D-Day foes forge new friendship
For the first time ever, a German chancellor will attend Normandy's D-Day anniversary celebrations.
COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, FRANCE — Gotthard Liebich, a German visitor to Normandy, has an etiquette dilemma: He wants to pay the French family that is putting him up this week. They insist he is their guest.
Sixty years ago, when Mr. Liebich was one of the German soldiers defending Omaha Beach, his presence here was not so welcome to the locals, desperate for liberation by the US troops storming ashore. But as this weekend's 60th anniversary of D-Day approaches, attitudes to the erstwhile enemy are at last softening.
French and Germans are looking more to their future as European neighbors than to their past as habitual foes. "I have noticed a change on the French side recently," says Lucien Tisserand, superintendent of the German cemetery in La Cambe. "Compared to 1994 there is more openness, more attention paid" to the German soldiers who fought and died or surrendered.
And Germans are responding. For the first time a German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, will be among the world leaders attending ceremonies on D-Day beaches this Sunday. Germans are visiting Normandy in record numbers. And here and there, to the shock of some residents, the visitors are flying red, black, and gold German flags beside the traditional red, white, and blue bunting of early June.
"With this flag we want to show we are friends and only friends," says Thomas Rohvig, whose team of volunteers from a museum in Bavaria has set up a military memorabilia camp in a field in Vierville, just inland from Omaha Beach, and raised their national colors.
The camp is built around a field oven where each morning this week a German baker is turning out heavy cumin-scented brown loaves with the help of the local French village baker. Each night the German helps his colleague out in the neighborhood boulangerie.
"Baking bread together is a sign of reconciliation," says Mr. Rohvig. "We are the first official German people here for 60 years. It is the first time German people come here and French people say, 'You are welcome.'"
Ten years ago, Vierville's town council turned down the museum's request to help mark the 50th anniversary of D-Day. This year, says deputy mayor Jean Olard, "seeing that the government invited Schröder, we wanted to gather history together."
For a long time, Germans were forgotten in this part of France, though more than 100,000 of them lay buried beneath the pastures where they died during the Battle of Normandy in the summer of 1944.
Despised and then defeated, the onetime occupiers were simply ignored. It was not until 1954 that the German War Graves Commission was allowed to tend to German graves in France, and to begin identifying the remains marked only by numbered dog tags.
The first family visits to the 21,000 graves in the largest cemetery, in La Cambe, were organized in 1961. "The relatives were told not to get off the buses when they stopped for gas, in case they got spat at," says Mr. Tisserand. Ten years ago, for the first time, Allied representatives paid an official visit to La Cambe: the British Legion sent a delegation to lay a wreath on the 50th D-Day anniversary.
This year all the authorities tending cemeteries in Normandy - the British, Canadians, Polish, and Americans - will exchange wreaths, in gestures of mutual respect. "We have to have the intelligence not to pass on feelings of hatred to our children and grandchildren or we will never get anywhere," says Tisserand. "Not all the men in this cemetery chose their cause."
Even three generations after World War II ended, however, such sentiments are not universally shared. Some towns in the region have refused to twin themselves with German cities. Some that are twinned, and where German flags fly at other celebrations, put their German banners away around D-Day time. The bitterness has not entirely drained.
"Old people remember what life was like under German occupation," says Mr. Olard," slurping appreciatively at a bowl of split pea and bratwurst soup on an impromptu lunchtime visit to the German bakery camp. "Some of them were marked for life ... but a page is beginning to be turned."
German veterans do not visit the Battle of Normandy landmarks as often as their British or American counterparts - they recall defeat and dishonor rather than victorious memories.
But they and their children are coming in ever greater numbers, according to Franz Gockel, who was manning a giant German bunker overlooking the beach where the US 1st Division landed on June 6.
Mr. Gockel first came here in 1958 "to enquire where my comrades had been buried," he says. "No other Germans came in those days."
Today, with Franco-German relations cordial and tourism across the Rhine commonplace, Germans are less reticent about coming. Those who fought also feel less guilty about their actions. "We could not be proud of what we did in June1944," says Mr. Gockel. "But we don't feel guilty either. We were here to defend the coast. That was our duty."
The Germans who visit their national cemetery, says Tisserand, often express surprise at how little hostility they find in Normandy.
"They still feel they are not liked, and they think they will be reproached for things they had nothing to do with," he says. "But lots of them have told me that they found when they got here that they had been mistaken."
Vierville's deputy mayor explains why. "I'm too young to have lived through the invasion," he says. "But today we are building Europe. Seeing the German flag here should be an invitation to shake hands, so that we don't have to go through the things our parents saw."