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D-Day at 80


The anniversary of the pivotal World War II battle carries a heavy tone as the event fades from memory and extremism threatens Europe once again.

Roger Cohen and Laetitia Vancon reported from Normandy and the United States.

They were ordinary people. On June 6, 1944, these young men who came from afar and braved the Nazis’ strafing from the cliffs of Normandy did not think of themselves as heroes.

No, said Gen. Darryl Williams, commander of U.S. Army Europe and Africa, “the Allied soldiers” in the great battle were “ordinary” young men “who rose to the challenge with courage and a strong will to fight for freedom.”

At a ceremony this week in Deauville on the Normandy coast, the general stood before 48 American survivors of that war, the youngest of whom was 98, and most of whom were over 100. The veterans sat in wheelchairs. They saluted, briskly. Eighty years have passed, many in silence, because the memory of the war is too terrible to express in words.

In 2034, the 90th anniversary of the D-Day landings, there may be no more veterans. The memory of their sacrifice on the beaches will no longer exist.

“The clouds of war are gathering over Europe,” General Williams said, signaling the Allies’ determination to defend Ukraine against a Russian attack. The 80th anniversary of the landings was a celebration, but also a sad one. Europe is troubled and worried, and extremism is undermining its liberal democracy.

For more than 27 months, a war has raged on the European continent, claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands of young Ukrainians and Russians. Despite the Red Army’s key role in defeating Hitler, Russia was not invited to the commemorations. Ten years ago, President Vladimir Putin attended the commemorations. Now, he’s talking about nuclear war. These are times of fracture and uncertainty.

Every long-lived veteran who returned to Normandy knew the consequences of such drift, and how easy it was to get caught up in the fray.

“It’s between you and your superiors,” said George K. Mullins, 99, a former sergeant in the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, who recalled the day he landed on Utah Beach with a folding carbine on his belt and two K rations. “We knew there was a spirit somewhere.”

D-Day was not an end but a beginning. The Battle of Normandy zigzagged through the hedges that still divide the fields, swarming with insects in the sun and causing heavy casualties.

A few days into the battle, Sergeant Mullins, now living in Garberville, California, looked up from his foxhole and saw Private First Class William H. Lemaster poking his head out from the edge of his pit two holes away. This turned out to be the last action for the young man from West Virginia.

A German sniper’s bullet passed through Private LeMaster’s head, killing him – a memory so vivid that Sergeant Mullins made a point this week to kneel at his comrade’s grave at the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer.

The cemetery’s 9,388 graves, most marked with white Latin crosses and a few with Stars of David honoring Jewish-American servicemen, seem all the more striking as anti-Semitism resurfaces in Europe.

The Allies did not step up to save Europe’s Jews—a proposal to bomb the railway to Auschwitz was rejected. But the end of the war in Europe 11 months after the Normandy landings did end Hitler’s murder of 6 million Jews.

Today in Germany, Maximilian Krah, the leading candidate for the far-right Alternative for Germany party in this weekend’s European Parliament elections, insisted that not all members of the Nazi paramilitary group the Waffen SS were criminals. Another AfD leader, Björn Höcke, is Convicted last month Use Nazi slogans.

Jan-Werner Mueller, a professor of political science at Princeton University, said: “A far-right party that claims to be a revisionist version of history is getting up to 20% in the polls. I never thought I would see that in my lifetime. There seems to be no limit to what the far right can do.”

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme, as Mark Twain said.

In Normandy, the thousands of men who died as the Allies gained a foothold in Europe were everywhere, their black-and-white photos taped to wooden poles along the First U.S. Division road from Colleville to Omaha Beach. In their youthful expressions, there was innocence and hope. French essayist Roland Barthes once said that there is a disaster hidden in every old photo.

Perhaps, just two years after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world needs no reminders of what it feels like to be swept away by the storm of history, to have all your assumptions shattered, how fragile freedom and life are. Certainly, as armed conflicts rage in Ukraine and Gaza, no reminders of war’s long hold on humanity are needed.

Hatred can make people’s blood boil, while rational compromise and civilized disagreement – the foundation of any healthy, free, law-abiding society – cannot. Today, many politicians in Western societies do not hesitate to use this emotion to attack “the other”.

