Has Europe forgotten the lessons of D-Day?

Leaders from across Europe and America have gathered in Normandy today to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day – even as Europe and Russia are at loggerheads, and anti-EU sentiments rise.

Charles Dharapak/AP
World leaders stand for a group photo as they take part in the 70th anniversary of D-Day in Benouville in Normandy, France, Friday, June 6, 2014.

World leaders marked the anniversary of D-Day today with a pointed show of unity, laying aside disputes to commemorate the massive invasion 70 years ago that paved the way for peace across Europe.

But as American, French, German, British, and Russian leaders prepare to honor the Allied troops who landed along France's Normandy coast on June 6, 1944, they are facing some of their greatest tests in post-war Europe, both between the East and West and within Europe itself.

This week is the first time that Western leaders have met Russian President Vladimir Putin face-to-face since his annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea in March, a move that has triggered condemnation from the West and called into question the security of Europe for the first time since the end of the cold war. And the European Union – which rose out of the devastation of World War II  – is now being targeted by political parties calling for nothing less than its demise.

And the devastation of World War II helped give rise to the European Union – an organization that many European citizens now dislike, supporting political parties calling for nothing less than its demise.

“The EU is a project drawn out of the Second World War on the basis of facing up to a difficult history, and learning the lessons of reconciliation,” says Roderick Parkes, head of the EU program at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM) in Warsaw.  “We are taking absolutely for granted what the EU has achieved.”

Europe and the bear

Across Normandy this week, a sense of unity is felt at every corner across the picturesque towns where residents wave American, British, and French flags each time aging veterans pass by.

But the mood in Normandy stands in contrast to the rhetoric and political battles under way on the Continent, which have reached a crescendo amid battles waged by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Poland and other European nations – including pro-European Ukrainians – worry about the rise of an aggressive Russia that will continue to test their security even within Europe, concerns Obama responded to with a $1 billion security pledge on a visit to Warsaw earlier this week.

Indeed, Poland’s media balked when Putin was invited to the international ceremony today. French leaders defended the gathering, however, as a commemoration for all allies of World War II, in which Russia lost 9 million lives. But the façade of unity today is just that: Just the day before, the G7 gathered in Brussels in a meeting that had been planned for Sochi, until the G8 suspended Russia from the group. It was the group's first similar summit in two decades without the participation of Russia.

Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, addressed the juxtaposition of the commemorations of unity at a time of conflict.

“Oftentimes these anniversaries, you gather together and you look back, and we will do that,” he said to reporters ahead of Obama’s trip. “But we also at this moment in particular have to look forward, recognizing that the work is not done in terms of securing a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace, and recognizing that there are still people in places like Ukraine who are standing up for their freedom and democracy.”

The crisis in Ukraine has forced the EU and US to work together to respond to Russia, giving momentum to cooperation in areas such as energy security, says Daniela Schwarzer, director of the Europe Program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin. But it has also created new divisions between those who want a tougher response to Putin and those who think the EU should take a softer stance. The differences have depended on what nations have at stake in terms of history, proximity, and markets.

“There are different responses to questions about how the EU should react in terms of security,” she says.

Forgetting the peace of the EU

This is not the only division testing Europe today. Although representatives and figureheads of European nations, from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Queen Elizabeth, stand together, politicians who are fighting against Europe are notably absent. Their burgeoning influence was underscored in EU parliamentary elections last month, which saw a significant rise of Europhobic parties, especially in France and Britain. All together 30 percent of seats went to groups outside of mainstream politics, posing challenges for European integration and its attempts to restructure itself in the wake of its crushing, and divisive, sovereign debt crisis.

Fritz Stern, a professor emeritus of modern European history at Columbia University, says he worries that the rise of anti-immigrant, anti-EU political parties in Europe, particularly in Britain and founding EU member France, could help derail the European project, whose original purpose has been lost on today’s electorate.

“A good many [voters] grew up with nothing but the EU. They didn’t know a Europe that was divided and utterly uncooperative,” he says. He says the EU is an imperfect institution in need of reform. But the far right in Europe today “seem to have no consciousness of what the EU stood for ideally and still stands for.”

If any place in Normandy is a showcase for what is at stake today, it is in the German cemetery outside the city center of La Cambe in Normandy where more than 22,000 German soldiers are buried – compared with more than 9,000 in the US cemetery.

It was only 20 years ago, at the 50th anniversary of D-Day, that Germany wasn’t even invited to the commemoration. Arnd Gath, a German paying his respects, says he got goose bumps when he first arrived here, and shares the feelings of what one German visitor in the guest book just wrote down: “That this should never happen again,” he says.

The optician, from a town near Frankfurt, says that it is the EU that has brought the Continent peace. He understands the growing anger at the union for dictating tedious rules and without transparency – sentiments he shares. But, he says, “I think we must come together, for peace.”

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