I’ve now been sent more than one link to this photo essay from the International Business Times, showing a series of then-and-now photographs from the Normandy landing sites and their immediate vicinity. The photography is pretty well done, and of course the contrast between what was going on that day 70 years ago today and what goes on there now is moving on any of several different levels.
So it’s tacky of me to quibble with it. But I am — or try to be — a stickler for saying things correctly, and not over-blowing statements. I do experience something of a jolt when I see a statement like this: “On June 6, 1944, Allied soldiers descended on the beaches of Normandy for D-Day, an operation that turned the tide of the Second World War against the Nazis, marking the beginning of the end of the conflict.” What I have an issue with is the expression “turned the tide of the Second World War.”
Taking nothing away from the men who stormed ashore there, and the men who died trying, and the men who suffered and died to make the whole thing possible although they never got close enough even to see a smudge of France along the horizon, but whatever else it did do, the Allied invasion of France in June, 1944 did NOT “turn the tide of the Second World War.” Germany had lost the war. She had lost it no later than the surrender at Stalingrad. Her last major offensive in the East was a distant memory by summer, 1944. Even had the U.S. and the British (among whom I include the Canadians, the Aussies, and the Kiwis) not succeeded in opening a second front in the West, the Soviet Union would have gone on to defeat Germany. Would have taken longer, and a lot more Germans and Soviets would have died. But the swastika would have come down all the same.
What D-Day very much turned the tide on was the post-war world. Had Stalin defeated Hitler with his own troops the only ones with boots on the ground, does anyone really think he would have handed over any portion of Germany to the Western allies’ control? Would he even have allowed France or Italy to enjoy any independence?
The Yalta Conference, at which the boundaries of post-war Europe were carved up, and the Eastern Europeans cynically (or cravenly, take your pick) handed over to Stalin was held in February, 1945, by which time the Red Army was in Prussia proper, the Ardennes offensive in December, 1944 had collapsed, and even Hitler had to have known it was game, set, and match. Even with the Western allies standing on the Rhein, practically, Stalin still plucked the goose pretty thoroughly. What would have happened at a Yalta Conference with Eisenhower sacked, Montgomery running about the place whining that it was all Patton’s fault, and Stalin having his communist operatives in the French underground scoping out locations for the new NKVD execution cellars? Would there even have been a Yalta Conference? Why should there have been, under those circumstances? Stalin sure as hell didn’t care how many Soviet soldiers he got killed on his way west (after the war he sent most of the ones who’d seen the west to the Gulag camps). What incentive, from his perspective, would he have had not to tell Roosevelt and Churchill, “You know what? I’ll just take whatever my troops can conquer. You promised me a second front and I don’t see a second front. All bets are off.” Even if the U.S. and Britain had pulled out of the European war Stalin still would have marched into what was left of Berlin.
D-Day made sure that such a scenario never had the chance to occur. The men whose corpses washed gently to and fro in the surf made only a hypothetical material contribution to defeating Hitler. But their lives were not given in vain. Oh no: They made sure that there would in fact be a free Europe when the war was over. The hundreds of millions of Europeans who have lived in freedom since that day owe those freedoms to those men and their comrades who came after them.
And for that, we will forever remember and honor them.