Brian Milne address the history of that week in June 1944 and put those events into today’s context.
Christos Mouzeviris contributed an article under the title ‘The commemorations of Europe’s Day can no longer be about the Continent’s past’ on 8 May. Since then we have seen another event, one of the past of our continent’s worst periods remembered. On 6 June several leaders of nations took part in a celebration of the Normandy landings that began the western theatre of war that was to end WW2. It was perhaps above all else meant to be a remembrance of the war dead, at least the military aspect of it.
For many years I have found the like of D-Day landings celebrations and other remembrance events a sickening reminder of the egotism of victory patriotism – ‘We won the war!’ All the while France, the UK and USA celebrate the landings and victory thereafter, I have a chill that runs down my spine. Media attention is paid to the western allies whose present heads of state or people representing them are always there. It is always the people representing France, the UK and USA media focus on, taking in and even broadcasting their every word. They talk of peace and alliances, they sentimentalise the dead although their actual deaths were often anything but heroic since the men and some women thrust out into the open to face the enemy were often mown down or blown to smithereens in the first seconds of reaching the front line. So the politicians and some royals or people standing in for them deliver their eulogies without, in most cases, any personal knowledge whatsoever of what being at the front in war means. They also forget many more people who have been killed or maimed for life.
In the case of WW2, there were many Polish soldiers attached to the UK forces, units of free Polish Army soldiers in reality, in the sky were numerous Polish pilots, unmentioned are the Indian and especially Sikh pilots. Whilst the commonwealth gets a cursory look in, the many Canadians, in this case Justin Trudeau was there for them and reported as a second level political VIP, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Irish, Indians, East Africans and so on. Around 50 allied nations joined forces against Germany, Japan, and the other Axis powers. Few countries in the world remained totally neutral. The 50 includes 75 countries and protectorates that were then in the British Empire, without including the UK, that contributed in one way or another, in some cases provided soldiers but often through supplies and even taxes to fund the UK effort. There are no exact numbers, however around 100,000 men from all of Ireland fought, estimates of around 5,000 Irish volunteers were killed during WW1, many thousands more wounded and there were also some civilian casualties.
The horrors of war in numbers
Worldwide an estimated total of 70–85 million people perished, which was about 3% of the 1940 world population of approximately 2.3 billion. Some nations suffered more than others. The estimates for the Soviet Union are 10.6 million military deaths, 10 million civilians died as a result of military actions and what we now call crimes against humanity, with a further 6 million who died of starvation due to a war caused famine and disease. That is a horrifying estimate of 26,600,000 or 13.7% of a population a little over 194 million. The largest part of the Soviet Union, Russia, suffered estimates of 6.75 million of those military deaths, 4.1 million through crimes against humanity, 3.1 million because of famine and disease, adding up to 12.7% of a population just over 110 million. If the upper estimate of 85 million worldwide deaths is used, then that is a little above one third of all deaths. That needs to be put in perspective when we look at WW2, not just the nonetheless terrible numbers of losses in one theatre of war.
One reason why Europe must remember is that the two ‘world wars’ are part of European history that have indeed seen more deaths than ever before. However, if we look at conflicts in Europe since around 1500, many of them generally unknown to most people, then we can reflect on why peaceful union is necessary. The Italian Wars of 1494-1559 cost approximately 345,000 lives; the German Peasants’ War, 1524-25, 100,000; French Wars of Religion, 1562-98, 2,800,000; Anglo-Spanish War, 1585–1604, 138,000; the Thirty Years War, 1618-48, 5,700,000; Franco-Spanish War, 1635–59, 200,000, Wars of the Three Kingdoms, 1639-51, 876,000; English Civil War, 1642-51, 510,000; Franco-Dutch War, 1672-78, 220,000; the Great Northern War, 1700-21, 350,000; War of the Spanish Succession, 1702-14, 707,000; the Seven Years War, 1756-63, 1,100,000; the French Revolutionary Wars, 1792-1802, 1,000,000; the French invasion of Russia, 1812, 540,000; the Carlist Wars, 1820-76, 200,000; the Balkan Wars,1912-13, 140,00; WW1, 1914-18, 23,500,000; the Russian Civil War (including the actual Revolution, 1917-21, 6,708,000; the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39, 707,100; the Winter War, 1939-40, 173,000; WW2, 1939-45, 85,000,000; the Greek Civil War, 1946-49, 158,000; the Bosnian War, 1991-95, 101,000; and the Yugoslav Wars (excluding Bosnia), 1995-2001, 135,000. There we also many smaller wars such as the Jacobean rebellions from 1689-1746 with in excess of 2000 lost lives, between 1500 and 1847 the supposedly always peaceful and neutral Switzerland fought numerous small wars including civil and religious wars and some small uprisings, with some thousands of casualties, as too numerous other small European, often very local rebellions and uprisings such as the Irish War of Independence, 1919-21. If we think in terms of 135,000,000 as a loose estimate and remembering that these are the guesstimated military deaths, then imagine the numbers of civilians who also died by one means or another as a result of conflict, then the number is astronomical, beyond belief. Most of them are barely, if ever, acknowledged.
