World leaders gathered in Normandy to commemorate the 70th anniversary of a triumphant international coalition against unprecedented global peril. As they gazed at the scripted-for-television hoo-ha on Sword Beach, as they contemplated the last great gathering of D-Day veterans, did Messrs Putin, Obama, Cameron and Hollande, did Ms Merkel, ask themselves the obvious question: what have we learnt in the past 70 years?
By an accident of the calendar, the 70th anniversary of D-Day – and by extension of the East-West, capitalist-communist alliance to defeat Nazism – coincides with the most fractious international climate for years.
Ukraine is on the brink of civil war; the European Union is dangerously split and increasingly unpopular; the Syrian conflict deepens and threatens to spill on to the streets of Europe.
The bizarre “international event” at Ouistreham – part summit-on-a-beach; part jeux sans frontières – offered some grains of hope.
The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, was seen in an earnest two-minute discussion with the newly elected Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel (a fluent Russian speaker). Afterwards, Mr Putin’s spokesman said both he and the Ukrainian leader had called “for the soonest end to bloodshed in south-eastern Ukraine and [to] combat actions by both parties: the Ukrainian armed forces and supporters of the federalisation of Ukraine”.
President François Hollande, in his contribution to the British “official brochure” for D-Day, gave a pointed reminder that, 70 years on, there is a “union of Europe now at peace”. The unwritten but implicit next line was: “But for how long?”
In pictures: D-Day 70th anniversary
In pictures: D-Day 70th anniversary
1/41 D-Day anniversary
British World War II veteran Frederick Glover stands as soldiers parachute down during a D-Day commemoration paratroopers launch event in Ranville, northern France
2/41 D-Day anniversary
D-Day veterans (L-R) Wally Beale (90), Doug Lakey (94), Bernie Howell (89), Bob Conway (88), George French (88), Gordon Smith (90), and Albert Williams (96), from the Royal Wootton Bassett Normandy Veterans Association share a joke during a group photograph on sword Beach after the Royal Artillery Commemoration Parade and service in Hermanville, France
3/41 D-Day anniversary
French Prime minister Manuel Valls (L), British Prime Minister David Cameron (C) and his wife Samantha Cameron (R) at the D-Day commemoration ceremony at the Cathedral in Bayeux, Normandy
4/41 D-Day anniversary
Prince Charles reacts as he watches teams of French, US, Canadian and British paratroopers jumping from aeroplanes during a D-Day commemoration in Ranville, northern France
5/41 D-Day anniversary
D-Day veteran Bill Price (99) who celebrates his 100th birthday on 24 July stands on Gold Beach for well wishers after the last ever flag raising ceremony by the Surrey Normandy Veterans Association in Arromanches Les Bains, France
6/41 D-Day anniversary
Veteran Frederick Carrier (89) who served in the 1st Engineer Special Brigade of the U.S. Army and landed at Utah Beach on D-Day, prays for the 171 men of his unit who died at a monument to them at Utah Beach, France
7/41 D-Day anniversary
D-Day veteran Jack Hamlin (93) who served in Rescue Flotilla Number One of the U.S. Coast Guard, took part in the invasion landing at Omaha Beach and is from Springfield, Missouri, attends the U.S. D-Day Ceremony at Utah Beach, France
8/41 D-Day anniversary
A D-Day re-enactment enthusiast wears the American flag at a re-enactment camp near Utah Beach in Sainte Marie du Mont, France
9/41 D-Day anniversary
British World War II veteran Jock Hutton (89), poses following his landing after he and teams of French, US, Canadian and British paratroopers jumped from aeroplanes during a D-Day commemoration in Ranville, northern France
10/41 D-Day anniversary
The Red Arrows display team perform over Southsea Common at the end of a commemoration service of the D-Day landings in Portsmouth, England
11/41 D-Day anniversary
Queen Elizabeth II (L) and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (3L) are welcomed by French President Francois Hollande (2L) and Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Development, Laurent Fabius (R) at the Elysee Presidential Palace as part of a bilateral meeting during an Official visit in Paris ahead of the 70th Anniversary Of The D-Day in Paris, France
12/41 D-Day anniversary
The RAF's Red Arrows perform over Southsea Common in Hampshire, to mark the 70th Anniversary of the D-Day landings
13/41 D-Day anniversary
A French man dressed in vintage military clothing drives an old American military jeep on the beachside in Arromanches-les-Bains, northern France
14/41 D-Day anniversary
Czech citizens Gallomichal Seznam and Zdznek Barchaler, dressed in old vintage military uniforms, walk on the beach in Arromanches-les-Bains, northern France
15/41 D-Day anniversary
British Marines and their Dutch counterparts demonstrate a beach assault near Southsea Common in Hampshire to mark the 70th Anniversary of the D-Day landings
16/41 D-Day anniversary
WW2 veteran Fred Holborn, from the Fleet Air Arm, salutes as he looks at British Legion Union flags carrying thank you messages planted in the sand on Gold beach near Asnelles, France. 20,000 paper flags are being planted. Each one carries a personal message of Remembrance submitted by Royal British Legion supporters
17/41 D-Day anniversary
A paratrooper lands on Sword Beach near international flags during a D-Day celebration rehearsal in Ouistreham, on the Normandy coast
18/41 D-Day anniversary
