D-Day's Going to Be a Bit Awkward This Year

Why the memory of the liberation of Europe is still a battlefield.

War is politics by other means and so is its commemoration. World leaders will gather on the beaches of Normandy on June 6 to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day and they will bring their political and historic baggage with them. Though the Battle of Normandy is over, the war over its significance continues and the day's events will represent the latest in a long series of conflicts over the ever-shifting meaning of one of the most decisive days in modern European history.

Among the presidents, prime ministers, and chancellors in attendance, only the group's lone constitutional monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, is old enough to remember the war. The other leaders will probably experience a certain kind of nostalgia for an age when choices were clear and wars were good. But clarity and goodness are as much inventions of each nation's postwar narrative as they were part of the actual past. There is no single history of D-Day. There are, instead, only histories that vary from nation to nation and era to era, histories sculpted by changing political priorities and cultural concerns. Both as individuals and nations, we remember the pasts we choose to remember. All told, it is a pretty parochial exercise. And as the authors of the recent book D-Day in History and Memory suggest, "national parochialisms are shaped by transnational imperatives."

For many Europeans, perhaps no great power has been more parochial than the United States. But American parochialism has universal ambitions. Hardly had Europe been liberated from Nazi Germany before the American government began public commemoration. With the consent of the Élyseé, the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) took control of strategic sites along the Normandy coast. And when the Normandy American Cemetery was inaugurated in 1956, the beach became, in the ABMC's inscription, a "portal of liberty." The stark simplicity of nearly 10,000 white crosses and Stars of David planted at Colleville would teach reverence to visiting Americans. No less important for the ABMC, however, the cemetery would also teach "alien people ... the sacrifices made by Americans."

But as time wore on, these alien people grew tired of such lessons. They began to insist that the sacrifices they had made get their commemoration, too. Through the 1950s, the French had promised never to forget, in President René Coty's words, their "infinite debt of gratitude" to America. But shortly after 1958, when Coty shut the doors to the Fourth Republic and gave the keys to Charles de Gaulle, the French debt suddenly became finite.

Indeed, in 1964, President de Gaulle refused to attend the 20th anniversary of the Normandy invasion. Instead, he sent one of his ministers, who declared that D-Day's success was due to the French Resistance. De Gaulle's absence was dictated, in part, by his own myth of liberation, in which the French alone threw off the German jackboot -- a myth designed to heal the political and ideological divisions that had scarred the nation after four years of German occupation. But it also reflected de Gaulle's effort to reassert France's role as a power of the first rank after the damage wrought by Nazi occupation and military defeats to anti-colonial insurgencies in Indochina and Algeria. His absence at Normandy foreshadowed his demand, two years later, for NATO headquarters to absent itself from Paris. The general's demoting of America's role in France's past went hand in hand with sidelining it in the present.

At the same time, the civilian population of Normandy began to insist on commemoration of its sacrifices, wrought mostly by American bombers. With 3,000 casualties, as many Normans died on June 6, 1944, as Americans. Over 20,000 civilians were killed by the time the Battle of Normandy ended in mid-August. Caen, a city of dubious strategic value, was pulverized, as were smaller cities like Saint-Lô. Allied shells transformed the countryside into a hecatomb, the fields pocked with bomb craters and rotting carcasses of cows and horses. In 1964, the same year de Gaulle absented himself from the official commemoration, French newspapers for the first time published the accounts of civilians who survived their own liberation. Forty more years had to pass before an official commemoration acknowledged the tremendous toll paid by French civilians.

For decades, two of Europe's biggest players were frustrated by their marginalization from D-Day commemorations. Helmut Kohl had the dubious distinction of serving long enough as Germany's chancellor to be snubbed twice at official commemorations. In 1984, France's then-President François Mitterrand considered inviting Kohl to the 40th anniversary commemoration, but French veterans' resistance put the kibosh to the idea. (By way of recompense, Mitterrand asked Kohl to join him later that same year at Verdun to mark the 70th anniversary of World War I.) Russia, while an ally in World War II, found itself on the other side of the West once the Cold War was underway. The American postwar emphasis on D-Day as the pivotal event of World War II had long annoyed Soviet Russia, just as American delays in opening a second front during the war had maddened Joseph Stalin. As the historian Robert Service notes, Stalin was "not amused" when he learned in 1942 that his new allies had decided to invade North Africa, and not Europe.

