Remembering in situ

Le mémorial de Caen. © H-J. Sipérius

In peacetime, the battlefields, beaches, towns and cities affected by war are prepared to host ceremonies and other commemorative rituals for the purposes of passing on the memory of past events, remembering those who lived through them and giving them meaning. Naturally, the surrounding area and landscape are brought into play to ‘commit to memory’ the commemorated history.

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The landscape of the contemporary battlefields poses a real challenge to a commemorative State which, since the 1970s, has been subject to growing communications requirements that have brought rapid change to the ceremonial order. According to a sequence introduced after the First World War, with new actions (the minute’s silence, the Sonnerie aux Morts bugle call, sometimes the lighting of a flame) as well as the more traditional military parade, flag salute and national anthem, remembrance is, first of all, an act which unites those physically present at the time of the ceremony - civilian and military officials, veterans, schoolchildren, etc. - in a shared sentiment and duty.


But with the development of live television - and now new media - the remembrance stage has changed scale: it is at once where the ceremony takes place and, at the same time, is refracted by a multitude of screens, for which it is now designed to be an event. Yet how can the din of battle be conveyed in visual terms when the battle itself has quietened? How can an event be made of a ritual that is repeated year after year, decade after decade? There are, admittedly, plenty of traces: Second World War bunkers on the Normandy beaches, heritage-designated First World War trenches, the ruins of Oradour-sur-Glane, etc. Traces of which the most visible are the military cemeteries and commemorative monuments, like the Douaumont Ossuary, the cemetery of Notre Dame de Lorette and its Ring of Remembrance, the Caen Memorial, or the many steles erected in situ. But these do not speak for themselves, and they can put across very different messages.


It is this empty space dotted with traces which the State scenography seeks to exploit in order to magnify the act of remembrance, giving it the scale it deserves and giving meaning to the ceremonies. In this context, three major developments are particularly worthy of our attention: the spectacularisation of the ceremonies, which have become televisual events; the growing emphasis on reconciliation; and veterans’ place in these ceremonies.




As anyone who has ever taken a group of children or teenagers to the site of an important historical event knows, the places do not speak for themselves. You only see and feel what you are prepared or have been taught to see and feel. Hence the disappointment that is sometimes felt - even by the most experienced of staff - when students show a lack of sensitivity to the tragic dimension of these sites, where men perished in their thousands, approaching such trips merely as an opportunity to break the monotony of school and some of its rules. To convey a sense of what happened ‘here’, considerable preparation is required, together with a commentary provided by teachers, veterans or guides.


The same is true of public ceremonies. On the spot, it is the speakers who set the scene, describe the action and draw lessons from it. In broadcasts, the message is intensified by commentators - journalists, service personnel, historians, sometimes veterans - who either attend the ceremony in person or are present in the studio. As viewers, we expect them not only to shed light on the battle being commemorated, the events that comprised it and its place in the conflict, but also to decipher the ceremony itself and explain its rituals.




The cycle of commemorations of the Normandy landings provides a good illustration of the first change in ceremonial arrangements which has emerged in the last three decades.


Up until 1984, the D-Day commemorations on the Normandy beaches were pretty low-key. In the 1950s, the Actualités Françaises newsreels showed annual ceremonies involving residents, a military detachment, regional government officials and the occasional minister gathered around a commemorative stele for a raising of the flag, in a very unelaborate ritual. The broadcasts often included a few pictures of the fighting.


It was on the margins of the ceremony itself that a first change occurred, in 1964, when a special edition of the TV programme Cinq colonnes à la une heard for the first time the testimonies of veterans, including Major Pluskat, the German battalion commander made famous by the film The Longest Day. But the ceremonial arrangements remained limited because General de Gaulle, who had not forgotten how belatedly he had been told about the landings, did not attend, preferring instead to commemorate the Provence landings. On 6 June 1974, it was again in the absence of the French president, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, that the ceremonies were held at the Normandy American Cemetery and the church of Sainte-Mère-Église, in Colleville, with US veterans. As well as the footage of the various ceremonies, the television broadcast also showed a re-enactment of the Rangers landing at the Pointe du Hoc.