Helen Patton, granddaughter of General Patton, is parachuted during a US-German D-Day commemoration ceremony in honour of airborne soldiers in Picauville, northern France
19/41 D-Day anniversary
French 1st RCP paratrooper carrying US flag is seen over Sword beach in Ouistreham, northern France
20/41 D-Day anniversary
A Spitfire (R) and an "Eurfighter" both painted with invasion stripes fly over Sword beach in Ouistreham, northern France
21/41 D-Day anniversary
Queen Elizabeth II arrives at the Gare du Nord during an Official visit in Paris ahead of the 70th Anniversary Of The D-Day in Paris, France
22/41 D-Day anniversary
The Prince of Wales meets veterans near Pegasus Bridge during D-Day Commemorations in Ranville, France
23/41 D-Day anniversary
Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall meets veterans near Pegasus Bridge (Also known as the Benouville Bridge - The taking of the Bridge was an important strategic victory) during D-Day Commemorations in Ranville, France
24/41 D-Day anniversary
A US WWII veteran stands in front of US flags during a US-German D-Day commemoration ceremony in honour of airborne soldiers in Picauville, northern France
25/41 D-Day anniversary
US veteran Edward Oleksak looks on during a US-German D-Day commemoration ceremony in honour of airborne soldiers in Picauville, northern France
26/41 D-Day anniversary
World War II Allied members Canada's, United States', France's, and United Kingdom's flag hanging in Ouistreham, western France
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British and Canadian flags laid at a military cemetery in Ranville, northwestern France
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A British soldier pays his respects as he visits a military cemetery in Ranville, northwestern France
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A visitor examines a gravestone at the German Cemetery where approximately 21,000 German World War II soldiers are buried at La Cambe, France
30/41 D-Day anniversary
Normany veteran 90-year-old Geoff Pattinson sits at his home in London, England. On D-Day he set out in one of three gliders that were meant to crash land at the Merville battery and the troops were tasked with taking out the long range guns. However during the flight to France the tow rope snapped and the glider was forced to land in England. He flew again later that day and was a few weeks later was wounded in Normandy by a German machine gun. Asked what his most vivid memory of D-Day was he replied: 'Most of us thought we had landed in France. When we got out though, low and behold we were still in England and that was the anti-climax of my life. I couldn't believe we had missed our target and I couldn't believe we had landed in England'
31/41 D-Day anniversary
Normandy veteran 92-year-old Vera Hay stands outside the Grange Hotel in Grange over Sands in Cumbria, England. Vera, who was in the Queen Alexandras Royal Army Nursing Corps one of the first nurses to land at Normandy shortly after D-Day. Vera, who was a Junior Sister, then travelled 10 miles to the Chateau de Beaussy and took care of up to 200 injured soldiers a day. Asked what her most vivid memory of D-Day was she replied: 'The need of the casualties both our own troops and the German prisoners of war. They all were patients to us. They needed rehydration, rest, morphine to keep the comfortable and we were using the new penicillin'
32/41 D-Day anniversary
British World War II veteran Harry Humphreys (92) from the 4th Royal Dragoon Guard, reacts after his visit at Bayeux's war cemetery, while an old allied military vehicle passes by, in northern France
33/41 D-Day anniversary
Lewis Trinder formerly of the Royal Navy poses for photographs as he walks through Arromanches in Normandy, France
34/41 D-Day anniversary
Soldiers travelling on a vintage jeep cross Pegasus Bridge (also known as the Benouville Bridge) during D-Day Commemoration in Ranville, France
35/41 D-Day anniversary
Pipers march past Cafe Gondree, the Pegasus Bridge Cafe, the first house in France to be liberated during the last hour of 5 June 1944, during D-Day Commemorations in Ranville, France
36/41 D-Day anniversary
British soldiers stand next to their weapons placed on the ground, in front of Bayeux's war cemetery, northern France
37/41 D-Day anniversary
Italian and British military enthusiasts watch from Utah beach as Dakota aircraft flypast near Saint Marie du Mont, France
38/41 D-Day anniversary
World War II veteran Charles Alford of the 6th Armor Division, from Waco, Texas, climbs the stairs with his son David on Omaha Beach where he landed as part of the invasion of Normandy in Vierville-Sur-Mer, France
39/41 D-Day anniversary
British World War II veteran reacts as he visits the war cemetery of Ranville, northwestern France
40/41 D-Day anniversary
Paul Clifford (70) from Boston stands after placing flowers on the grave of Walter J. Gunther Jr, the uncle of his best friend, in the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, in Colleville sur Mer, France
41/41 D-Day anniversary
Harry Grew (92) who was in the Royal Navy, gets fussed by the Candy Girls, (R) Elkie Jeffery (L) Freyja Sculpher and Debbie Watt on board the Brittany cross channel ferry Normandie, travelliing from Portsmouth to Caen in Portsmouth, England
Earlier, at Omaha Beach, the US President, Barack Obama, also made the link between the sacrifices of 1944 and the menaces of 2014. Standing before ranks of white crosses in the US cemetery and an ageing band of 250 brothers who had crossed the Atlantic for the anniversary, Mr Obama said: “Whenever the world makes you cynical – stop and think of these men.”