Colleville Mayor Patrick Tomines stood in front of a school draped with French, American and European Union flags, symbolizing the foundation of the postwar Western transatlantic alliance. “You have to know that peace is never permanent, and the struggle for peace is eternal,” he said. “We should unite to avoid war, but extreme parties are rising and they stand for the exact opposite of what we are celebrating here.”

The celebration has an extraordinary appeal. Pointe du Hoc is a terrifying, cratered landscape that recalls the still-cratered terrain of Verdun during World War I, and makes one wonder how the U.S. Rangers climbed up that cliff. People flocked to see it and marvel at it.

They come from countless countries to join uniformed re-enactor groups. They race through hedges in jeeps, causing endless traffic jams. They party and dance, gather on wide beaches and solemnly contemplate how Europe was saved from Hitler. Their children go to museums to recreate the landscape and the battle.

Yuri Milavc, a Slovenian who drove from Ljubljana in a jeep with 18 friends, said he had come to the Normandy commemorations several times. Today, he said, his feelings were more mixed. “I remember how Europe felt,” he told me. “Now Putin has shown his true colors and is fighting the last imperialist war in Europe.”

President Biden will meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Normandy this week to demonstrate the ally’s support for the country as it faces an intensifying attack from Russia. President Emmanuel Macron has invited Biden to a state dinner on Saturday, and he has chosen to closely link the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings with Ukraine’s fight for freedom.

“I know that our country has brave and fearless young people who are ready to sacrifice as our ancestors did,” he said in a speech in Brittany on Wednesday.

When it comes to spirit, it’s hard to compare to 100-year-old Corporal Wilbur Jack Myers of Company B, 692nd Tank Destroyer Battalion, 104th and 42nd Infantry Divisions. He’s so excited to be in Normandy for Remembrance Day that he says he “isn’t a day over 85!” To prove it, he’s enjoying some karaoke at his home in Hagerstown, Maryland.

Corporal Miles, one of 13 children from a Maryland family, trained as a gunner and arrived in Cherbourg, France, on September 23, 1944. It was the beginning of an adventure that would end in late April 1945 with the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp of Dachau near Munich.

“It really broke my heart to see all those emaciated prisoners, knowing that many of them had died,” Corporal Miles told me. “I’ll never forget it, but for 50 years I kept silent because if I tried to talk about the war I would burst into tears and be embarrassed. Finally, I got the courage.”

Corporal Miles said he felt he had to be part of the fight to stop Hitler, but he didn’t want to die. He was a gunner on a 90mm anti-tank gun, a “terrible weapon,” as he put it. He was emotionally devastated when one of his tank crew members died during a devastating firefight when shrapnel pierced his helmet. The dead man was a Native American named Albert Husk.

“Recently his great-great-nephew saw me on TV and got in touch with me,” said Corporal Myers. “It looked just like his uncle!”

Sometimes he would examine the bodies of Germans, find crosses, and conclude that despite their faith, they were unable to say no to Hitler. His own Christian faith was strong. He said it was this faith that kept him on the right path and loving others, which is what has brought him to where he is today. He believes that hatred is part of human nature, and the pursuit of power and money can lead to wars, but all of this can be overcome with faith. “Hell, I don’t even know you, but I love you!” Corporal Miles said.

He began to brood over the war. “You know, I never kill anyone unnecessarily, even though I often felt that way when we were trapped. I find it hard to believe that Putin is willing to kill people just to take over other countries these days.”

As war breaks out again in Europe, the ghosts that haunt the continent seem ever closer, whereas two decades ago they seemed laid to rest. The European Union was founded to end war, and it has proven to be a magnet for peace. NATO has been Europe’s military guarantor. Both institutions have held the line, but today the line between the world and war is more blurred than it has been for a long time.

Even in festive Normandy, it was hard to shake the feeling. I found myself thinking of the last stanza of Siegfried Sassoon’s “Suicide in the Trench,” a poem about the First World War:

You people with smug faces and fiery eyes
As the soldiers marched, they cheered and leaped for joy,
Sneak home and pray you never know
A hell of youth and laughter.

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