On the occasion of this year’s celebration of D-Day, I wanted to share a few personal words about the meaning of this event, to me, which happens to fall on my birthday.
Decision Day, or a Harmony Lesson from Bach
By George Lepauw
I was born on June 6 in France, son of an American mother and a French father. I was told very early in my life of the story of D-Day, the Normandy Landing of June 6, 1944, code-named “Operation Overlord”, which established a Western Front by the Allied Forces to wrestle control from the Nazi hold on Europe, and which resulted in total victory over the Nazis on May 8, 1945, eleven bloody months after D-Day. On every one of my birthdays, commemorative ceremonies were broadcast on television and radio, and the story of the allied invasion was front-page news every year in the papers. Being Franco-American made it feel even more personal to me, and I even visited the Normandy beaches as a child, seeing first-hand how difficult it must have been for these courageous soldiers to claw their way into France despite the strong Nazi defenses in the still-visible Atlantic Wall bunkers pockmarked by bullets. I grew up thinking regularly about the meaning of D-Day and of the historical context of this most important day in history, and when its fiftieth-anniversary commemorations took place in 1994, it seemed as though such dark days would never again tarnish those beautiful beaches.
But on June 6, 2019, the 75th anniversary of these landings and certainly the last major commemoration involving living D-Day veterans, I saw a page turn. Living memory of this event, and of World War II in general, has my entire life been directly transmitted to me and my generation. We have all known veterans of this last major war, most of us having family members who were involved, most of us having heard their personal stories. Now, this personal connection is over, or just about, and incidentally the times are increasingly dangerous, in part as a result of the disappearance of this living memory and of the generation that fought on those sandy beaches.
A major war in Europe has not occurred in three-quarters of a century, the longest period of continuous peace on this continent in a thousand years. Strong institutions, major economic ties, and a strong will by the generation that won the war to maintain peace and bring people together has kept it that way despite tensions and occasional flares (most tragically in the ex-Yugoslavia), and despite the dissolution of the Soviet Union which caused tectonic shifts from the Baltic to the Black Sea and beyond.
The end of World War II was not the end of History, as some claimed. But it was the end of innocence, for what was left of it following the first world cataclysm a generation prior. It allowed us to see that civilization and progress were not, in and of themselves, defenses against human cruelty, but rather tools used in equal measure by the powers of good and evil. Hitler, a failed artist, loved Wagner as well as Beethoven. The Ode to Joy did not change his thinking or his soul, but I don’t think Wagner’s anti-semitism was necessary to Hitler’s own hatred of Jews and non-Aryans, either. In truth, hate and resentment was Hitler’s inner driving force, and he saw everything through that filter, and rallied his troops under that banner. Hate is easy, because it is focused.
In the schoolyard, we try to steer clear of bullies. We rarely intercede when they attack others because we don’t want to get involved, we don’t want any trouble, and we certainly don’t want to draw the bullies’ attention upon ourselves. We give them space to become more confident, more cruel, and more powerful. Worse, we make concessions to them, pretend to appreciate them, serve their needs, and call ourselves their friends. We forget that bullies use us until we are useless to them, and then they come for us as they came for the others, and take everything they want. Hitler was such a bully, and he achieved power and concessions because too few had the guts to face him and neutralize him when it was still easy. People were too afraid, and blinded themselves to the true consequences of his rise until it was too late, and not before he had a chance to assassinate millions of innocent people and ravage Europe, encouraging others around the world to do the same in mimicry. Even today, so many years later, Hitler is still admired by many, probably more than ever since his demise, even in the midst of our own democracies. We will always have to live with that, with Hitler’s omnipresence, until the end of time, because we allowed him to rise and we allowed him to succeed in many of his clearly stated goals. Because of this, tragically, Hitler still lives. Can we ever completely kill him?
So what is the meaning of D-Day? After the capitulation of all European countries, after the collaboration of the criminal French government with the Nazis despite France’s revolutionary ideals of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, after the shameful moral caving in of England under Chamberlain, after the futile isolationism of the United States and cruel immigration policies turning its back on hundreds of thousands of desperate Jews and others fleeing fascist regimes in Europe, finally, after giving up on an entire continent and millions upon millions of civilians of all religions and races, an anti-Nazi, anti-fascist coalition of allies organized in extremis under one banner and overcame its differences to save not just Europe, not just the surviving Jews and other minorities, not just hundreds of years of history, but humanity itself.