The shattering of the Soviet Union changed the choreography of commemoration once again -- though it took 15 years. In 2004, President Jacques Chirac invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to the 60th anniversary of the storming of the Normandy beaches. Though Putin kept a poker face during the events, the Russian newspaper Pravda showed its hand, observing that, apart from Chirac, no other Western leader had thought to mention the staggering Russian sacrifices made during the war. A second newspaper, Izvestia, took the offensive: Putin's presence, it declared, reminded one and all that "the Second Front was just that, second."

Chirac didn't only reach a hand out to Russia, though. The 60th anniversary also saw the first German delegation on Normandy's beaches since June 6, 1944. Chirac had already responded to history's great weight when he acknowledged France's grim role in the Final Solution. He invited German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to do the same. The chancellor justified Chirac's decision when, in his official speech, he affirmed that the D-Day landings marked the beginning not just of France's liberation, but Germany's as well.

But a new front had since opened that threatened to poison ties among the Western nations gathered at Normandy. The Bush administration's decision to go to war in Iraq had been denounced by all the leaders at Normandy, except Tony Blair. Shortly before he left for France, Bush had linked the liberation of Europe to the "liberation" of Iraq. While this claim evoked mostly derision among European leaders, the commemoration itself nevertheless served a vital purpose. Remembrance of things past forced the now-fractious group of leaders to recall a shared history, in spite of dramatic differences over American-led wars. Despite the awkwardness of ignoring the Iraqi elephant on the beach, the French president expressed his country's gratitude for America's role in her liberation.

This year's commemoration will prove even more challenging. Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, now wound or winding down, have proved to be anything but good wars. The Obama administration's NSA spying and drone warfare, and even its position in the free trade negotiations that threaten the traditional French "cultural exception," have cast a pall on the United States' historic role as the country's liberator. Moreover, Vladimir Putin's presence will serve not just as a reminder of Russia's claims in Ukraine, but also of the support Moscow has given to many of the Euroskeptic parties whose recent success stunned European leaders.

While it is unclear how these events will influence the commemoration, it is quite clear that President François Hollande is ecstatic to play host. The perspective from the Élyseé has, of late, been especially bleak. In the wake of the European elections, the National Front, which ran against Europe, now claims to be the nation's leading political party. Though nearly 60 percent of the French did not bother to vote, the party's claim nevertheless must be taken seriously. As Hollande's approval ratings continue to fall to depths no other French president has seen, the Gaullist opposition party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), is imploding under the weight of scandals and scams.

Little wonder, then, that Hollande has grasped at this commemoration with the desperation of a drowning man reaching for a plank of wood. His invitation to both Putin and the newly elected president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, is aimed as much at France as the rest of the world. It will be tragic for Hollande if the commemoration ceremonies do not help revive his presidency. But it will be far more tragic if they fail to convince the participating nations to overcome their own parochialisms. One of the truly good consequences of the "good war" was a unified Europe. Its future is now in doubt and it is up to the leaders gathered at Normandy to remind us all of this, the true meaning of D-Day.



'I Do Not Want Red Square to Look Like Tiananmen Square'

The secret history of Mikhail Gorbachev's ill-timed trip to Beijing -- and why Russia still fears the contagion of Tiananmen.

A specter still haunts autocrats in China and Russia: the specter of Tiananmen. Twenty-five years after the bloody crackdown on demonstrators in Beijing, and in spite of the Chinese government's efforts to blot out memories of what happened, Tiananmen lives on as a symbol of selfless protest against government corruption and autocratic misrule. The world has learned a lot about Tiananmen since 1989, and the tragedy is relived each year through the writings of its victims and the deafening silence of the Party authorities.

The international angle, however, is persistently overlooked. The 1989 student protests in Beijing didn't happen in a vacuum; in fact, they coincided with an epoch-changing shift in international politics. After decades of confrontation, Beijing and Moscow had mended fences, embarking on a road that by the mid-1990s would take them towards "strategic partnership." The high point of this rapprochement was then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's visit to Beijing in May 1989, just days before the June 4 massacre in Tiananmen Square.