He also promised the US veterans: “I want each of you to know that your legacy is in good hands.”
Is it? The imperilled world of 70 years ago threw up monsters in Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. It also threw up, in Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle, larger-than-life leaders who were able to inspire their nations while defending the values of freedom and democracy. The leaders assembled on Sword Beach have so far failed to inspire a belief that this “legacy is in good hands”.
Instead, it was international tensions of the current age which cast a long shadow over the day, with some of the 20 heads of state in attendance engaged in bitter accusations and recriminations over Ukraine and Syria – vicious conflicts which threaten a slide back towards the days of the Cold War.
As thousands gathered at the town of Ouistreham, under an azure blue sky, talks were also taking place away from the official banquets between Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin; the latter also met Mr Porochenko.
But these brief encounters, neither lasting more than 15 minutes, appeared to signify no more than a general desire for peace. The very fact that it had taken months for such talks to take place, even while the conflict was raging in Ukraine, highlighted the challenges faced in defusing the tensions within the international community.
Moscow may, however, send an ambassador back to Ukraine after diplomatic relations fractured following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin aide, stated: “During the brief conversation, both Putin and Poroshenko called for a quick end to the bloodshed in south-east Ukraine and also to military activity in both sides. It was also confirmed there is no alternative to settling the situation by peaceful means.”
Meanwhile, fighting continued in Ukraine itself, with the Kiev government claiming that 15 separatists had been killed in clashes at the village of Marynivka on the Russian border and Ukrainian forces attempting to make another advance into the rebel stronghold of Slovyansk.
Just 24 hours earlier the US President had warned that “if Russia’s provocations in Ukraine continue, the G7 nations are ready to impose costs” by way of further sanctions. He was also said to be against fellow Western leaders meeting Mr Putin until the Kremlin had shown signs of changing its policy towards Ukraine.
Nonetheless, both David Cameron and Angela Merkel met the Russian President during his French visit, the Prime Minister stressing that the purpose of the meeting was to tell Mr Putin that “the status quo… is not acceptable and needs to change. We need to stop arms and people crossing the border; we need action on these fronts.” Christiane Wirtz, speaking for the German Chancellor, said Ms Merkel “took the opportunity to remind Russia again of its great responsibility and to state that the priority was the stabilisation of the situation in the eastern Ukraine”.
Neither Mr Cameron nor Ms Merkel made any mention that Crimea had been discussed, adding to the perception that the West has now accepted the annexation by the Kremlin as a fait accompli. Visiting German officials could not say whether Mr Poroshenko had raised the loss of the Ukrainian territory with the Chancellor during his own meeting with her on Thursday.
Mr Hollande, meanwhile, had gone to extraordinary lengths of gastronomic diplomacy in an attempt to establish concord between Mr Obama and Mr Putin. Tonight he dined with the American President at the Michelin-starred Chiberta restaurant before returning to the Elysée Palace, bearing messages, for a second meal with Mr Putin.
Despite their private meeting, the American and Russian leaders gave no sign of a rapprochement in their public appearances. At an official photo call outside the Elysée in the afternoon, Mr Obama and Mr Putin stood three feet apart, with the Queen in between. As they went back inside, the US President spoke to the Queen, and his Russian counterpart to Mr Hollande. They did not speak to each other.
Later, at the ceremony on Sword Beach, where Mr Obama earned repeated applause, the two men continued to ignore each other while standing two paces apart. Their body language became such a source of fascination among the crowds craning their necks to look that the recording of the event, on a public screen, displayed a split shot of the two leaders to loud laughter. The American President grinned; but Russia’s man of destiny, as his supporters project him, would not be moved, staring straight ahead.
In his speech, President Hollande spoke of how Europe, after the scourge of the Second World War, must solve its differences without violence and the need for the United Nations to intervene. Some took it as veiled criticism of Russia’s actions in Ukraine. But there was prolonged applause when he stressed the monumental part the Red Army played in defeating Hitler, and the huge losses suffered by the Russian people – a ready acknowledgment of the alliance of 70 years in a just war, on a moving and auspicious day.
But that war has now passed from memory into history. Today’s leaders have been at pains to show that they remember the “greatest generation”, who overcame a storm of fire and steel to save Western Europe, at least, from tyranny. The question remains: what, if anything, have they learnt?