One historian has written of the fall of France in 1940 as a dim and far-off battle, so remote that it seems almost to belong to the era of Haig or even Bismarck. By contrast, the liberation of France that began on 6 June, 1944, was a mighty industrial enterprise conducted by global powers with the aid of synchronised air and naval fleets and new forms of armoured warfare - and bolstered, we now know, by sophisticated code-breaking intelligence. In motivation, scope and means it was recognisably the first modern Western campaign, on a scale and breadth of alliance not witnessed again until the Gulf war of 1991.
D-Day remains an event strictly to be commemorated, not made the object of celebration. It is enough to walk for even five minutes among the silent rows of headstones in the cemeteries on the clifftops and among the orchards of Normandy to make one realise how inappropriate is any ceremony that does not both render homage and induce the most solemn reflection.
It may be that some young people think it just a grand excuse for old men to play with their toys, then damn it all with Falstaff's bitter curse upon false honour. All the more important, then, to reflect that most of those in the Normandy cemeteries were only in their teens and twenties when called upon to act immortally; all the more fitting to reflect upon why their deeds were done and upon the Europe they helped to build.
The D-Day landings marked the high point of Anglo-American co-operation but their effect was to transform the politics of continental Europe. The contest between France and Germany, which had plunged Europe into bloodshed in 1870, 1914 and 1939, was ended by their post-war governments. Western Europe was set on the path towards stability, peace and wealth. Eastern Europe, locked in a barren chamber for four decades, is now groping towards its share in that political inheritance. The United States now turns its eyes towards the Pacific, leaving Britain - where?
His Majesty's Government declared war in 1939 in fulfilment of this country's guarantee to Poland and it prosecuted the invasion of Europe in the vanguard of a host of nations seeking deliverance from Nazi aggression. These actions became necessary because of inertia, appeasement and disinterest in European affairs between 1919 and 1938. Yet there is every risk that history can repeat itself.
Bosnia provides perhaps the most painful of reminders that the comparatively placid Europe born in the deathly hush of 1945 has run its course. British troops are serving in Bosnia today at least in part because European foreign ministers, Douglas Hurd included, did not act in unity and strength to guide the states of the former Yugoslavia towards a peaceful resolution of their arguments.
Internally, the peace of Europe is under threat from ethnic resentment and unfulfilled nationalist dreams. There are perils lurking even in the prosperous societies of endemic unemployment and political extremism. External challenges to the European Union may not yet be manifest, but come they most certainly will.
Within a week of the D-Day anniversary, British voters are called upon to participate in European elections at the end of a campaign marked by deep uncertainty about Britain's attitude to the continent it helped to liberate. Yet if there is one recollection that should be forced upon young and old by the ceremonies of the next few days, it is that Britain has no choice but to act as part of the European body politic. If this country seeks to stand off from European affairs, it may be sure that it cannot escape the results of its abstention. That is the true and relevant lesson of D-Day.Reuse content