75th anniversary of the Normandy landings
Every year since 1944, Normandy remembers the Allied soldiers who landed on its beaches to fight for the liberation of France and Europe. The 75th anniversary of the landings, on 6 June 2019, is a particularly symbolic date.
Although it relates to an intermediate five-year period, this 75th anniversary naturally follows on from the major commemorative years of 1984, 1994, 2004 and 2014, which saw exceptional participation from heads of state and government and a whole host of international, binational and national ceremonies, confirming that in Normandy 6 June still is “the longest day”.
A final tribute to veterans
But 2019 has another significance too, for time marches relentlessly on and, given the age of those who took part in this epic operation, this year will inevitably be the last great gathering of veterans from the participating nations, the last chance for the whole world to pay ritual tribute to this “memory in the flesh”, as it has done every five or ten years, in carefully staged settings amid a blaze of media coverage.
As such, it will be an unforgettable moment of emotion, sharing, tribute and transmission. Like the previous ten-year anniversaries, in view of the special nature of the 2019 commemorations, the number of events and the level of representation of the different nations will be high. But regardless of the official presence, all eyes and all attention will be on the veterans, who are to be the real “VIPs” of these unique 6 June ceremonies. The youngest among them are 95 years old, and some countries or veterans’ organisations have even announced the presence of veterans over the age of 100! For that reason, particular attention has been paid to the health and safety aspects of the ceremonies, and distances have had to be limited with elderly participants in mind, so that they are not subjected to overly ambitious routes.
The commemorations of 6 June 2019 are intended to be a simple, genuine communion centred on the last remaining representatives of the “Greatest Generation”, as the Americans so aptly call them.
A commemorative season for the general public
Meanwhile, there are also many events planned by civil society, which are likely to be more spaced out that in previous commemorative years, covering the period 12 April to 25 August 2019. It is interesting to note that some of them fall well outside the strict traditional commemorative framework and will take place in more unusual settings, thereby attracting a more diverse public for the occasion. With music, film, sports, culture of peace events, air shows, mass parachute jumps, synchronised fireworks along the landing shores, pop-up radio stations, historical book fairs and a variety of exhibitions, including a major one titled “Rockwell, Roosevelt and the Four Freedoms”, there is no shortage of events, in what promises to be an original programme to appeal to the entire population. The planned events could receive a special label and be publicised nationally by means of a dedicated page on the French Ministry of the Armed Forces websites.
Finally, in view of the many challenges that lie ahead post-75th anniversary and the future of these commemorations in the absence of living veterans, Normandy is actively seeking the means to ensure that their memory will continue to be passed on to a public ever keen to make this history their own and a younger generation in search of values, examples and meaning. Indeed, the spirit and values embodied by those who took part in Operation Overlord must continue to resonate with us. In this regard, the “memory in stone” represented by the historical space of the Battle of Normandy offers a fantastic resource for pursuing that ideal beyond the battle’s survivors.
A “sacred land” to be preserved
In the spirit of the veterans who have returned regularly to make their pilgrimage of remembrance, this part of Normandy is itself a sacred land. It is sacred because of the 28 military cemeteries scattered across its area; cemeteries are without doubt one of the best means of combating oblivion and indifference, and the nearly 110 000 soldiers buried here continue to raise questions for us. At these quite unique remembrance sites, the immeasurable trauma of war finds a form of expression that reaches towards eternity while also addressing the living. Here, time stands still, and those who have lain buried here for nearly 75 years will always be young men.
The landing beaches, comprising the five sectors from Utah to Sword, plus the exceptional site of Pointe du Hoc, also constitute a major remembrance resource as, quite apart from the presence of large numbers of commemorative monuments, they are imbued with exceptional universal value and resonance. Over the years and the successive commemorations, the landing beaches have truly become “Beaches of Freedom and Peace”. It is for that reason that, in January 2018, the French government nominated the landing beaches for inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Finally, the many museums across the Battle of Normandy remembrance area (33 in all) have the desire to form a coherent whole, by creating a regional network based on complementarity and historical authenticity. A number of them, such as the Caen Memorial, the Arromanches Landings Museum or D-Day Experience in Saint-Côme-du-Mont, are undertaking expansion or restructuring works to adapt and broaden their cultural offering. So-called “immersive” practices are also beginning to be developed, in order to offer younger visitors an “experience” based on the model used in English-speaking countries. The methods for passing it on may be evolving, but the historical material remains the same, and museums continue to be places for understanding and sharing.
As the last big 6 June approaches, Normandy can say with satisfaction that everything is in place to give its heroes a special welcome and to ensure that their legacy will be preserved.
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