French ‘D-Day Land’ could be a fitting tribute

Memorial tourism is one of France’s biggest industries, even though it is inevitably centred on groups of people who died in horrific circumstances.

29 January 2020
By Nabila Ramdani

Historical attractions that are known all over the world range from the Palace of Versailles – once home to the doomed King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette before they were decapitated during the Revolution – to the battlefields that have claimed thousands of lives throughout the centuries.

Among the most infamous former combat zones are those in northern France, where World War One helped turn departments such as the Somme into bywords for industrialised slaughter.

Even today, more than a century on, there is scarcely a UK national who has not learnt about the cataclysmic Somme offensive of 1916.

Its first day led to close to 60,000 British casualties, at least 19,000 of them deaths. Little wonder that millions of people, including plenty of relatives of the Fallen, have travelled to visit the battlefields almost continually since the 1918 Armistice.

Normandy is a similarly evocative tourist hotspot. It is eternally associated with D-Day – June 6, 1944 – and the ensuing Battle of Normandy, which claimed the lives of 22,442 servicemen and women from Britain alone.

All of their names will be inscribed on a new monument which opens on the English Channel coast, at Ver-sur-Mer, in September.

Like long established cemeteries and museums,  the British Normandy Memorial will become a place for people to pay their respects.

There will be no gimmicks, or entertainment – just an opportunity for stark reflection.

This is the complete opposite of a planned “D-Day Land” – the working nickname for a theme park which Normandy’s regional council is considering creating in time for 2024, the 80th anniversary of the invasion.

It will cost some €100million, and focus on combat re-enactments, light shows and films.

The idea is that a Hollywood-style director will create an attraction that will draw millions, not least of all from the US.

In turn, opponents naturally fear a World War Two Disneyland – one that will dishonour the dead and wounded and diminish what they went through to liberate France, and then defeat Nazi Germany.

A petition has been launched against the park – it is gaining signatures on both sides of the Channel – while academics are among those warning against reducing a history of bloodshed and suffering into money-spinning razzmatazz.

It was not just military personnel who died during the Normandy landings and in their immediate aftermath, but thousands of French civilians, most of them killed by Allied bombing.

What is undoubtedly necessary is sober compromise. Survivors of the so-called Great Generation that actually fought in Normandy during World War Two grow smaller in number every year, but those I have met have no objection to a more relaxed approach to Remembrance.

There is no reason why knowledge of the past cannot be conveyed in a manner that is engaging and interesting, while also giving people the chance to pay their solemn respects.

The key to the proposed park will be a collaboration between choreographers, tourism chiefs and serious historians.

If the directors and leisure specialists get carried away with silly ideas, then they can be reined-in by the experts.

At its most basic, there is of course glamour and excitement in warfare.

This is why so many action movies and TV shows are made about it, and why uniforms and military hardware, including weaponry and armoured vehicles, generate abiding fascination.

Showing an interest in all of this is permissible, so long as the human tragedy that they have created throughout the ages is never forgotten.

 

Nabila Ramdani is an award-winning French-Algerian journalist who specialises in French politics and the Arab world. Her articles feature in the French national press as well as internationally. She is a regular columnist in The Connexion

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