Allies in Memory: World War II and the Politics of Transatlantic Commemoration, c. 1941–2001. By Sam Edwards. Studies in the Social and Cultural History of Modern Warfare. Edited by Jay Winter.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pp. xii+300. $99.00 (cloth); $80.00 (Adobe eBook Reader).
Seven decades after the end of the Second World War, monuments to that conflict form a well-trodden tourist trail across the landscapes of Western Europe. The wartime generation has all but vanished and their children are now in retirement age, but the war still exerts a magnetic pull on transatlantic tourists. In this engaging monograph, Sam Edwards attempts to trace the development of commemorative culture in some of the sites associated with the American war in Europe and to show “how allies in war became allies in memory” (2).
This book is a latecomer to an intense wave of scholarly interest in commemoration, particularly of war and conflict, which began in the mid-1990s. In Anglophone scholarship, this turn is associated with works by historians like George Mosse and Jay Winter. Two decades later, there is some risk of diminishing returns. Is there still utility in identifying and tracing the complex interplay of states, civil society groups, communities, and individuals in shaping the commemorative landscape of a century in the shadow of total war?
Happily, the answer in this case appears to be yes. Edwards tells an important story and he does it with no small amount of verve. He focuses on the development of commemorative culture in East Anglia, home to the airfields of the 8th Air Force, and Normandy, site of the 1944 cross-channel landings, to examine the shifting legacies of, respectively, the air and land wars in Western Europe. Broadly, Edwards argues that the period between the end of the war and 1970 was marked by what he calls “military memory,” one dominated by top-down elite-driven activities. After 1970, commemorative activity shifted toward a more diffuse and popular “veterans’ memory.”
The book begins with a discussion of the earliest commemorative efforts in these two regions, which began before the guns fell silent in May 1945. Edwards is clearly more comfortable in the East Anglian setting, which he fills with fascinating characters like the Reverend William Harper-Mitchell, whose efforts resulted in the installation of a stained-glass tribute to fallen American flyers in a Norfolk village church in 1944. In Normandy, on the other hand, villages participated in commemorative events in part to highlight their role in the emerging national narrative of Gaullist liberation.
But the central player in the first half of Edwards’s story is the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC), a quasi-governmental organization tasked with managing cemeteries and memorials across America’s battlefields. The struggles of the ABMC to take control of commemorative activity, in large part haunted by the chaotic memorial landscape of Civil War battlefields, dominates the story for twenty-five years.
Edwards carefully avoids any suggestion that Americans were in a position to dictate commemorative culture, but he does emphasize the powerful symbolic importance of events like the dedication of ABMC-managed cemeteries in Britain and France in 1956, the same year at the Suez crisis. Vietnam and the collapse of American strategic and moral primacy in the late 1960s marks the transition phase in this study. Edwards points to the ABMC’s failure during this period to build a planned monument on Utah Beach as emblematic of the changing domestic and international context of memorialization, though he stresses that Norman communities were still generally very supportive of commemorative activities.
The turning of the tide, and the beginning of what he terms the “Americanisation of D-Day” (238), came with Ronald Reagan’s famous 1984 “Boys of the Pointe du Hoc” speech, an address intended to simultaneously overlay the retrospective moral clarity and national unity of 1944–45 atop American failure in Southeast Asia while reiterating American commitment to Europe at a moment of Cold War uncertainty. The speech reenergized the activities of the ABMC and set the stage for the rise of the powerful “greatest generation” narrative of the 1990s. The impact of this change extends well into the present century. Edwards hints, but does not explicitly say, that the television series Band of Brothers premiered in the United States on September 9, 2001 and was viewed in the aftermath of the subsequent terrorist attacks.
This is a very well-crafted and finely-researched book. Edwards avoids simplistic explanations and traces patterns of communication and contestation across continents and decades. This is international history of the best kind, judiciously argued and attentive to the internal dynamics of national states, regions, and organizations.
That said, I find the second half of the book considerably more compelling than the first. Primarily, this is because I am uncertain about his construction of “military memory.” The ABMC’s leadership, whom Edwards generally describes as “military elites,” were, of course, retired military elites. They had the backing of the American government, but their ability to operate in Europe was far different from the much larger and contemporaneous project of building and expanding a network of American bases and facilities across Western Europe in preparation for a war that did not, in the end, happen. I agree that we need to examine the creation of American-linked commemorative sites in Europe, but they were only one small part of a vast and highly visible Americanization of European landscapes in the early Cold War.
Finally, while Edwards is not responsible for events that took place after the completion of his book, I would suggest that alternative narratives to the “Americanized” D-Day were very much on display during the seventieth anniversary commemorations in 2014. The VIP-studded, hours-long ceremony on Sword Beach near Ouistreham featured a reenactment of the European war through dance and an emotional embrace between an elderly French veteran and his former German adversary. It closed with a tribute to the European Union set to the tune of “Ode to Joy.” It was, in short, an attempt to claim the Normandy landings as a victory for Europe and a foundational moment in the history of the European project, an idea with its origins in the hope that the continent would never return to the dark days of dictatorship and war.