Remember the real history
So when looking at Normandy especially, we must also remember that in the east the Soviet troops were already pushing the Germans back hard and fast with enormous losses. The only thing I ever really liked about my father was his attitude to D-Day and victory celebrations generally. He was one of the people who went across the stormy Channel with Mulberry Harbour, then was one of the many men who assembled the pontoons that had been towed over the sea and got in running order for the landings. He saw fellow soldiers killed and wounded, some fell in the sea and were never recovered because the weather was foul and they had a job to do. There are many people whose fathers would never speak about what they saw or directly experienced on such days. Those who did often made a feast of a meal of what often turned into a parody of heroism in that even if entirely true, their versions sounded like the imaginations of a war author or film maker. Some accounts even made what was constructed in big screen war films, starring the like of John Wayne who would always depict the hero who did the impossible. Some of them did. Some of those people did not euphemise or exaggerate but would always say that it should never happen again.
Now we have the like of Donald Trump, a number of nationalist cum populists leaders and belligerent Brexiteers who hate Europe as a single body or union, who simply celebrate ‘their victory’ although none of the present politicians would have fought or were even born, who hypocritically go there to remember the glory of war, basically forget the peace and are extremely belligerent in their outlook. The USA we hardly need to think about, but with Iraq, Libya and much more tucked away in post-WW2 history, neither France nor the UK have much to be proud of. Right now with Brexit being just one symptom of rampant nationalism arising again, the possibility of European war is renewing itself. That should be when the message is about the peace, not the glory. Acknowledgement of all victims, west and east, civilian and military and especially those whose beliefs or ethnicity ended their lives should be what is remember, not simply battlegrounds and those who died there.
More than two thousand years too many
After over two millennia of there being some kind of conflict in Europe, somewhere if not widespread and bearing in mind that we begin to look at Europe as a continent when looking at the Roman conquest of large parts of it. Even then, Rome never conquered all, so there was always conflict on the periphery and frequently within during that time, followed by centuries of invasion and war as the Roman Empire declined and withdrew from its occupied territories. Yet after more than two thousand years we selectively remember two wars and usually forget the rest, except that in history books that really are often fake news, after all Wellington Anglo-Allied army was around 68,000 of which only 25,000 were British, with 6,000 men of the King’s German Legion, 11,000 Hanoverians, 6,000 from Brunswick, 3,000 from Nassau, and 17,000 from the Netherlands, thus something in the region of 65% from Germanic states fighting for him because the British army was so depleted by years of war and then it was really von Blücher’s Prussian army that made the decisive rally that defeated the French at Waterloo. So we glorify. but do not dare to do what was done on 6 June although almost every battlefield and place where conflict took place is known, where mass killing of innocents happened, where there are known to be unmarked mass graves that are only ever visited by archaeologists and all else we cast aside that is not treated equally with the events of the 20 century. To be true to the desire to see everlasting peace on our continent we should remember all the dead, all nations, military and civilian alike, remember what really happened, remember how often wars began that should never have happened but did because so often monarchs and nobles had scores to settle with each other that they used the masses to resolve, even WW1 as honest historians have shown for quite some time but nostalgia lovers refuse to see was more or less that.
