement of Vichy in the war or being seen as victims of Nazi oppression. When I take a step back from my own national identity, it makes me wonder about the things that I have been taught in school and how the American culture plays a role in how that history is portrayed.

At the cliffs of Arromanches with the remains of Port Winston in the background.

Fifty-two Raised Eyebrows

52 Raised Eyebrows

This French leg of our journey felt like a sort of pilgrimage for me. I began learning French, and adjacently, French History, eight years ago in the 7th grade and have been fascinated since. Those years, combined with building my expertise on the origins of Vichy France this past semester, meant that the nine days of speaking French and learning how the French presented their own narrative should have been some of my favorite. Those nine days were incredible, if not also incredibly cynical. Touring museums like a historian means asking “why” often, and always being willing to raise an eyebrow when a plaque or display makes an especially proud claim. The French museums we toured raised a lot of eyebrows.

We began at the Caen memorial museum, which guides its visitors down a descending spiral hallway representing the downward spiral of the political climate leading up to the war. The symbolism was impressive, but the exhibit skips from the invasion of Poland to France’s capitulation, curiously omitting any explanation for France’s fall. Later, the museum’s only mention of the Vichy Government, France’s constitutional governing body between 1940-1944, was relegated to two small displays, only summarizing that they existed. This was especially striking, because it came right before an entire room, with a much higher budget, dedicated to the Resistance. These were all presented in French, English, and German, which was not a consistency throughout the museum.

Our group was lucky enough to have a few who could read French, which was helpful when we came across the few displays left untranslated for some reason. The reason raised all fifty-two eyebrows on our trip, because the Caen Memorial Museum presented different stories away from anglophone eyes. The biggest was a claim about the Allies’ superfluousness in liberation, because, according to the museum, the French were able to, and did, liberate themselves. This pattern repeated itself on a much bigger scale at Les Invalides in Paris.

France’s national military museum describes a history nothing short of valiant, heroic, and any other similar adjective which hadn’t been used too recently. Like the Caen museum, Vichy received a single section of displays out of the three floors concerned with WWII. None of the displays discuss Vichy’s politics, origins, or goals, but they did feature three cases of Petain memorabilia that compared his worship to Hitler. These displays were unironically surrounded by two other floors of ephemera worshiping DeGaulle. Les Invalides also, luckily in English this time, made some questionable claims about France’s participation. Namely that the French forces inflicted a staggering 160,000 casualties during the 1940 battle for France, forgetting to mention they suffered over one million, and that the Maginot Line “never capitulated,” because the Germans simply went around it. A full summary of these dubious displays would be longer than the entirety of this post, but suffice to say we found many more.

None of this is to say that I feel like my dreams of visiting Paris were dashed. I can honestly say that every day in France helped me to grow as a historian. Whether we were at the German, American, or British cemeteries to appreciate their symbolism and those buried there, or visiting Saint-Mère-Eglise, a vital town to U.S. D-Day paratroopers that has become a theme-park of a museum, I learned how to become a more responsible history consumer. I realized I’ve never been to the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. while touring Les Invalides. Seeing their national museum made me ask, how many of these same questions or raised eyebrows would I have at home?

The Loud, Crazy Americans

Being in France made me feel like I was in a country unlike my own for the first time. In Bayeux, the difficulty resulting from the language barrier shocked me. By the end, I got the hang of it, but the first few days were difficult. I had to guess and hope they weren’t saying anything important. As an American, I ignorantly believed most things would be in English in other countries. Most of the exhibits we visited displayed French commentary with some English descriptions. This left me feeling disconnected from the experience because I didn’t know what they were trying to present with each object. I think this expectation is unique to an American because English is such a universal language. Thus, I assumed that it would be more prevalent in other countries. The realization that a place could be so different from my home sparked a new way of interpreting different cultures.

One thing I have noticed that differs between France and the United States is how we treat spoken language. The French are much quieter than we are. Perhaps traveling in a large group makes a difference, but wherever we go we are the loudest in the room, reaffirming the loud American stereotype one city at a time. It startled me in Bayeux because it’s such a peaceful, country town. I think this can be attributed to a difference in our cultures.

While in France, the stereotype that the French don’t like Americans popped up in my head a couple times. When our group went through security at the Caen museum, the security guard told us that bags of any kind were not allowed – not even purses. This wasn’t a big deal – all of us with a bag returned to the bus and put them in our seats. Once we returned to the security line, a couple in front of us had their bags checked by the same security guard and gained entrance. I ventured that maybe the rule only applied to school groups, but upon entrance to the museum, we saw two French school groups with their purses and backpacks. What I felt to be discrimination shocked me because I have never been discriminated against before for being an American. I encountered discrimination against Americans on a personal level at our hotel in Bayeux. I was talking in the lobby with two other girls at a conversational level when we were shushed by one of the employees. Not only were we shushed, but there were other people in the lobby that were talking at the same level but not reprimanded.

These experiences of discrimination in France have caused me to have a different outlook on France and other countries. Although this effected my time in France, I’m grateful I had this experience because it isn’t something I would experience at home. This is part of experiencing a different country and understanding a new culture. In France, this consisted of understanding French social expectations and how they interact with each other. My experiences did not match up with my expectations but instead taught me the valuable lessons of understanding new cultures and adapting to a new language.

France: A Distortion of History

In France, it was fascinating and jarring to observe their narrative of World War II. While visiting museums and historic sites in France, I saw a distinct disconnect between the French view of themselves in war time and what American and British history generally portrays. In the World War II classes we took before the study tour, France is considered one of the great losers of the Second World War. The French army, ill equipped and poorly positioned, fell to the German Wehrmacht in only six weeks. The subsequent French government, located in Vichy, consistently collaborated with Nazi Germany throughout the war, especially in the government’s willingness to deport and persecute Jews. While there was a French resistance network in place throughout the war, it did not play significant role in the liberation of all of France.

I sound cynical, because in my opinion what we consistently saw in France was a distortion of the history of World War II. I base this claim according to the sources I read throughout Spring semester even though these sources carry their own mostly pro-American biases as well. The French narrative, incredibly, was one of victory and national triumph. This began at the D-day Museum in Caen, which had a large exhibit displaying walking through the timeline of WWII. This exhibit focused greatly on the French resistance]. The resistance was a small operation mostly concentrated in Paris and representative of neither the larger French government nor people during the war. The museum even went as far as to claim that “because of the success of French resistance, France should be considered a victor in World War II.” It also stated that because of the resistance, “with or without the help of the allies, France would have been liberated.” These outrageous claims have little basis in fact and were shocking to see. The museum also discussed the Holocaust without mentioning the mass deportations of Jews that occurred at the hands of the Vichy government. It was also fascinating to see the way that Charles De Gaulle was regarded and portrayed in France. De Gaulle was lauded as the French leader during and after WWII, given the same stature as Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt. This was evident in the placement of his portrait physically among these leaders in multiple museums. Before this study tour, I had never heard the narrative of De Gaulle as a major leader of WWII.

I feel visiting France in person was extremely important in being able to see the discrepancy in narratives regarding the war. This also pushed me to examine my own biases regarding World War II that I carry as both an American and a Jew. I have continued to do this throughout the entire trip. In doing so, this has allowed me to look at World War II in a new way and go deeper into the history.