Reflections on a visit to Normandy

By | January 6, 2009

The family took a trip to Normandy based on Caen, home to William the Conqueror (formerly known as the Bastard) and the Memorial to World War II. We went to Bayeux for the tapestry and visited the beaches of the Normandy landings in June 1944. We were exposed to a bombardment of images and sounds, all of them evoking the war. The weather was freezing, the sky blue and the winter sun cast a pale light on the landscape. We took in the buildings and the fine regional cuisine: there is nowhere like France for reliable pleasures of that sort.

The weekend had a considerable impact on me and not just the car crash (to which I will return). I spent my first year in a Manchester bomb shelter and it took a long time for the devastation to be cleared up after the war. I am a keen historian too. So it’s not as if this stuff is new to me. Even so, the vivid immediacy of it all made a deep impression, forcing me to reflect again on what that war means for us today. The symmetry of two historic invasions 900 years apart, in the same places and from opposite directions, set off a sort of poetry of association.

What struck me first were the logistics of the Norman invasion and the D-day landings. William had to build all those boats, load them with men, horses, food and wine, erect a temporary fortress on the beach. He had already mastered the art of building castles from which to dominate the surrounding countryside. His castle at Caen, built to consolidate his position as Duke of Normandy, is much more impressive than any that I have seen in Britain. The military effectiveness of the Norman heavy cavalry has been much remarked upon. But the Bayeux tapestry museum exhibit points to another technology of control, writing, which William put to effective use in England, sending out monks trained in Norman scriptoria to compile the land registry of the Domesday book.

The genius of the American generals, Marshall, Eisenhower and the rest, was likewise logistical. The Germans defending France were subjected to a mobilization of people, machines and material that the world had never seen before. Less obvious is the fact that, by fighting this global war on several fronts at once, the Americans invented bureaucratic technologies that we have lived off ever since — systems theory, the internet and econometrics.

Each event — the Battle of Hastings and D-Day — deserves to stand alone in history for its political consequences. Yet they were both part of a global war. William’s invasion (the Normans were Vikings who had matched feudal cavalry to seamanship) was timed to coincide with an attack on Northeast England by the King of Norway, while other Normans were busy conquering Sicily. Within two decades of capturing England, the Normans were setting up colonies across the Mediterranean and banging on the gates of Jerusalem. William’s first task after being crowned in London was to secure the Irish Sea routes between the Baltic and the Mediterranean, access to which had been interrupted since the Arab conquest and by Danish expansion in the North Sea. In nationalist perspective, the whole point of Hastings was to replace the Saxon nobles and bishops with a Norman ruling class. But there were wider stakes at play and these have been largely forgotten or ignored.

The Caen Memorial has a place for the Eastern front of the Second World War. We learn that of the 50 million people who died in that war (compared with 8 million in 1914-18), 20 million were Russians. After being gripped by a video of the Battle of Britain, I sat with my young daughter alone at a screening of the Siege of Leningrad (almost three years!) and the Battle of Stalingrad. I don’t know what she made of it all. Sometimes she was frightened. Mostly she wanted to know if the good guys won. It was pretty overwhelming, the extraordinary mobilization of citizen armies and the shared devastation suffered by civilian populations. It is not hard to imagine why these people, when the war was over, built the nearest thing we have seen to functioning social democracy and set about creating an anti-colonial world order.

I have been living in France for a dozen years now. One lasting impression is how much more alive twentieth century history is here than in Britain, where a sort of post-imperial amnesia seems to have set in, and the United States, which was founded on an escape from history. I couldn’t help reflect on the tremendous power of that American mid-century expansion into the world, a tidal movement that may be ebbing now; and on the lack of domestic damage suffered by Americans for whom Pearl Harbour and the World Trade Center were so exceptional. I want the whole world to come to Caen and see what actually happened in that war.

All of this took place against the backdrop of the economic catastrophe we are living through today. Just as the fall of the Berlin wall opened up the history of the twentieth century, returning us to 1917 and beyond, the financial crisis of 2008 (fast becoming the general economic collapse of 2009) has brought the Thirties back to life. For some time now, I have felt that the analogy with the Great Depression is misleading. The Reagan/Thatcher credit boom was like the three decades of financial imperialism before the First World War and that would place us now around 1913-14 on the brink of another world war. There is something sterile about this kind of comparison, however, and that seemed doubly so after my visit to Normandy.

The history of 1914-45 cannot be repeated today. There will never again be huge citizen armies slugging it out for control of national territories, while cities are bombed into submission. The technologies of twentieth century warfare were pioneered by the British at the turn of the century in response to Irish, Boer and Indian resistance to Empire (concentration camps, hit squads, disinformation campaigns); the Bulgarians invented civilian bombing in the Balkan wars of 1912-13. The horrors to come will be of a different sort, building on social technologies that have been discovered more recently. As Marx said, you can’t steal from a nation of bankers in the same way as from a nation of shepherds. The same goes for war. Maybe next time Europe will be less central to the action.

Oh yes, the crash. Within twenty minutes of collecting a rental car at Caen railway station, I was lost in the suburbs, the sun was low in my eyes and I was faced with a maze of roads and tramlines. While I was figuring out what to do (but moving), I missed a light and was slammed into by something the size of a train. The car was trapped on the kerb and neither the tram nor I could move. None of us was hurt. The rescue operation took three hours and involved a plethora of firemen, police, tramway officials and breakdown men. Everyone was very good about it. I was caught between feeling desperately unlucky (this particular tram came every ten minutes, why in the second that I crossed that line?) and also very lucky (we were untouched and I escaped more bureaucratic inconvenience than seemed likely at one time). You could say that the event cast an air of gloom over the excursion, timed as it was to coincide with Sophie’s birthday.

Maybe the crash softened me up to be more receptive to the Caen and Bayeux museums than I would otherwise have been. I don’t know. It was a memorable weekend for sure.

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