The Ghosts of D-Day

The battle is long over, but the fight against extremist illiberal politics is not.

Men of a U.S. tank division trained for D-Day in England on May 9, 1944.
Men of a U.S. tank division trained for D-Day in England on May 9, 1944. (AP)

Charles de Gaulle found the memory of D-Day so painful that he refused to participate in commemorations of the Normandy invasion during his 11 years as president of France. He did not invite heads of government to mark either the 20th anniversary in 1964 or the 25th in 1969. Old soldiers saluted; ambassadors laid wreaths.

President Dwight Eisenhower had tried to salve the French hurt in the statement he released for the 10th anniversary in 1954. The statement did not mention the United States or its armed forces. It praised by name three British commanders, three French, one Soviet—no Americans. It credited the victory to “the joint labors of cooperating nations,” and said “it depended for its success upon the skill, determination and self-sacrifice of men from several lands.” You might want to read it as a prophylactic antidote to the boast and bombast likely to fill the air today.

The experience of liberation was a complex thing for almost every country that experienced it from 1943 to 1945, but perhaps nowhere more than France. In the American imagination of 1944, France exists as a throng of cheering, welcoming faces, as women kissing GIs, as a landscape through which Allied tanks and trucks roar on their way to Germany. Depending on our mood, we romanticize the Resistance or excoriate collaborators—seldom caring to remember how ambiguously collaboration and resistance often blended together, or how often collaborators and resisters were the same people at different phases of the war or even different times of the same day.

To be liberated, first you must be defeated.

Everything about these D-Day anniversaries reminds the French of that humiliating sequence. When de Gaulle landed in Normandy for a one-day visit on June 14, he traveled back-and-forth across the English Channel in a British warship. De Gaulle’s ability to establish a provisional government depended on the permission of U.S. and British authorities—and so, ultimately, would the even more fraught question whether France would be accepted again as a major ally.

For four years, Vichy France had supplied and aided Germany. Vichy planes had bombed Gibraltar in 1940; Vichy tax collectors had extracted resources to pay the German occupiers. When Italy changed sides in 1943, it was treated as a liberated nation—but it was not accepted as a co-belligerent. France’s post-D-Day status utterly depended on British and American goodwill. For a man like de Gaulle, that dependency rankled.

De Gaulle’s famous speech of August 25, 1944, after the liberation of Paris, starkly reveals the fictions that would restore French pride.

“Paris! Paris outraged! Paris broken! Paris martyred! But Paris liberated! Liberated by itself, liberated by its people with the help of the French armies, with the support and the help of all France, of the France that fights, of the only France, of the real France, of the eternal France! … It will not even be enough that we have, with the help of our dear and admirable Allies, chased him from our home for us to consider ourselves satisfied after what has happened. We want to enter his territory as is fitting, as victors.”

France did enter Germany as a victor. French armies, supplied by the United States, subordinate to U.S. command, were stood up in 1944–45. France was allotted an occupation zone in Germany and awarded a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. (Italy was not even invited to join the United Nations until 1955.) Allied officialdom agreed to believe de Gaulle’s story that the France that fought Nazi Germany was the only real France.

But everyone understood the story was not true. The French military defeat in 1940 had torn apart social wounds dating back decades and longer. Conservative and Catholic France reinterpreted the battles of 1940 as a debacle only of the liberal and secular France that had held the upper hand since the founding of the Third Republic in 1871 and especially since the Dreyfus affair that began in 1894. When the reactionary French writer Charles Maurras was sentenced to life imprisonment for collaboration, he supposedly replied, “It’s the revenge of Dreyfus.”

Most French business leaders and civil servants collaborated out of opportunism or necessity. The Germans held hundreds of thousands of captured French soldiers as hostages for years after 1940. But more than a few leading French people, including many intellectuals and churchmen, collaborated out of a species of conviction. A French cardinal led the recruitment of French volunteers to fight alongside the Germans in Russia in 1941. “How can I, in a moment so decisive, refuse to approve the common noble enterprise directed by Germany, dedicated to liberate Russia from the bonds that have held it for the last twenty-five years, suffocating its old human and Christian traditions, to free France, Europe, and the world from the most pernicious and most sanguinary monster that mankind has ever known, to raise the peoples above their narrow interests, and to establish among them a holy fraternity revived from the time of the Christian Middle Ages?” Cardinal Alfred Baudrillart wrote, in his endorsement of the Anti-Bolshevik Legion.