The truth matters
I make a habit of rubbing salt into wounds by quoting figures of Soviet military and civilian deaths as often as I can, not as a Soviet sympathiser but as somebody who prefers whole rather than partial truths. I could rub more salt in by citing other European casualties in Poland and what was then Czechoslovakia because the UK and France did not honour treaties that obliged the two countries to defend them. Yes, France was caught with their pants down, but who tried to help them immediately? The UK hosted not just the Free French Army in exile but also the same of Poles, Czechs and even some Russians like the Cossacks. Commonwealth troops often carried the heavy burden of loss, for example 61,000 Canadians were killed in WW2, another 172,000 wounded, with around 1600 who died through crimes against humanity and also used badly for instance, 916 died, many were wounded or captured so that only 2,210 of an expeditionary force of 4,963 who took part in the so-called Dieppe Raid in August 1942 returned to England. The eastern Europeans who escaped did not want to sit back hoping their countries would be liberated, they joined the western allies to liberate their countries actively, in some cases also betrayed because their countries became the spoils of war effectively divided among the victorious allies that gave their liberation to the Soviet Union thus obliged them to become part of that sphere of influence until 1989 and 90. At the end of WW2 they sent most of the eastern Europeans home. The repatriation of Cossacks happened when they and other between 45 and 50,000 ethnic Russians and Ukrainians who had fought with Germany against the Soviet Union were handed over to the Soviet Union by the British forces in 1945 almost certainly knowing they were condemning them to death by one means or another. They disappeared entirely, presumably all ‘eradicated’ because they had been opponents of the Russian regime since the time of the Revolution on. They chose the side of the occupying Germans as a means of continuing their fight against the communist regime rather than an alliance with Germany. To send them back to those they were actually fighting when the oppressive nature of the Stalinist regime was so clear was a crime against humanity itself. Apart from a few historians, little is ever said about those war casualties.
We also know that during WW1 ‘shell shocked’, what we today call post traumatic stress disorder, and otherwise unfit to fight men were forced to go over the top or be put in front of a firing squad, but how often is anything said about the many conscience objectors, many of them for religious reasons and others for legitimate moral reasons, and unfit for military service people were sent to the front as civilian services such as medical orderlies and stretcher bearers, lots of different jobs, but many of them died or were wounded too. Many of them were far more courageous than conscripts who were basically shown how to pull a trigger with their weapon pointing in the right direction since as long as they did not have to bear arms they went without resisting. However, we have more than sufficient documentation, including film, that show men arriving at the front to pour out of the trenches with only seconds of their lives left, on some days so many thousand dying to try to seize a few metres of ground. The photographs of the aftermath of some days of action are shocking and sickening at once. Many of the people who fought and civilians trapped at the front are still unaccounted for, some were blown to smithereens will nothing but scraps to find, whereas others still lay where they fell, not in the vast war cemeteries, many are still simply listed as missing. WW2 was a little less harsh, but then war had become far more sophisticated by then, however so-called cowards were also victims rather than ‘baddies’, the conscientious objectors also went to the front without weapons, many more were imprisoned for their strong beliefs, called traitors.
The whole picture
Piece together the whole picture and see many more truths, then hear the accounts of people like my father who saw the front who were willing or able to speak, who delivered detail to historians who sometimes glorify those events but in many more cases have presented us with a more realistic version of events. It is not a picture we should be proud of in reality, many if most of those lost lives remembered were futile, fleeting moments of probably frightened people hoping to survive who rarely had a chance.
In The Independent on 6 June there was a report that put those events in 1944 in context. ‘Brexit: Military veterans call for Final Say vote on D-Day anniversary.’ The 122 signatories warned that Brexit will threaten peace and friendship in Europe. On the 75 anniversary of D-Day, more the 122 military veterans signed a letter warning that peace and friendship in Europe is threatened by Brexit. Those veterans, whose service spans the period from the WW2 to contemporary conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, said that the peace which has prevailed in Europe since 1945 “should not be taken for granted”. That letter came as D-Day veteran Eric Chardin, aged 19 when he took part in the 1944 landings, said that the prospect of Brexit worried him. “I can’t help feeling that it would be an awful shame if what we’ve gone to so much trouble to do, to collect the European big nations together, to break it all up now would be a crying shame.” Eric Chardin, now 94, was interviewed by the BBC at the 75 anniversary commemorations in Portsmouth demanded there must be a Final Say referendum on Brexit, whereby the signatories to the letter that was also published in The Independent reminded those it addressed that the EU should take credit for helping keep the peace in Europe.