On June 4, 2014, the Wilson Center's Digital Archive released a new set of documents that show how the crisis looked from the vantage point of a fellow reforming state, the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev arrived in a city gripped by political unrest. In April, university students in Beijing and across the country had taken to the streets to protest growing social inequality, nepotism, and corruption. Tiananmen Square was aflutter with banners calling for freedom and democracy, some even contrasting Soviet political reforms with the Chinese Communist Party's unwillingness to countenance democratic change.

Gorbachev's visit offered the young, idealistic protesters in Tiananmen an opportunity to take their case over the head of the Chinese authorities directly to the man who, in their minds, personified a new era of reforms and openness. Students even submitted a petition to the Soviet Embassy asking for a meeting with their hero. (Despite prodding from radicals in his circle, Gorbachev declined the invitation.)

The Soviet delegation was stunned by the scale of the protests. "This is a revolution," concluded Gorbachev's confidant Yevgeny Primakov, who had been a prominent advocate of rapprochement with Beijing. "Could it not be," wondered Teimuraz Stepanov-Mamaladze, an official at the Soviet Foreign Ministry, "that we normalized relations with political dead men?"

Gorbachev himself was worried and relieved in equal measure -- worried because he had found himself in the epicenter of a national upheaval, and relieved because at least it was not his nation. "Some of those present here," he told members of his delegation on May 15, "have promoted the idea of taking the Chinese road. We saw today where this road leads. I do not want Red Square to look like Tiananmen Square."

Gorbachev left China on May 19, a fortnight before the Chinese Communist Party unleashed the People's Liberation Army against unarmed protesters. While the West was appalled by the killings and swiftly announced economic sanctions against China, Moscow did not go beyond a general expression of "regret." The human rights advocate Andrei Sakharov, then a deputy in the newly elected Soviet Duma, rose to the podium on June 10 to demand the recall of the Soviet Ambassador to China, but Gorbachev switched off his microphone.

Gorbachev had become heavily invested in the success of normalizing relations with China -- it was the only major accomplishment of his Asia policy -- and he simply could not afford to criticize Beijing for killing hundreds of students. He believed that China's international isolation and Western sanctions after Tiananmen offered an excellent opportunity for forging closer links with the Chinese and bringing them into a "strategic triangle" with India and the USSR.

This triangle idea was Gorbachev's longstanding dream -- a means of claiming Soviet leadership in Asia at the expense of the United States. But it never seemed to work.

Tiananmen gave Gorbachev hope. On July 15, he told Rajiv Gandhi, then-prime minister of India: "I think China will not distance itself from us and from you as a consequence of the latest events. They were grateful for our measured response, and, perhaps now they will value more their relations with us and with you.... Do you remember how we talked about a 'triangle?'" Gorbachev followed these comments with criticism of the George H. W. Bush administration, which, he said, wished them all -- Moscow, Beijing, New Delhi -- something "even worse" than Tiananmen.

"Something even worse" was already happening in Eastern Europe -- Communist regimes were folding one after another. Solidarity had won elections in Poland, large-scale protests had erupted in Czechoslovakia, political dialogue had led to democratization in Hungary, and East Germany and Romania were headed towards collapse.

In this context, Gorbachev began to change his views of Tiananmen. It was not an atrocity of a struggling regime but a necessary cost of maintaining stability. On Oct. 4, 1989, reacting to a report by Politburo member Anatoly Lukyanov that deaths at Tiananmen topped 3,000, the Soviet leader appeared unperturbed. "We must be realists," he said. "They, like us, have to hold on. Three thousand.... So what?"

In the end, the Chinese Communists were among the few who were able to "hold on." On Nov. 9, the Wall fell in Berlin. In December, Nicolae Ceausescu was toppled in Romania despite eleventh-hour counseling by China's then-security czar, Qiao Shi, on how to manage public protests. Images of Ceausescu's bullet-riddled corpse made headlines in the international media and left an indelible impression on China's leaders, who spent years thinking that the crackdown at Tiananmen had saved them from a similar fate.