The loss of the war against Germany enabled such people to launch a much more congenial culture war at home, to purge France of “liberty, equality, and fraternity,” the slogan of 1789, and establish in its place “work, family, fatherland,” the slogan of Vichy. Since 1905, France had been defined as a secular state. The Catholic Church had been reduced to one sect among others: Protestant, Jewish, even Muslim. (In 1920, the French government had subsidized the building of a grand mosque in thanks for the First World War service of Muslim troops. The great military cemetery near Verdun has a special section for Muslim soldiers, their graves angled away from the others in order to face Mecca.)

Vichy put an end to all that. The defeat of France by Germany was ideologically reinterpreted as a victory of “deep France” over a shallow liberal metropolitan veneer. Subjugation was reinterpreted by Vichy ideologues as redemption. Enmity was shifted from the occupying Germans to the liberal commercial “Anglo-Saxons.” Vichy propagandists produced cartoons in which Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Popeye were depicted dropping bombs on France at the behest of Jewish masters.

Anti-Allied enmity was not difficult to stoke: Allied bombing before 1944 and Allied land forces after 1944 did more damage to French cities than the Germans had in the few weeks of combat in 1940. The port of Le Havre was bombed 132 times from 1940 to 1944. The final raids in September reduced the city center to rubble, killing 5,000, maiming and rendering homeless tens of thousands more. The modernist cityscape that replaced the former 18th- and 19th-century core remains an enduring monument to the price paid by the French people for their liberation.

Vichyite enthusiasm for anti-liberalism opened a strange fluidity in French politics during and after the war. The future leader of French socialism, François Mitterrand, began his political career on the far right of French politics and worked until 1943 as a civil servant in the Vichy government. As president after 1981, Mitterrand would raise minimum wages, cut the workweek to 39 hours, nationalize some financial institutions, and end the death penalty. He would even do what de Gaulle could never stomach: celebrate the D-Day anniversary.

It was Mitterrand who decided to invite Ronald Reagan to Normandy in 1984, where Reagan delivered one of the great speeches of his presidency. Yet Mitterrand, to the end of his career, remained friends with—and protected from prosecution for crimes against humanity—the Vichy police chief who deported tens of thousands of Jews to their death.

But the chief was not the only one protected, and Mitterrand was not the only protector. As the French journalist René Rémond quipped to Roger Cohen of The New York Times: “They all have something to hide.”

When Americans choose to remember this sad history, they do so from the privilege of an easier geography. As time has separated us from the Second World War, U.S. memories have become more triumphalist and self-aggrandizing. It is a remarkable thing to watch President Donald Trump’s preening and posing in the U.K. and France on this anniversary. France fell in 1940 in great part because the United States went AWOL from European peace and security after 1919. The U.S. was AWOL very much because of leaders who in their day espoused the same crass protectionism and isolationism—and even the same “America First” slogan—as Trump himself.

Yet Americans are not immune to the Vichy syndrome that elevates the culture war against domestic opponents over the defense of national sovereignty and independence. Nor are they immune, either, to the extremist illiberal politics that flourished under Vichy.

An exotic dispute has erupted among social-conservative writers and thinkers over the past few days. Like Gamergate of 2014, it is a dispute made even more confusing by the explanations. Ross Douthat attempted the task in The New York Times this week. Yet even Douthat’s lucid prose will leave many readers disoriented. At bottom, though, what is going on—as Douthat acknowledges in his column—is a rehabilitation of integralism, the form of Catholic reactionary politics espoused by Charles Maurras and other intellectual Vichyites. You might think this the deadest of intellectual dead ends, and so it should be, but so it is not.

The rise of Donald Trump has sparked many analogies to the politics of the 1930s. In general, this is an error. Our mentalities are not formed by vivid personal memories of the mass slaughter of 1914–18. We have experienced nothing like the Great Depression or the civil unrest that piled bodies in the streets of interwar Berlin and Paris. We are not haunted by the possibility that domestic communists might seize power and property in a revolutionary spasm. It’s never going to be 1933 again.

But the human impulses on which the fascists and communists of the 1930s battened? Those do remain with us. They have been a powerful resource to extremists of all kind in our unsettled present moment after the Great Recession of 2008–09 and amid the mass developing-world migration flows of the 2010s. Trump is their most conspicuous beneficiary, but not their only beneficiary. They trouble France; they trouble us.

This time, no D-Day is called for to defeat them—just a renewed commitment to the ideals for which D-Day was launched 75 years ago by soldiers of so many lands, including the France that has taken so long to make its entire peace with this complicated anniversary.