Scène finale lors de la cérémonie internationale du 70e anniversaire du débarquement de Normandie, Ouistreham, 6 juin 2014. © M. Denniel/ECPAD/Défense

The final scene of the international ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings, Ouistreham, 6 June 2014. © M. Denniel / ECPAD / Défense


Giscard d’Estaing did visit the Normandy beaches with Jimmy Carter on 5 January 1978, outside the official calendar of commemorations. The two men were filmed “alone before the shore” of Omaha Beach, contemplating “today’s peaceful landscape, which not so long ago was the scene of such horror” (Patrick Poivre d’Arvor, A2).


The scene changed in 1984. For the first time, France invited all of the belligerents; the Germans chose - as they would ten years later - not to attend. A huge stand was erected on Utah Beach. Several military detachments paraded before the guests of honour, then François Mitterand made a speech. This ceremony was the main one in a series that included the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville, where Ronald Reagan spoke. The Normandy beaches thus became an opportunity for France to assert its place among the victors of the Second World War and its role as a driving force in the construction of the European Union. In 1994, the main ceremony was held at Omaha Beach, and military detachments landed on the beach on landing barges reminiscent of those that arrived at the same place on 6 June 1944, though this time without imitating the fighting.


In 2004, then in 2014, the main ceremony changed in nature, giving way to a live stage production which broke with any use of analogy like that seen in 1974 at the Pointe du Hoc. In 2004, set back from the beach on a tarmacked area opposite the guests’ stand - where politicians and veterans were seated - behind big screens projecting archive footage, a choreography was performed which depicted the fighting, the suffering and the hopes of those who lived through the Second World War. In 2014, Sword Beach was the scene of the main ceremony. Intended to be educational, the ceremony sought to convey remembrance and hope. On a world map laid out on the sand, dancers evoked the war, occupation, resistance, the landings and the newly restored peace - guaranteed by the UN and European construction - against a backdrop of archive images and contemporary film footage, projected on giant screens placed between monoliths representing the Atlantic Wall. A voice-over narrated the events of the war, paying tribute to all of the Allied forces and mentioning the Eastern Front and the Red Army as well as the Pacific War, while not forgetting the French and German civilian victims of the Allied bombings (those of Dresden and Cologne were mentioned). The landings were evoked by the slow movements of the performers, set to the melody of ‘Let me freeze again to death’, from Purcell’s King Arthur. In the finale, the blocks representing the concrete slabs of the military fortifications were turned over to form the stars of the European flag.


From this brief overview, we can see how the battle landscape - the Normandy beaches - becomes the pretext for an evocation of the entire conflict, the final consequence of which is the construction of a united Europe. This use of allegory and the performing arts is not unique. It appeared first in 1989 to evoke the Battle of Valmy, and we find it once again in 2016 in the scenography of the ceremony of 30 May at Douaumont, directed by German film director Volker Schlöndorff. This development clearly signals a prohibition of ‘re-enactment’ in the culture of French State scenography for all episodes of contemporary history, which contrasts with the tradition of re-enactment in the English-speaking world, one example of which would be the 1981 commemoration of the bicentennial of the Battle of Yorktown before an international audience. The result is an aestheticisation of the ceremony which makes it into a televisable subject, so that the public are no longer required to be present in order to feel the emotion.


Le chancelier allemand Helmut Kohl et le président français François Mitterrand lors de la commémoration

German chancellor Helmut Kohl and French president François Mitterrand during the ceremony

at Douaumont Ossuary (Verdun), 22 September 1984. © Rue des Archives




The second major development in commemorations of conflicts which have taken place since 1914 is that they have become reconciliation ceremonies. The idea is to celebrate peace and friendship on the very sites where the combatants fought. These ceremonies have primarily concerned the Franco-German conflicts, but they have become more widespread due to the concept of ‘shared remembrance’ promoted by the Office of the Secretary for War Veterans in 1997 and taken up by President Chirac. The blueprint is of course the ceremony held at Douaumont on 22 September 1984, when Helmut Kohl and François Mitterand came together in shared contemplation and, in a spontaneous gesture, held hands before the tombs of the soldiers. This very simple ceremony, which might be described as a ceremony of grief, came after the chancellor’s refusal to attend the ceremony on the landing beaches on 6 June to signify that reconciliation had been made a reality. It had been proposed - though we do not know whether the 1984 participants were aware of this - by Konrad Adenauer to General de Gaulle, but de Gaulle had remained silent. What was still unthinkable for Charles de Gaulle has, since 1984, gradually become a recurring motif in the ceremonies of remembrance of the two wars. On 6 June 2004, Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder took it in turns to speak at the Caen Peace Memorial; François Hollande and Angela Merkel did the same at Verdun in 2016; and Hollande and Joachim Gauck, the German president, came together at Oradour-sur-Glane on 4 September 2013, then at Hartmannswillerkopf on 3 August 2014. This desire to develop a shared remembrance of the conflict can also be seen in the physical monuments: for instance, the Ring of Remembrance at Notre Dame de Lorette, inaugurated in 2014, is engraved with the names of the more than 600 000 combatants of all nationalities who were killed in this sector of the front, making this national cemetery a ‘transnational’ one.