In the weeks and months that followed, the Chinese continued to offer their political, and even economic, support to the crumbling USSR, despite their anger with Gorbachev, whom they perceived as a dangerous revisionist unable to cope with bourgeois subversion. Whatever his perceived faults, Gorbachev represented an alternative to a U.S.-led world order, drawing Washington's attention to Europe and thereby increasing China's breathing space. As then-Premier Li Peng, one of the Tiananmen hard-liners, wrote in his diary in February 1990: "After taking Eastern Europe in its hands, the West can put China under greater pressure."

The Chinese leaders thus went to great lengths to prevent Soviet disintegration in order to maintain it as a "pole" in a multipolar world, as then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping had put it. Deng, who had previously referred to the Soviet Union as a "polar bear" and railed against its expansionist impulses, now thought better of Moscow, because at the very least the Soviets preoccupied the United States, giving China a freer hand.

For the Chinese Communist Party, survival of communist rule in the USSR -- in any form -- bolstered its waning legitimacy. Unsurprisingly, Beijing welcomed the August 1991 attempted coup against Gorbachev by the dysfunctional alliance of communist reactionaries in the form of the KGB, the Ministry of Defense, and some members of Gorbachev's inner circle. There is tantalizing new evidence, based on declassified Russian internal reports, that Beijing had been forewarned about the coup, and maintained secret contacts with its organizers.

The attempted coup dealt a fatal blow to Gorbachev's political authority and hastened the fragmentation of the USSR. By the end of 1991, the Soviet Union was no more, and Gorbachev was gone from the stage. The Chinese hurried to establish rapport with his successor Boris Yeltsin, even though they had previously derided him as counterrevolutionary scum and a traitor to Marxism. Beijing instinctively sensed that good relations with a strong and robust Russia would guarantee that China would never again be isolated as it was after Tiananmen. This feeling was fully shared by the ardent anti-communist Yeltsin, who quickly turned from his Tiananmen-days calls for cutting relations to bearhugging Chinese leaders in the name of a strategic partnership.

This partnership has since evolved into a quasi-alliance, underpinned by shared resentment of what both states perceive as U.S. sabotage of a "just and rational world order." But there is also another common denominator: the Chinese and the Russian ruling elites' fear of the ghosts of Tiananmen. Twenty-five years later, the fear remains that a small Chinese protest could become another Tiananmen; that Red Square could become another Tiananmen; that no matter what road China or Russia take, it can only lead to the doom of authoritarian rule.

It is through this prism that China perceives the events in Kiev and Russia's entanglements in Ukraine. Yes, Russia's annexation of Crimea was hard to justify. Yes, China often proclaims its policy of noninterference in the internal affairs of other states. Yes, Russian President Vladimir Putin's support for ethnic separatism in Crimea and East Ukraine rubs salt into China's own wounds in Xinjiang and Tibet.

It is now China's turn to say: "So what?" They, like us, have to hold on.

Camaraderie in Sino-Russian relations was on full display in Shanghai in mid-May. Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed to present a united front in the face of perceived foreign subversion and signed a key gas deal that demonstrated that China will stand by Russia in its hour of need. If Xi has given Putin a helping hand, it is because he sees danger in what is happening in Ukraine -- though not in NATO expansion, or Kiev's closer relations with the European Union. The real fear is that Ukraine, which has just experienced a Tiananmen of its own in Kiev's Maidan, could destabilize Russia and ultimately China itself. Just as in the 1980s, a spark lit halfway around the world could start a fire closer to home. After all, the fundamental causes of resentment that fueled the protests of 1989 -- social inequality, nepotism, and corruption -- also caused the protests in Ukraine. And in both China and Russia these inequities are even more pronounced today than 25 years ago.

In 1989, it seemed as if Beijing and Moscow were choosing very different roads. But they have since returned to the starting point: the Russians beaten and bitter, the Chinese brash and self-assured. As in 1989, their fates seem irrevocably intertwined. Beijing and Moscow have closed ranks. Both pursue a confrontational foreign policy, stoke nationalist sentiments, and resort to domestic censorship to try to bury the memory of uprisings. But Tiananmen won't die. And history is witness that it is precisely such hard-line policies that lead to those dead ends, where the only choice is between massacre and collapse.