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Brave young men, overcoming terror with their willingness to fight, came from the corn-fed plains of America to do battle with tyranny. Many of them gave the ultimate sacrifice, as they bled out into the sand below me. Was the blood-spattered sacrifice of lives on D-Day commensurate with the soft, effete, and self-indulgent lives of Europeans like those at the Count’s wedding bash?
Still slightly hung over from too much French champagne and cognac at the wedding of a French Count, I was driving from France to Germany on June 6, 1994, the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day. The perfunctory wedding ceremony had been a sad affair, and no one expected the marriage to last. It was his third marriage, her second, with twenty-seven years of difference in their age. The bride showed an inordinate amount of skin and the bloom was clearly off the rose. But on to the party – uncork the champagne! At least the evening at the count’s castle in Normandy promised to be amusing.
Servants with white gloves served champagne in the twilight just after a torrential drenching from the Atlantic clouds necessitated an impromptu bridge to the party tent. The ladies hoisted their hems gingerly as they crossed the boards with an uncertain silken sway. Ample amounts of champagne, caviar, and foie gras transformed the soggy mood into one more bubbly. The guests, many of them nobility, were then escorted across the soaked field to the castle, much of which had lain in ruins for years. We descended into the cellar, the only sound part of the structure that offered cover from the persistent rain, while providing a perfect party setting. Counts and barons commiserated good-naturedly about the beastly cost of keeping up family castles. The aristocratic guests obligingly toasted the newlyweds, despite everyone’s doubts about the match.
Ancestral tables groaned under the weight of seven courses of rich fare. We maneuvered through the flotilla of wine glasses at each place and the strategic battlefield of silver place settings, each piece monogrammed with the family crest. First we used the oyster knife and a small fork and chased the slithery appetizer down with a glass of a Pouilly-Fuisse. Dover sole topped with langouste was eaten with the fish knife and the next fork, accompanied with a glass of Sancerre. Then came lemon sorbet to cleanse the palette, along with a sip of champagne. Medallions of lamb and potatoes au gratin followed with white asparagus (next fork from the left, the next knife from the right) and a red Beaujolais in the larger glass toward the center. Then entrecôte with a reduced red wine sauce and green peppercorns, Grenaille pommes de terre, with a rich red Burgundy in the largest goblet (next fork in from the left, serrated knife to the right). Then salad of field greens, next fork to the left. Then a pause.
Smoke wafted up from the tables as guests lit up and tried to digest the orgiastic fare. More wine flowed, inducing toasts that grew more ribald as the evening progressed. The wine loosened tongues and made it easier for people who spoke different languages to find a common one. (Predominantly French and German, a sprinkling of English, and some Italian thrown in for seasoning.) No one discussed the celebrations of D-Day, a subject that might prove uncomfortable for the German and French guests assembled. Laughter bubbled up into the night sky above the ruin. Tarte de Pommes a la Normande was served for dessert (eaten with the fork perpendicular across the top of each setting), followed by a cheese platter of French delicacies complemented by cognac and Calvados. Our host explained that the triple-cream cheese was named after Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, a French magistrate who wrote in his book on gastronomy, that “dessert without cheese is like a pretty woman with only one eye.”
After finally finishing dinner and discretely loosening belts, the guests staggered up the cellar stairs of the castle to go outside for the evening’s entertainment. The count had arranged for a jousting match, a real one, with teams of horseback riders in the heraldic colors of their noble ancestors from that region of Normandy. These young noblemen regularly suit up in full armor to compete in such jousting tournaments for the sheer sport of it. Trumpets announced the beginning of each match. Majestic horses thundered across the field, pell-mell toward each other, as each of their riders extended a lance at the armor-clad opponent in an attempt to unseat him. Wild cheers erupted for the victors, while the defeated riders took a wet pratfall as their steeds snorted and whirled to retrieve them. It seemed hard to believe that such ancient combat was practiced anywhere at all, let alone for a wedding’s entertainment. Fireworks concluded the evening with a spectacular display that lit up the sky over Normandy.
The next morning after this lavish display of opulent decadence, somewhat chastened by over-indulgence, I was driving back along the coast of Normandy past the very same beaches where American troops had landed exactly fifty years earlier on D-Day, when Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy. I was acutely aware of the contrast between their lives, so many of them cut short on the sands below as they came to liberate Europeans from the Nazis, and my life, living amidst the luxury of the next generation of Germans and French. The fireworks our soldiers experienced on D-Day were real bombs, and these men didn’t give a damn about which fork to use, if they lived to have another meal.
