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Some Thoughts on Liberation

One of the markers placed by the French and Belgian governments to mark the path of the liberators. 

My greatest takeaway from this most recent trip involves some refined feelings about liberation. I'm writing this post in a time of high cynicism. And the were matters of which one could be cynical back in 1944, the year in which Charlie fought and died. This trip, however, left me with renewed appreciation for what our country did back in that war, helping me refocus on what I've had the chance to see and do the past few years.

Christopher is the military historian who accompanied us on this voyage. In one of our webinars this spring, he made an offhand reference to a piece of scholarship about the Holocaust he said was worth reading. It's entitled Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. It's heavy. I can't say I read every chapter. But I read most of it on our bus rides this summer. And I'm glad I did.

My unassigned reading.

Saying that Bloodlands is a study of the Holocaust is a bit incomplete. Much of the book (somewhere between one-third and one-half) focuses with a narrow beam on the Holocaust. The power of the book, however, comes in how it sets that horrific era into context. The book's analysis begins with World War I's conclusion, a conclusion that was far messier in the East than in the West. It concludes with a chapter on ethnic cleansing, the term Timothy Snyder (author) chooses for the relocation and displacement of peoples in the East upon Germany's collapse (and the Soviet Union's conquest). The book is certainly worth reading. The author's postscript regarding how one can use statistics to keep personal and horrific epoch like what happened in Eastern Europe in the twentieth century's first half, is especially meaningful to me.

Snyder's book is at a tangent to my work. But an understanding of the catastrophe that befell the people of Eastern Europe during Charlie's era helps me set into context what the Americans did.

The people of Poland, both Jew and Gentile, were conquered in 1939, split between Soviet and German zones of occupation. In 1941, some of them were conquered a second time as German forces blitzkrieged across the eastern half of the country. In 1944 and 1945 they were conquered, or invaded, or occupied by the rampaging Red Army. I struggle to find a term for what the Soviets did there. But I cannot call it a liberation. Snyder makes a fascinating point in his book regarding the scarring and dislocation caused by a hostile occupation. It's something that may take a generation for a people (and its institutions) from which to recover. For some in that area, the bloodlands, there were two or even three different occupations in a very short period of time.

The occupiers, both German and Soviet, were ruthless. Often, the partisans who had been fighting against one occupier found themselves under suspicion by the new one. Many were shot, or sent to camps. It was a horrific era that defies Western imagination.

Snyder's book complements other books I've read on the era, such as those by Antony Beevor and Max Hastings, that point to how the Western Allies' soldiers in Europe was profoundly different from the conduct of soldiers by the totalitarian regimes. Perfect? No. But fundamentally different. In Hastings' point of view, it's because a civil society like the U.S. or Britain simply couldn't produce the kind of ruthlessness seen in the soldiers on the East.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower's Order of the Day (1944)
Eisenhower's famous Order of the Day from June 6.

On one of our bus rides, Christopher told me of an order Eisenhower issued that is not as well known as the famous "Order of the Day." In it, officers were told to remind their men that this was an army of liberation, not of occupation or plunder. American troops were to conduct themselves as liberators in a land where people had known great hardship in the previous four years. I wish I could find a copy of this other order.

Did American troops conduct themselves perfectly? Of course not. But the American soldiers' deportment in France, and the Benelux countries, and Germany are far different from what was seen in the East.

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At the Bastogne Memorial.

At the Battle of the Bulge Museum outside of Bastogne, there is a memorial to the U.S. troops who fought there. In the center of it is a plaque to the American liberators. I saw this memorial on my final day in Europe at the final World War II stop on our tour. It was a fitting conclusion.

One of my friends on the trip took this photo of La Cambe, Germany's war cemetery near the Normandy beaches. The cemetery there still haunts me. 
Me beside Charlie's grave. I love the tradition of marking the headstone with two flags, ours and the nation in which the liberator is laid to rest, in American cemeteries. 

My 2017 Normandy Institute trip first exposed me to a scholarly treatment regarding our cemeteries overseas. Triumph of the Dead and Bodies of War are two particularly good books regarding the odyssey by which America determined how it would honor its boys who fought overseas. I worked with Lauren to better understand the choices next of kin had regarding the disposition of remains. I have come to understand the unique moment in history that our nation experienced in the two world wars.

The textbook I use for AP U.S. History has a statement to help me set this into context: "Only the Civil War involved a comparable commitment of military service from a generation." World War II was distant, however, in that it was waged on distant and foreign shores. And in the case of the European Theater, the causus belli might have seemed ambiguous. After all, Germany didn't strike us at Pearl Harbor.

We were liberators. We fought to expel a foreign power and way of life from countries we consider friends. And soldiers like Charlie are buried in cemeteries found on land given to us by a grateful people.

Brittany American Cemetery, which is my favorite of the ones I've visited.

My friend Amy eulogized this solder buried in Luxembourg. 

Monuments and memorials like what I've seen can be interpreted in many ways. And there is room for a critical eye about the choices our nation made regarding design, symbolism, and even the decision we made as a people allowing families to recall their fallen loved ones home. But I end this journey with a renewed appreciation for what these cemeteries mean. I also conclude it with pride in coming from a country that, though far from perfect, played an honorable and life-giving role in a catastrophic moment in human history.

Thank you for reading.

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