The Ring of Remembrance, International Memorial of Notre Dame de Lorette, inaugurated on 11 November 2014. © J. Salles / ECPAD / Défense


There is no doubt that this major change - it is no longer just the courage of the French combatants that is celebrated, but final reconciliation - also explains the use of allegory in the scenography of the ceremonies rather than re-enactment, which not only might appear trivial, but would fail to validate the new meaning given to the ceremonies.




This second development leads on to a third: the place given to veterans. Since the First World War, veterans have played a crucial role in commemorations. It was also thanks to their pressure that the commemoration of 11 November was instituted, and that every commune in France has a war memorial. Even so, over the years they have become privileged spectators rather than genuine participants. This has to do with the fact that, for a long time, war was ‘viewed from above’. From the 1960s to the present, official discourses have given a growing place to veterans. Naturally, this change in perspective also comes in response to a change in sensibilities, which is apparent as much in historiography as in film, where Saving Private Ryan (1998) has taken over from The Longest Day (1962). And this humanisation is not limited to combatants; it extends to civilians, too.


The shift from a war viewed from the commands to a war ‘viewed from below’, from the First World War trenches or the landing beaches, alters the place of veterans in the economy of the ceremonies. In 1994, Bill Clinton invited them to stand for the American national anthem, which was played for them. In 2004, the performers took them flowers in the stands.


Cérémonie du 70e anniversaire du débarquement de Provence à bord du porte-avions Charles de Gaulle,

Ceremony of the 70th anniversary of the landings in Provence, on board the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle,

with veterans in attendance, off the coast of Toulon, 15 August 2014. © R. Senoussi / DICOD


In 2014, the most emotionally intense moment in the production staged on the beach was when the screens, instead of showing news footage from the period 1940-46, showed pictures of the veterans in the stands. A military band then performed the Sonnerie aux Morts, which was followed by a minute’s silence, then a series of explosions to evoke the war, then the performers repeated “Never again”. Ten minutes later, to the applause of the heads of State and the public, a number of veterans, led by their children, took up places on stage around two of their number - Français Léon Gautier, a member of the Kieffer Commando, and the German Johannes Börner of the II Parachute Corps of the Luftwaffe. Photographs of these two men as they were at the time of the action appeared on the screens, then the two old men embraced. The Ode to Joy rang out, as aircraft traced a huge tricolour flag in the sky overhead, the devices that had emitted smoke flares and explosions to evoke the fury of battle now sending out multicoloured smoke to symbolise hope and joy. Applause filled the air. The tribute to the veterans was now at the very heart of the ceremony.


Léon Gautier, ancien du commando Kieffer, et Johannes Börner, ancien soldat allemand,

Kieffer Commando veteran Léon Gautier and German veteran Johannes Börner,

at the international ceremony of the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings. © P. Villebeuf / Le Parisien / MAXPPP


The features referred to here are not specific to ceremonies held on the actual sites where the fighting took place. Scripting and the use of artists and performers are found in all contemporary commemorative acts, whether or not they take place in situ, although the battlefields are without doubt better suited to such events than confined spaces in urban areas. Like all commemorations, those that take place on the site of the battle are also controlled by the present. The meaning given to them has varied, from exalting the valour of the French army to incorporating the violence of war in a forward-looking European tale, lending positive substance to the “Never again” of the early First World War commemorations.


In this context, the ceremony, built almost entirely around military rituals, is practically absorbed by the media event, occasionally provoking reactions. Those reactions ultimately raise the question of how we negotiate with the sacred. What can be done on a battlefield? What constitutes a lack of respect for the dead? The answer varies according to sensibilities and traditions, but it nevertheless represents a structural contradiction, between the ceremonial ritual of repeating the same actions and the transformation of that ritual into an ‘event’, which relies precisely on producing something new.

Patrick Garcia - University of Cergy-Pontoise / AGORA - IHTP (Institute of Present-Day History)