Chris Bambery looks at the history that will be lacking from this week's Trump-branded commemoration of D-Day
As President Trump and other world leaders gather on the Normandy beaches to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the Anglo-American invasion of Nazi-occupied France, it is important to understand that they are celebrating a war against Nazi Germany that was very different to the war millions of people thought they were fighting.
On 6 June 1944 my father was off the coast of Normandy as his ship escorted the Allied invasion ashore on D-Day. For him, and for my mother who also volunteered to serve, in her case in the women’s army, the ATS, this was a moment they had long awaited - when a decisive strike could be launched against the Third Reich. They believed, wrongly, that this was the continuation of the fight against fascism during the Spanish Civil War.
Yet later my father understood certain truths about the Second World War. Firstly, that the decisive role in the defeat of Nazi Germany was played by the Red Army. Indeed, Stalin and his generals, exasperated by delays in the invasion of France, believed by the summer of 1944 that the Red Army could finish the job itself. Furthermore, the realisation that the Russians were poised to take Germany and perhaps beyond lay behind Washington’s determination to get its troops into Western Europe. Anti-communism and anti-fascism were inextricably linked in the Allies’ desire to at last open up a second front.
The Americans had to overcome Churchill’s opposition to the invasion of France, with which he had consistently counter-posed operations in the Mediterranean. For him, this was the decisive theatre for the British Empire, whose continuation was his supreme goal, and British forces could play a more significant role there, whereas in an invasion of Western Europe they would always play second fiddle to the Americans.
That brings me to the second insight that my father glimpsed about the nature of this war. After the defeat of Nazi Germany he was sent east to join the continuing fight against Japan. In India and Sri Lanka he saw the racism of the British Empire and that for the officer corp this was a war to defend that Empire above all. He had volunteered to fight fascism, but this was not foremost in the minds of the ruling class.
In remembering D-Day this difference is crucial. For millions of ordinary people, it was a fight against fascism. For Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin, it was a fight to control occupied Europe and Japan’s empire. In 1945 they did reconstitute Europe at the Yalta summit.
The US got to keep its troops in post-war Europe, where they remain today. They were there not just to confront Russia in the Cold War that rapidly followed victory in Europe, but also to help control and police their allies and the new Germany.
In Asia, the US would keep its allies out of occupied Japan. They tried to do the same in China but their corrupt satraps would be swept away by Mao’s armies. Further south the British, French and Dutch tried to bring back colonial rule (using Japanese troops in Vietnam and Indonesia against native resistance forces, but Humpty Dumpty had fallen and could not be put back together again, despite much effort and blood expended in trying to do so. In the case of Vietnam that attempt lasted till 1975 and America’s final defeat.
What will be missing from the commemoration in Normandy?
Firstly, what mention will there be of the Soviet Union, which suffered the greatest casualties of all? On two occasions after D-Day the Western Allies had to beg Stalin to bring forward assaults in order to force the Germans to withdraw troops eastwards: in the summer of 1944 when the invasion of Normandy was bogged down, and at the close of the year, when the Germans attacked in Belgium.
Of course Stalin’s Russia was a cruel and vicious dictatorship fighting for its goal – control of Eastern Europe – but it cannot be tippexed out of history, despite its crimes.
Secondly, what of the resistance forces, betrayed by all the Allies? There were the Polish partisans left to fight alone in Warsaw by Stalin who went down to defeat. Also, the French resistance fighters, who believed D-Day was a signal for a national uprising, took to the field in areas like Vercors, and were also left to be defeated. And what of the Spanish exiles who had fled Franco and were central to the resistance in France? They believed the Allies would topple Franco, especially considering he had sent troops to fight in Russia and aided Hitler. They invaded Catalonia but received no aid and were defeated. Franco ruled until 1975.
Nor will the Vietnamese, Malaysians, Philippinos and others who fought the Japanese be represented.
Will mention be made of US black troops who fought in segregated units or of the Indian Army who were key to defeating the Japanese invasion of their country? Or the Algerians, Moroccans and Africans who were central to the Free French Army until it got to France when they were sent home to be replaced by troops who had served the occupation authorities?
The Holocaust will be mentioned, rightly. It was humanity’s greatest crime. But will the refusal of British, French and other governments to take in more than a few Jewish refugees before the war be acknowledged? Or the Allied refusal in 1944 to bomb the tracks bringing the death trains to the extermination camps? Will mention be made that Jews were not just victims but fought back in Warsaw in 1943 and elsewhere?
Above all no mention will be made of the millions who believed after the war that they would never experience war, fascism and mass unemployment again. In Britain alone, people have seen 40 years of attacks on the gains won by working people in the post-war period. The Second World War survivors’ hopes for the generations to come have been betrayed by those very leaders gathering in Normandy on 6 June.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.
More articles from this author
- Ernie O'Malley's On Another Man's Wound: books that made me a socialist
- The violence of the Spanish state
- VE Day: a struggle for the future
- Neil Davidson (1957-2020)
- A People Betrayed - book review
- The Fall and Rise of the British Left - book review
- The Irish election: the centre has not held and the left can win