Observances for D-Day have always been part memorial, part politics.
Charles de Gaulle, France’s wartime leader-in-exile and postwar president, boycotted Normandy ceremonies because he was kept out of the 1944 invasion; Ronald Reagan turned the 40th anniversary, in 1984, into a Cold War morality play.
As a dwindling cast of veterans make their way to France for the 70th commemoration Friday, the semi-welcome guest is Russian President Vladimir Putin, representing a World War II ally, Cold War foe, post-Cold war friend-in-the-making and latter-day nemesis in the struggle over Ukraine.
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Russia’s leader made his first Normandy cameo in 2004, in the spirit of East-West reconciliation. France reinvited him to this year’s beachhead ceremony and gave no thought to disinviting him after he annexed Crimea and massed forces on Ukraine’s border, evoking the land grabs of yesteryear and European wars that ensued.
“All war anniversaries can be given a political meaning — the challenge is to give them the right one,” said Stephen Sestanovich, a professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University and author of “Maximalist,” a history of postwar U.S. foreign policy. “Putin will want Russian television viewers to see that all is forgiven. Western audiences should hear something different: that D-Day was about creating a world in which big countries can’t gobble up territory from their neighbors.”
Ideological clashes, rival national interests and personal grudges that pervaded the “Big Three” alliance of convenience among the U.S., Britain and the Soviet Union continue to resonate. Putin is the custodian of the Russian grandeur fostered by victory over Nazi Germany in legendary exertions that were far bloodier than the battles on the western front.
Josef Stalin cultivated the same blend of patriotism and victimhood as the Red Army fought the invading Wehrmacht. Soviet soldiers were making “colossal sacrifices” compared with “modest” burdens born by the western allies, Stalin wrote to Churchill in June 1943, as recounted in Antony Beevor’s “D-Day.”
The Kremlin leader’s appeal for a second front in France was answered with the landings of June 6, 1944. Since then, Russia has been right to remind the world that, in raw numbers, the butchery in the east surpassed what the western allies went through in the slog from Normandy, through the Ardennes and across the Rhine to defeat Adolf Hitler.
Military and civilian deaths between 1939 and 1945 were orders of magnitude higher than any war before or since. Poland lost a fifth of its prewar population, the Soviet Union an 11th, France a 77th and Britain a 125th, with the U.S. further down the list, according to Tony Judt’s “Postwar.”
In the Soviet case, conflicts over the allegiance and identity of the war dead continue to haunt the Kremlin’s ties with its former dominions. Some 5.8 million of the 8.7 million Soviet soldiers killed in action were Russian, according to estimates by Russian military expert Grigoriy Krivosheyev that are not universally accepted by historians; the rest were Ukrainians, Armenians, Georgians and other nationalities incorporated into the U.S.S.R.
Garry Kasparov, the chess grandmaster turned anti-Putin dissident, wondered why the leaders of Belarus, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan — all once enlisted in the Soviet cause — were left off the D-Day guest list. He mockingly suggested that Putin, after laying claim to Crimea, invite western leaders to the Crimean resort of Yalta next February to celebrate the anniversary of the big-power conference that cemented Soviet control over Eastern Europe.
“Putin has been invited to D-Day anniversary in France with western leaders!?” Kasparov said in a Twitter posting this week. “Did they want an expert in invasions?”
Defending the Putin overture, French President François Hollande pointed to Russian wartime suffering on May 8, the anniversary of Germany’s surrender in 1945. “One can have differences with Vladimir Putin, but I will never forget that the Russian people lost millions of lives in World War II,” he told France 2.
For his part, besides taking in the traditional Red Square parade of military hardware, Putin marked the victory by traveling to Crimea to inspect Russia’s newest province and salute cheering sailors of Russia’s Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol.
Whether present or absent, Russia has ghosted its way through D-Day commemorations. In 1984, White House advisers and speechwriters tussled over how to deal with what Reagan had once termed the “Evil Empire,” historian Douglas Brinkley wrote in “The Boys of Pointe du Hoc.”
The solution was a bureaucratic one: Reagan recalled the “terrible price” paid by the Russian people in World War II, while castigating the “uninvited, unwanted, unyielding” presence of Soviet troops in Eastern European countries still under Kremlin domination.
By honoring “the men who took the cliffs,” Reagan’s address on the shell-ravaged Pointe du Hoc outcropping west of Omaha Beach set the standard for presidential D-Day speechmaking. Yet that day also gave rise to a blemish that even the “Teflon” president never fully shook off.
German Chancellor Helmut Kohl wasn’t present that year: It wasn’t until two decades later that a German leader was allowed to come, after the post-World War II generation came to power. Reagan made amends by accepting a Kohl invitation to a cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, that turned out to contain graves of Waffen SS soldiers, tarnishing his reputation as a freedom apostle.
Reagan’s death on the eve of the 60th anniversary of D-Day, in 2004, was the prelude to another diplomatically fraught memorial. It was the first Normandy gathering of wartime allies and enemies, with France, Russia and Germany still bristling over the U.S.- and U.K.-led Iraq invasion the year before.
Two days later, the United Nations Security Council overcame the final obstacles to a resolution on the management of post-conflict Iraq. Britain’s Daily Mail detected the “Spirit of D-Day” behind the U.N. compromise.
This year, with Ukrainian President-elect Petro Poroshenko also due in Normandy, it’s anyone’s guess whether that spirit will bring about a rapprochement in the current crisis.
“Paranoia” would be Putin’s reaction to being told to stay home, said Bruno Tertrais, a senior research fellow at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. “Even those with an extremely strong position on Russia’s behavior would say it was impossible to cancel this visit. There may even be a silver lining: The anniversary creates the occasion for a brief personal contact, and that can’t be bad.”