D-Day in Germany

William Urban

I was in Berlin on D-Day, again at a hotel that provided an excellent breakfast and two newspapers. And, with the weather being very changeable, I was constantly tuning into the news for warnings of thunderstorms; that meant also listening to the commentaries on Chancellor Schroeder’s presence at the celebrations.

Ten years ago the German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, was willing to attend, but the time was not yet ready. Schroeder is too young to have any memory of the war, and since the invitation came personally from President Chirac, it was not quite the same as an invitation to a representative of Germany; but Schroeder won wide applause by saying that the landing at Normandy led not only to the liberation of France, but also to freedom in Germany. A decade ago this would have stirred some disagreement, but a decade ago his citizens were still trying to work out the problems of re-unification of West and East Germany. Even Danny Cohn-Bendit, a Green Party stalwart famous for his role in the 1968 demonstrations, declared that he owed his life to the Americans; what would have been the chances of a Jew born in 1945 if the Nazis had not been defeated?

This celebration was especially important because it will be the last gathering that will enjoy a sizeable representation of veterans; ten years from now there will be many fewer alive, and even fewer whose health will permit such a strenuous program. One correspondent wrote a moving essay of the people visiting the cemetery at Colleville. Anyone who has seen Saving Private Ryan can imagine the scene, row upon row of crosses, with an incredible view of the ocean beyond the low wall. Having been there myself, I had no difficulty visualizing the description of an old woman in a wheelchair, flowers on her knees, being taken to the gravesite of a husband or brother.

The death of Ronald Reagan just at this moment also made commentators look back at the American contributions to protecting Germany from the Soviet Union and to the peace and prosperity of the present. Some remembered that twenty years ago Ronald Reagan was being criticized in exactly the same way, often with the same words, that the political and cultural left is attacking President George W. Bush.

This led to reflections on Hollywood’s reaction to Saving Private Ryan, denying it the Academy Award for the best film of the year. Anyone who can remember the winner will probably also remember that it was most remarkable for Gwyneth Paltrow taking off her clothes. There is some reason to believe that the cultural left will vote against any movie that shows any war might be just, and will vote for any film that attacks George W. Bush.

For my American students this has been one surprise after another. In London, they heard the word Blitz for the first time; in Paris they saw the French honoring D-Day, an event that was fairly vague. Not only did Saving Private Ryan come when they were still young, their teachers had done nothing to integrate it into their classes. The Cold War was over before they were really conscious of current events, and none had any usable memory of Ronald Reagan. For me to stand on the spots where I had been shortly after the wall went up, where Jackie and I crossed over numerous times, and where we were when Checkpoint Charlie was officially opened, well, they must have thought they were traveling with Father Time.

Well, the Cold War was a rocky road sometimes, but we made it through, and the West is better off than ever before. A look back at those who made the passage through the Valley of the Shadow of Death possible and guaranteed that the outcome was good, that was good for everyone, even those too young to experience it first-hand. With Iraq disappearing as an issue, as seems to be the case in European newspapers, radio and television, it seems likely that Old Europe and America can resume their traditional friendship and mutual respect. D-Day 2004 may have marked a significant watershed in contemporary politics.