I had a commemorative map of D-Day and as we sped through the towns, I plotted our progress in the footsteps of the Allied troops. Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juneau, Sword. The code names given those beaches echoed with the cries of the men who died there. The images from the movie The Longest Day flashed through my memory, as I attempted to reconstruct the invasion. As we passed Ste-Mère-Église, I could envision the tangled parachute caught on the church steeple, from one of the many paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne, who had parachuted in the night before.
Brave young men, overcoming terror with their willingness to fight, came from the corn-fed plains of America to do battle with tyranny, confronting a totalitarian regime they knew was evil. Many of them gave the ultimate sacrifice, as they bled out into the sand below me. All told, 100,000 lives were lost in the invasion. Was the blood-spattered sacrifice of lives on D-Day commensurate with the soft, effete, and self-indulgent lives of Europeans like those at the Count’s wedding bash? I wondered where the family of my French host had been then. Had they dared to resist?
“Veterans who were here then…will surely all agree that it was the longest day of our lives,” said Walter Ehlers, the last surviving recipient of the Medal of Honor among those who fought on D-Day. Paul Wolfowitz writes in the The Wall Street Journal that when Ehlers spoke at the fiftieth anniversary ceremonies in Normandy to an audience including Queen Elizabeth and President Clinton, his message was powerful:
While we braved these then-fortified beaches to beat back Hitler and to liberate Europe … we fought for much more than that. We fought to preserve what our forefathers had died for…to protect our faith, to preserve our liberty…. I pray that the price we paid on this beach will never be mortgaged, that my grandsons and granddaughters will never face the terror and horror that we faced here. But they must know that without freedom, there is no life and, that the things most worth living for, may sometimes demand dying for.
On the evening that D-Day’s invasion had begun on those beaches, Americans huddled around their radios to hear from President Roosevelt. He was not known as a particularly religious man, but he did something that evening that seems surprising to our modern sensibilities. On the radio live, with all of America hanging on his every word, he prayed:
Almighty God, our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity. Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith. They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest until victory is won. The darkness will be rent by noise and by flame. Men’s souls will be shaken with the violences of war. Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, thy heroic servants, into thy kingdom.
With unabashed fervor, Roosevelt continued,
Oh Lord, give us faith. Give us faith in thee; faith in our sons; faith in each other; faith in our united crusade. Let not the keenness of our spirit ever be dulled. With thy blessing we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogances. Thy will be done, Almighty God. Amen.
As Warren Kozak wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “This was an American president unafraid to embrace God and to define an enemy that clearly rejected the norms of humanity. And if the nature of the enemy was not clear to everyone that night, it would be made resoundingly clear as the armies advanced into Germany 10 months later.” Roosevelt’s prayer was an appeal to God to help our forces defeat the apostles of a kind of false religion, the triumphalist Aryan ideology.
In 1944 there was a clarity of conviction in a battle between good and evil that necessitated a bold and unambiguous response, and to ask God’s help. The western culture of today makes it much more difficult to do either publicly. There is no lack of evil in the world, but our ability to respond clearly is being slowly suffocated.
2014 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, but the celebration will have to be explained to a lot of younger people who have no memory or understanding of these events. “Communism? You’ll have to unpack that a little for me,” said one clueless journalist recently. “That was before my time,” she offered as a lame excuse. Well gee… so was most of history.
When the Berlin Wall fell, everyone on both sides of it was astonished. After the Russian regime toppled, more than 300 million people were freed and scarcely a shot was fired. This is unprecedented in all of human history. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, another leader not known for his public piety, said in a speech after the fall of the Berlin Wall, “When empires topple, they usually do so with a bang and not with a whimper. That this did not happen with a bang is practically a miracle.” There are moments when you “grasp the cloak of God, as he strides through history.” This astonishing turn of events was not the inevitable outcome of clever political strategy.
But there is nothing inevitable about the success of resisting communism. Now twenty-five years after the bloodbath in China’s Tianenman Square, we see that resistance did not always result in freedom, even in that extraordinary year of 1989. The regime in China has attempted to squelch any commemoration of the Tianenmen Square, while silencing the voices of those who would teach the young the truth about the heroic resistance.
Does this generation have the moral courage to resist evil, whatever guise it takes? Too many people would rather celebrate weddings in the decadent style of my French friends. We in the West have grown soft, ambiguous, and tentative, unwilling to take a stand lest we offend. God help us in our time of trial. We would do well to remember the courage of those whose blood is mingled with the sand on Normandy’s beaches, the blood of resisters washed from the pavement of Tianenmen Square, and the blood of prisoners who died in the Gulag and on the streets in Eastern Europe. There is nothing inevitable about the success of any civilization, and ours is in great peril if we lose the capacity for courage and sacrifice that made the victory of D-Day possible.
This essay first appeared here in June 2014.
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