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D-Day for Revisionists

By John Rosenthal - April 6, 2006 12:00 AM

On June 6, 2004, the 60th anniversary of D-Day, French President Jacques Chirac stood before hundreds of American veterans of the Allied invasion of Normandy at the American Cemetery at Colleville-Sur-Mer, where their fallen comrades are buried. Chirac pledged to the veterans that France had not forgotten their sacrifices. "To the entire American nation," he said, "...to all those men and women who paid the heavy price of those heroic days, I want to address the message of France: a message of friendship and brotherhood, of recognition and gratitude."

And he continued: "Having experienced the long ordeal of war and occupation, France is aware of all it owes to the United States of America, to the commitment of President Roosevelt, to the actions of General Eisenhower. Each of us, every family in France, cherishes the memory of those moments of joy that followed the D-Day landings."

Next up at the podium was President George W. Bush, who, recounting the course of events 60 years before, added a characteristic touch of levity to the ceremony:

Near the village of Colleville, a young woman on a bicycle raced to her parents' farmhouse. She was worried for their safety. Seeing the shattered windows and partially caved-in roof, Anne Marie Broeckx called for her parents. As they came out of the damaged house, her father shouted, 'My daughter, this is a great day for France.' As it turned out, it was a great day for Anne Marie, as well. The liberating force of D-Day included the young American soldier she would marry, an Army private who was fighting a half a mile away on Omaha Beach. It was another fine moment in Franco-American relations.

The reassuring words of the French head of state and the good cheer of the American chief executive were well-suited to the occasion. But they covered up a grimmer, more troubling reality: namely, a creeping historical revisionism that is part and parcel of the wave of anti-Americanism that has swept across Europe over the last five years. The Europe-wide dissemination of a book titled The Myth of the Good War: America and the Second World War provides some measure of the extent of the phenomenon. It has thus far been translated -- and always with the same title -- into German, English, Spanish, Italian, and French, apart from the original Dutch edition.

Whereas such open revisionism concerning the role of the US in the liberation of Europe has hitherto been largely limited to "leftist" intellectual circles -- as well, of course, as neo-Nazi ones (who on this, like so many other points, are essentially indistinguishable from the former) -- in France it has now decidedly hit the mainstream. On Friday evening, March 24, French public television channel France 3 broadcast an hour-long documentary titled "The Dark Side of the Liberators." Morbidly turning the cheerfulness of George Bush's anecdote to derision, "The Dark Side" is about what it presents as the mass rape of French women by American troops in the aftermath of the Normandy operation. Rapes of English women by American soldiers stationed in the UK prior to the launch and then of German women, following the American crossing of the Rhine, are added into the mix -- seemingly in order to arrive at a more impressive number of cases -- as preamble and coda.

With swing music in the background, and stock footage of the liberation -- the joyous celebrations of GIs and French civilians intermingled -- flashing across the screen, the voice-over begins:

Normandy, June 1944. Filmed by the most famous Hollywood directors..., carefully selected by the cinematographic services of the US Army, these images of the American liberators legitimate a fervor long inscribed in the collective memory. ...One likes these soldiers, one admires them, one adores them. Heroic literature and films have immortalized the idyllic representation of the sons of the world's largest democracy come to liberate Europe from totalitarianism.

Then the music changes, the upbeat swing giving way to an ominous, funereal march. "These images speak the truth," the voice-over allows, "but not the whole truth. "In what follows, "The Dark Side of the Liberators" does its part to dampen the grateful "fervor long inscribed in the collective memory" -- or even to transform it into hate.

The narration talks of "atrocities committed": a formula that would usually imply that the acts in question were sanctioned by the military hierarchy and hence not a matter of simple crimes. A French historian interviewed for the film describes the American troops stationed in Cherbourg tenderly as "a veritable army of termites": "People are fed up. After a while, the French civilians can no longer accept that the Americans act like they're in a conquered land." German women are said to be subject to a "paroxysm of violence" even "exceeding that inflicted on the English and French."

