D-Day 70th anniversary commemorations: The world remembers. But what, if anything, have we learnt?
As memory fades into history, new tensions cast their shadow over the commemorations
John Lichfield has been The Independent's man in Paris since 1997, covering French news. Before that, he was the paper's Foreign Editor and he has also worked in Brussels and Washington. In 1999, he was the UK press Awards Foreign Reporter of the year.
Friday 06 June 2014
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?”
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.
British World War II veteran Major Hugh Pond, 91 (Reuters)
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”.
People walk along British national flags in Asnelles, Normandy (Getty Images)
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.
Veteran Morley Piper, 90, salutes during a D-Day commemoration, on Omaha Beach in Vierville sur Mer, western France (AP)
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?
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