generations pass, how can we keep the memory of June 6, 1944 alive?

generations pass, how can we keep the memory of June 6, 1944 alive?

This June 6, there will be around a hundred veterans on the beaches of Normandy celebrating the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings. How can we pass on the memory of this crucial event of the Liberation after them? This is the challenge faced by elected officials and those involved in memory tourism.

It is an industrial wasteland with a bucolic feel, 50 km from Omaha Beach where the international commemoration of June 6, 1944 is taking place this year. In Colombelles (Calvados), northeast of Caen, the site crystallizes the debate on the the future of the memory of the Normandy landings. At a time when the region is celebrating the 80th anniversary of its liberation, the battle continues to rage in the background, around a major immersive show project, “Normandy Memory”, which should be installed on this site by 2026.

At each session, a thousand spectators will see twenty-five scenes combining actors and projection of archive images. History of telling the Landing “starting with the context, on the very place which then housed the factory of the Sociétémetallurgique de Normandie (SMN) and where the majority of the inhabitants worked, until the liberation of Paris on August 25 1944,” explains Marc Pottier, mayor of Colombelles, himself a historian of the period. The elected official does not hide his wish that this “theatricalized historical documentary” will be a lever for cleaning up and redeveloping 9 hectares of wasteland, with jobs at stake.

Memorial business

The creation of “Normandy Memory”, first planned for 2020 in Carentan (Manche), had raised numerous oppositions denouncing an inappropriate “Disneyland” or “Puy du Fou”. The promoters were forced to change location and change the scenario. Approved last December by the Caen metropolitan area, it is entering its implementation phase. But, again on April 28, a column published on the newspaper's website The world by around thirty descendants of the 177 French soldiers of the “Kieffer commando”, who landed on June 6, 1944 with the Allies, takes a position against. The private company Normandy Memory is accused of “doing memorial business for tour operators” and of causing “a real outrage to the memory and sacrifice of (their) fathers and all the fighters who made the Landing successful in Normandy.”

Strong and definitive words against a spectacle symptomatic of “this tipping point in commemorations of the Second World War, where memory disappears and gives way to history”, summarizes Kléber Arhoul, director of the Caen Memorial. Everyone in Normandy is aware that this June 6, 2024 represents the “last big anniversary where veterans, now centenarians, are still present”, he underlines, he who is preparing to receive them at the Memorial with classes of primary.

The memory of the Battle of Normandy, which caused the death, during the summer of 1944, of 78,000 soldiers from all armies, 35,000 civilians and countless destruction, has long remained vivid. It was maintained by the ceremonies organized at the 21 places of memory and 29 cemeteries, by the Landing Committee, created in 1945 for this purpose and which brings together 73 municipalities concerned. “We have always been immersed in it,” recognizes Jean Quétier, its president. But this direct transmission fades as the fourth generation born after the war grows up.

So, in what form should we continue to commemorate? Kléber Arhoul believes that “even if we defend creative freedom, we must respect the dead and visitors! » He fears that in the future “we will give in to ease and moral degradation. Yes to pedagogy, no to spectacle! » For Marc Pottier, on the other hand, “all vectors of transmission, including entertainment, are admissible. The main thing is to preserve the historical quality of the subject. With new forms, we reach new audiences. »

Jean Quétier calms things down: “From the beginning, wreath laying coexisted with festive events, like those planned for this summer. » Particularly this June 6, with the pyrotechnic conflagration of the beaches in front of the President of the Republic and his guests, foreign heads of state.

Visitors at the rendezvous

Never has memory tourism been doing so well! According to a study by the Region, the number of visitors – almost half foreign – is estimated at nearly 2 million, who will come in 2023 to follow in those of the Allies. This is a figure that has doubled in twenty years and creates more than 8,000 jobs.