Altiero Spinelli was a communist and opponent of the Mussolini fascism regime, thus held prisoner on the Italian island of Ventotene during WW2. Along with Ernesto Rossi he wrote ‘Per un’Europa libera e unita. Progetto d’un manifesto’, in English ‘For a Free and United Europe. A Draft Manifesto’, more commonly known as the ‘Ventotene Manifesto’, in prison. It is one of the bases of the European Union today. One of the most important messages in that manifesto is the concept of the continent united in peace. Peace was one of the main aims of most immediate post war politicians was the end of all wars in Europe for the rest of time. It is reflected in the 1957 Treaty of Rome. We still have a measurable distance before us to have a genuinely free and united Europe.
A united Europe began to preserve peace, it was never intended to provoke the super wealthy neoliberals who want to be richer through inward looking and xenophobic political parties they fund for a good return. It is quite right to remember, but tell the truth and stop glorifying lost lives as noble. They were not, they were sent to die by people who did not usually as much as dirty their hands. We should not simply make particular violent events 100 or 75 years ago into media events that showcase contemporary politicians, most of them having never seen any kind of conflict front line, indeed in at least one case being a draft dodger, who deliver the eulogies then use them to trumpet their own country’s greatness, often a debatable issue in and of itself.
In the wake of 1945 Europe saw the creation of the Council of Europe, with the European Convention on Human Rights and later the Court tasked with upholding that convention, at first the European steel and coal/EEC/EU, in fact also the United Nations and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, all grew out of the intent of never allowing such events to happen in the world again. Their success is measured, if not actually in many respects poor because universal peace has never been achieved for a single moment since 1945, but the intent is still as valid as ever. Here in Europe we have so much to gain by ending the conflicts of two millennia and more that range from local uprisings, through civil wars and revolutions to inter-country and multinational international wars and irrespective of whether their victims were killed or wounded by arrow, spear or cannonball, bullet, mortar shell or bomb, and more importantly overlooking whether they were conscripted or forced to fight, innocent bystanders or otherwise non-combatant victims, remembrance should embrace them all but mainly serve to warn of the waste and futility of all conflicts. At a time when new divisions are being driven by nationalists and separatists whose ideology is xenophobic and aggressive toward all but those they consider ‘their own’ we see enough that reminds of the events that followed 1918 that bore consequences until 1989 marked the true end of the Cold War, including the WW1 from 1914 onward was also 75 years. But each 75 years is simply a small fraction of 2000 and more years, the larger part of which we discard from out ‘celebrations’ and ‘remembrance’.
One does not need to be a pacifist to demand peace, thus to have freedom and unity, simply an open mind without any special visionary perspectives. Wars are driven by patriotism that is usually the creation of those who govern or rule countries or movements within countries who use those they consequently command to fight their wars. Ultimately, the common folk of one nation will bear no grudge against another until they are told there is a disagreement that can only be violently resolved and then they follow. The exception may be where revolutionaries, rebels or resistance fighters choose a cause to follow which they are willing to fight and die for. Otherwise, most people who fight wars are enlisted to fight, many if not most of them by way of compulsory conscription. The editors and contributors of Europa United are of an assortment of origins, living in several countries, some of them have at times been enemies, even fought bitter wars. Yet it is the word ‘United’ that binds us, not the jingoism of a patriotism that needs victories and remembrance to celebrate, not so much to remember the dead but to tell people how valiant their country is. To remember is right but to remember every one of those who died in or because of wars, who were wounded and maimed, who lost part of or their entire families and even communities, but all of them over the millennia who probably all suffered because of what was so often considered the war to end all wars. Above all else we should remember every casualty of every war as victims, all equal and without the distinctions ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’, our side and the enemies, no nation different to another since the vast majority of all people who fall are victims. The important message is that voiced by Eric Chardin and other veterans of Normandy and other parts of WW2 who are still alive who do not glorify war although they remember their dead comrades. Their message is that of never again. A united Europe gives us that precious gift if we use it gainfully and protect it.