The Guardian, London:
Perhaps the earth heals faster than people. The sand of Normandyâ€™s beaches is blond now rather than crimson; the sea runs summer-blue rather than corpse-red. The hills and farmland do not squelch underfoot with human blood, but roll green and serene. In 60 years, the wounds that D-day inflicted on the landscape have closed over. The human healing, it seems, is a little more complicated. On the one hand, the raw memories are fading. The veterans, many of them hobbling and hunched, still carry the pain of what they saw but they are now in the late autumn of their lives. As too many have been cruelly reminding them, most will be gone by the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings. So 6 Juneâ€™s day of ceremony represented a passing of the torch â€” out of the aged hands of living memory and into the grasp of history.
As if to confirm it, the main international event hosted by Jacques Chirac on the clifftop at Arromanches relied as much on archives as on surviving testimony. The old soldiers had their parade but for the rest they were in the audience, asked to watch the video screens beaming out giant-sized pictures of their younger selves or the friends they left behind. D-day was passing into history before their very eyes. Few veterans seemed to mind that. Despite the heavy losses sustained here â€” the Allied armies left 110,000 comrades behind in Normandyâ€™s military cemeteries â€” nearly everyone involved believes it was worth it. Indeed, visible throughout the weekend was a nostalgic yearning for what D-day and the liberation of Europe from Hitler has come to represent â€” the age of great moral clarity.
George Bush caught this sentiment well, early in the day, in a first-rate speech at a ceremony for Americaâ€™s fallen at Colleville cemetery, overlooking the strip of shore that came to be known as Bloody Omaha. He quoted the diary of a young Dutch girl, in hiding in an attic when she heard the word of D-day: â€œIt still seems too wonderful, like a fairytale. I may yet be able to go back to school in September or October.â€ The girl was Anne Frank. No one needed to spell it out, but the stakes of the second world war were so high, the cause so great, that our own time seems dwarfed by it. It felt appropriate that when the veterans marched past, the line of seated world leaders stood to applaud them. That seemed the right way around. There was no doubt who looked the bigger men.
That the battle was long ago and the cause just has helped the healing, but more recent effort has played a role, too. Gerhard Schroder became the first German chancellor to attend a D-day ceremony; his countryâ€™s flag flew alongside those of the nations it fought 60 years ago. In 1994 Helmut Kohl had asked not to be invited: He could not stand in Normandy celebrating with those who had inflicted such miserable defeat on his countrymen. Ten years on, Schroder sat next to Tony Blair, nodding as Chirac declared the Franco-German relationship an example to the world. The end of the cold war allowed another new guest. For decades Russia was the forgotten ally but, now free of communism, it was allowed back in yesterday. Vladimir Putin rode in on the world leadersâ€™ charabanc along with the rest of them. When the Polish armed forcesâ€™ band formed part of the warm-up entertainment â€” doing a medley of Abba tunes, including a goose-stepping version of Dancing Queen that seemed to be a straight lift from Mel Brooksâ€™ Springtime for Hitler â€” the picture of a united Europe was complete.
Surely Schroder was right to say that D-day 2004 was the moment â€œthat the post-war period is finally over.â€™â€™ And yet, not every scar has healed. Just as the old tensions fade, some new ones have appeared. Most eyes were peeled for signs of tension between Chirac and Bush. The French president obliged with a loaded reference to the UN, battleground for so much of the Iraq crisis. He pointedly reminded his guest that the values of the wartime allies are â€œstill symbolised and guaranteed today by the charter of the UN.â€ Bush seemed to aim his own barb, promising at Colleville that â€œAmerica would do it all again â€” for our friends.â€ Message: we stick with those who stick with us. The French themselves, one soon realised, have their own ambivalences toward D-day. For a long time, they were uncertain how to mark the occasion: They felt relief to be free, of course, but also a touch of humiliation that deliverance had had to come from across the sea. They seemed to deal with it through overcompensation: In the flypast and naval review, French forces loomed large. The untutored observer would have assumed it was French might which liberated France in 1944.
Such matters amuse now rather than hurt. For the D-day story is too big for diplomatic trifles. Six decades on, it still offers a remarkable glimpse of what human beings are capable of. They can be ingenious, witness the effort to tow a man-made harbour to Normandy or the campaign of military deception that led the Germans to believe the invasion would happen at Pas de Calais or Norway. They can be brave, both as individuals and in a collective endeavour. Nations can work together â€” and they can do it all in the service of a noble cause. The next generation will not have their own memories of all this. But nor are they likely to forget.
Six decades on, the D-day still offers a remarkable glimpse of what human beings are capable of.