Thus, the Airborne Museum, in Sainte-Mère-Église (Manche), is never empty. Created in 1964, it is dedicated to the first American paratroopers. Magali Mallet, its director, explains this growing enthusiasm by the success of major American productions, always rebroadcast, such as The longest day with John Wayne, in 1962, or We have to save the soldier Ryandirected by Steven Spielberg in 1998…

In the digital age

However, “for ten years, we have felt an increased need for mediation, because people have less precise knowledge of the events”, she recognizes, justifying a new course dedicated to the Occupation. A “histopad” tablet placed in front of certain objects – such as a galena radio – allows you to reconstruct a scene: “We must adapt to the image and digital society to capture the attention of the youngest. » And in order to better reach them, “do not refrain from creating emotion through immersive, interactive, spectacular scenographies. »

For now, college students from Giverny (Eure) are rushing to try out a parachutist harness: “it’s very technical to jump! », admires one of them. Use of cutting-edge technology, thrills and a focus on the individual destinies of soldiers: these are the ingredients that are present in each renovation of one of the 44 museums linked to the Landing. At the D-Day Experience, in Carentan, if the windows are crumbling under pieces of uniforms – including the jacket of General Eisenhower, responsible for the Landing – and souvenirs of American soldiers, the success has relied heavily, since 2015, on a flight simulator installed in a C-47 aircraft. “Yes, it’s an attraction,” claims Emmanuel Allain, its director, “because people are more receptive to the visit if there is a fun side to it. We were criticized at the beginning, but in 2015 we tested the simulator with veterans who approved. »

At the Caen Memorial, Kléber Arhoul, its director, prefers to think about a journey for young people “through the game, a fantastic educational tool” to tell the whole story of the war, including the Shoah, and evoke the construction of peace . This last theme now feeds other initiatives. Like that of the Manche department which launched a competition this year for middle school students. They must carry out a project “carrying the values ​​of peace, freedom and memory”, explains Catherine Brunaud-Rhyn, vice-president of the Departmental Council.

Twice as many establishments as expected responded, proposing an exhibition of portraits of women from the Second War, the reconstruction of a clandestine radio broadcast, or the collection of period objects… “This interest has surprised,” recognizes the elected official, who sees it as a sign that transmission is indeed continuing through school and in families. In Sainte-Mère-Église, a stone's throw from the central square, the diocese opened, two years ago, a Grange de la Paix, bright and white, where four nuns (including one Protestant) welcome everyone. “We respond to the need for meditation, even contemplation, of some of the visitors who are uncomfortable seeing so many tanks, jeeps in the streets, military surplus stores…”, explain Sister Catherine and Sister Marie- Therese.

Framed reconstructions

This same unease led the Landing Committee, in 2001, to define an ethical line and develop a charter of good conduct that all those who wish to organize a public event must sign. This text thus reminds re-enactors, these increasingly numerous groups who wear period outfits and accessories to lead re-enactments of military camps or Liberation balls, that they must not “play at war, nor succumb to the fascination with weapons” and that it is about respecting “the spirit of the place”.

The document made it possible to ensure the seriousness of these young people, believes Jean Quétier. “We study books, we try to be exact, but we are aware that we will never feel the fear or the stress of real soldiers,” pleads Alexandre, 23, dressed as an American glider pilot. It's our way of paying tribute to the liberators, as we pass on our knowledge to those who follow us on social media. »

The news of the war in Ukraine has revived the reality of the D-Day landings: evidenced by the numerous messages collected by the nuns of Sainte-Mère-Église in their guest book. “Young people understand how fragile peace is,” adds the president of the Landing Committee. And when they visit our cemeteries, they realize that commitment to freedom can lead to sacrifice. »

On the immense beach of Utah Beach (Manche) schoolchildren picnic. Horses trot in the foam. The wind brings snatches of English from a group. While he observes two vintage planes, undoubtedly with a few tourists on board, Jean Quétier concludes: “People come here to relax and admire the peace of this magnificent landscape. But I know that each of them, when they scan the sea, think of June 6, 1944 and the dramatic atmosphere of that day. » On the Normandy coast, no one is likely to forget or remain indifferent to this anniversary of regained freedom.

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