In 2014, I visited France and, during my brief stay in Paris, I took a 1-day tour in Normandy. The strict schedule consisted of several visits to places related to one of the greatest military operations in the history of mankind, D-Day.
Normandy is a unique place. Its natural characteristics—rainy weather, peaceful seas, lavender fields, etc.—make it a romantic place, which has inspired brilliantly the creativity of numerous artists. At the same time, however, it was the setting of the most destructive, violent, and ferocious show that man can put on: the war. The contrast could not be more clashing.
The region is a gigantic open-air museum. Every plot, every wall, every fence witnessed the Allied landing and the events that occurred in the following days. In every corner, there is something that reminds visitors that history was made here. You can breathe everywhere the heavy air of such dramatic events.
In the morning, we visited the Caen Memorial Museum where hundreds of items are stored to testify what happened on the day of the Normandy landings and later. The museum describes in detail the military operations. But it is also very helpful to contextualize these events and WWII in general. Visitors are guided through a path which, with the help of numerous pictures, illustrates the facts that led to the outbreak of war.
Since “history is written by the victors“, generally we think about the Allied invasion as the pinnacle of the epic clash of good versus evil. And we have no doubt about which side was the good one. When you look at the sea from of one of the German concrete bunkers, which are still intact, however, you can see past events in a different perspective. In fact, you can feel for the Third Reich’s soldiers, who saw the allied forces approaching on the morning of June 6th, 1944. At that moment, you realize they were still human beings, who understood they would die shortly.
The most touching places I visited are the well-known beaches and the American cemetery. When you put your feet on the sand, you feel you are violating a sacred place. Grains are darker than the ones I am used to seeing on the Italian shores. It’s like they were soaked in the blood shed by the British, Americans, Canadians, Australians, Belgians, Slovaks, Danes, Czechs, French, Greeks, Dutchmen, New Zealanders, Norwegians, and Poles, who sacrificed their bodies and their lives to defeat Nazism. The deafening silence is only broken by the seagulls’ screams, which seem to come from the dead soldiers’ souls.
The American cemetery is even a more breathtaking place. An ocean of crosses and stars of David stretch in front of the visitor. Endless rows of white stones resting under a leaden sky, which have never been warmed by the sun again since. The air is extraordinarily heavy and the immense sacrifice disclosed in front of your eyes is like a tough punch to the gut.
Everything is gracefully tidy and neat, however. Not a blade of grass is out of place. The people who are buried here deserve nothing less than perfection. Again, the contrast between the ugliness of thousands of horrible deaths and the perfect peacefulness of the venue could not be more strident.
When you visit such places, abstract concepts—that we take for granted—like freedom and democracy take shape and become tangible suddenly. Thousands of times we have read cold, dry numbers and dates about famous past events in history books. But none of them can and never will be able to make you realize what really happened. Visiting Normandy is maybe the most brilliant history/civic education class I have ever attended so far. Every young student should go there at least once in his or her lifetime.