The individual cases discussed are apparently true. They are, after all, based on US court martial records from the time -- a fact that reveals that these are not, after all, a matter of "atrocities" in the usual sense of the term, but rather of crimes that were immediately recognized and prosecuted as such by US military authorities. The records were "uncovered" by an American academic by the name of J. Robert Lilly. Lilly is the hero of "The Dark Side of the Liberators". Among other reasons, this is because he found a French publisher for his book on the subject that no American publisher had been interested in bringing out. He is frequently seen in the film studiously pondering American military files -- a repeated image clearly meant to underscore his scholarly seriousness -- or posing embarrassing questions in a slow, deliberate English to an elderly French woman who gamely admits to having been one of the victims indicated in the records.

But the issue, of course, is why do these sad cases merit such a sensationalized documentary treatment -- the film, in its own terms, tells a "story made of blood, sperm and tears" -- and why precisely now? The number of cases cited is based entirely on Lilly's say-so and his remarks leave no doubt that he is making extrapolations -- based on what calculus, the viewer is not told -- from the actual evidence. Even supposing the figures given -- some 3,500 "crimes" (both rapes and murders) for France and some "17,000 or 18,000" in all -- are not inflated, they are, regrettably, hardly exceptional in the annals of warfare or even in those of WWII.

The narrator darkly repeats the number of 11,500 such crimes for Germany, rendered still more macabre by the fact that the victims are described as "women and children". But only seconds latter -- in an alibi-making flourish with which the film concludes -- she notes that French occupation forces in the single German town of Stuttgart are supposed to have been implicated in more than a thousand rape cases and that the Red Army during the Second World War "was responsible for several hundred thousand" sexual crimes. (The latter number is presumably based on the claims of German filmmaker Helke Sander, whose highly controversial 1992 documentary on alleged crimes of the Red Army in Germany, "Liberators Take Liberties", seems indeed to have been the inspiration for "The Dark Side of the Liberators".) Why not, then, a film on the phenomenon in general?

The narrator also mentions that "the German army" was guilty of "mass rapes" throughout Europe. Curiously, however, unlike for the three Allied nations, no specific numerical estimate or range is given -- as if the inclusion of the crimes of Nazi Germany was an afterthought or a matter of obligation. The very gesture of inserting the Nazi crimes -- and relatively inconspicuously to boot -- among the others, only serves to underscore the revisionist implications of the entire exercise. Were the liberators, then, no better than the conquerors? Maybe worse?

For good measure -- and even though it works somewhat at cross-purposes to the principal charge of the film -- "The Dark Side of the Liberators" manages also to find the opportunity to accuse the American army of racism. It seems that a disproportionate number of black soldiers were implicated in the cases documented in the Army records. Lilly appears to take the documentary evidence at face value. The French directors, however, know better. The anomaly is surely the result of the fact that "the judges, prosecutors, and even the defense attorneys were all white in a culturally racist Army." The brief appearance in the film of a gravestone with the charming epitaph "Killed by the Blacks" ["Tué par les Noirs"] gives rise, however, to no similar interrogations about the attitudes of the local French population.

John Rosenthal's writings on international politics have appeared in Policy Review, the Opinion Journal, Les Temps Modernes and Merkur. He is the editor of the Transatlantic Intelligencer (www.trans-int.com).

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1 Comment

D-Day revisionism
Great analysis and deconstruction of the film but above all of the indeed disturbing banalization of anti-Americanism in much of western Europe and especially France.

In other words, of how, thanks to the generalization of education and a new generation of Michael Moore-like film makers, the once-somewhat eccentric pronouncements and mad ravings of a Sartre or of a Godard have now come down to the public domain and to the first fool that comes along !

See my own postings on the subject:

http://jcdurbant.blog.lemonde.fr/jcdurbant/2006/03/attention_une_f.html

http://jcdurbant.blog.lemonde.fr/jcdurbant/2006/05/a_creeping_hist.html

http://jcdurbant.blog.lemonde.fr/jcdurbant/2006/05/a_quand_un_manu.html

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