One of the first signs of old age, I’m told, is when a young woman offers you her seat on a bus (and the next stage, presumably, is when you accept it). But there is a surer proof of the passing of time: when events from your adolescence are being commemorated as ancient history–as is now the case with the fiftieth anniversary of D-day. While giving you a jolt, it also puts you in a privileged position. At a time when neo-Fascist ministers are returning to government in Europe, when creeping revisionism is gaining ground, when items from Soviet archives are cleverly selected to blur the past and convince us that Communist and Nazi, resister and collaborator, victim and executioner were all the same-it is important both to say “No, it wasn’t so,” and to ponder the purpose of such manipulations.
Let it be admitted from the start that this is not the neutral testimony of an objective historian but rather the committed one of a miraculous survivor of World War I1 who owes his life to sinus trouble. Before the war, in the Poland of my childhood, the gap between the haves and the have-nots was huge, as it was in the rest of Eastern Europe. Thus my father, a very successful journalist, hearing that the Mediterranean climate would be good for his youngest child’s sinusitis, could afford to send me, my mother and my sister to the French Riviera. This happened in August 1939. After the war broke out we, tried to rush back home, but–second stroke of fortune–it was too late.
Not that I was untouched by the bloody conflict. Far from it. My father was sent to the gulag in distant Siberia, my older brother was killed in the battle of Tobruk and my sister jumped from a second floor in Marseilles rather than face deportation. To escape the Nazis, I had illegally crossed the border into Switzerland and on the way I mistook in the dark the greenish uniform of the Swiss for the Feldgrau of the Germans. After such an experience, you grow up very fast indeed. At the time that Allied troops were landing in Normandy, I was attending Calvin’s high school in Geneva and treating my classmates as kids. But in another sense, I was a youth like any other, reading Rimbaud, discovering not only the Surrealists but also the “surprise parties,” as they were called, at which we jitterbugged to Mezz Mezzrow and smooched to “Blues in the Night”–instead of providing fodder for the gas chambers as did my aunts, uncles and innumerable cousins.
The reactions to D-day in Occupied Europe were, naturally enough, contrasting. At one extreme, among the resisters and the victims, the Allied invasion buoyed hopes and strengthened the conviction that, whatever cruel damage the enemy might still inflict, it was the beginning of the end. At the other extreme, those who had linked their fate with the Herrenvolk were either getting ready for a last stand or wondering how best to climb on a new bandwagon.
But what about the mass of the people in between? By 1944 any illusions they had held about the occupiers and their collaborators had long vanished. The bulk of the population was yearning for change. True, because of the understandable obsession with food, most people’s aspirations were down-to-earth. But there was also a growing revulsion against the prewar regimes that had made such a conflict possible. Only by grasping that feeling can one understand why, say, young British soldiers would vote in Labor and throw out wartime leader Winston Churchill; or why the French Resistance proclaimed that the moneyed interests would never again be allowed to dominate the press. How romantically unreal it all sounds today! Actually;, on D-day the initial reaction, as a French writer reminded us, was to exclaim ‘Les Anglais!” because in the popular imagination Britain was the first nation celebrations are a chance to to be associated with the struggle against the Nazis. The Americans’ turn (whatever their actual role in the invasion) would come later. As the G.I.s spread across the liberated Continent they brought with them the myth of a distant cornucopia–the magic land of nylon stockings and Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood.” But it was the British who, at least to begin with, symbolized defiance of fascism. Or rather, the British and the Russians.