The D-Day generation helped organize and reset the world post-fascism. The first concern was not about who paid for defense or who got the raw end of the deal on trade relations. The most important thing was ensuring the security of European democracies, of reestablishing justice, of rebuilding an entire continent, and most importantly of guaranteeing lasting peace, like never before. The United Nations, NATO, and more importantly the European Union and its precedents were all created to ensure and defend peace, first and foremost. It was understood that strong economic integration was a necessary condition of peace, alongside strong democratic institutions. That vision was successfully made into reality and built the world we grew up in following the war, indeed ensuring economic prosperity and most importantly, peace.
That is not to say that mistakes were not made. Utter faith in capitalism and consumerism as drivers of peace were somewhat misplaced. Climate unconsciousness, and then utter denial, has deeply wounded our planet and all living organisms, ourselves included. Rising inequality has fractured our societies, in part because we have abandoned core principles and let greed run rampant. Many governments have become instruments of the few rather than “of the many”, making it not so e pluribus unum, after all. Women were not given as much power as men, minorities were kept away from certain advantages, and economic and military wars were fought around the world for Western advantage, as traditional colonies were given up. The Cold War, while not all bad, also served as an excuse for many excesses from Asia to Africa and the Middle East, and just like the fight against fascism, the fight against Communism helped focus Western policies and unite Europe and America against the same adversary. A binary world is easier to understand and to manipulate. So what do we do when we do not have clear adversaries? Can we not simply focus on improving ourselves?
Every generation has its responsibility. The D-Day generation rose up to the immense challenge of facing the consequences of the previous generations’ miscalculations and moral failings. Millions of men and women were killed, maimed, displaced, or otherwise traumatized because of fascist madmen and because leaders all around the world ignored the obvious threats facing the world, collaborating with the enemy, capitulating with nary a fight, or delaying the necessary war until it was nearly too late.
When I think about the early morning of June 6th, 1944, and of all the men who were about to jump into the grey waters of a chilly, choppy dawn on the coast of Normandy, knowing they would receive a warm welcome of bullets and explosives, I think about these soldiers’ will to face evil in the face, to fight for lofty ideals at the risk of their lives and their individual futures. These men were naturally afraid of what they were about to face, yet they understood this was a fight for the survival of humanity and civilization, for the collective good. They knew their failure or their success would determine the future of humanity. A landing on this scale could not be repeated if it had failed. This was the one chance to right the wrongs of Nazism and those who enabled it, and it had to be done. D-Day was much more than a military moment. It was Decision Day for the righteous.
160,000 soldiers crossed the English Channel to Normandy that day, of which approximately 10,000 died by the end of the day. The fight was even harder than anticipated, and not a single stated military objective was achieved on Day One other than acquiring a foothold in France, which turned out to be even harder than anticipated. But enough beach was conquered to allow for reinforcements over the coming days to start retaking Normandy, then more and more of France until Paris was liberated on August 25th after a week-long urban battle. Despite German losses, the fight was terrible, and the enemy gave nothing away easily. The D-Day mission was not won on its first day, but the decision to win was collectively confirmed that day, by the sheer willpower of these soldiers as a group and individually, with the backing of millions around the world praying and wishing for their success or fighting on other fronts of this world war.
Now, 75 years later, with just a handful of survivors left to share their stories with us in person, I wonder if we have lost the courage to act upon our ideals; do we even have any left? We are facing a monumental crisis not just in far off places but, more critically, in our very own America and Europe. For centuries, we took upon ourselves (for better and certainly also for worse) the burden of running the world. Now, we want to give up and take no responsibility for some of the problems we have wrought. On top of that, we are tearing ourselves apart within our own societies, and while we do this, the world burns and other, not-necessarily benevolent actors fill the void. We have lost our purpose, we have lost our sense of collective responsibility, we have lost our understanding of justice and equality, and more importantly we have forgotten our history. At this very moment, and while we hold habitual ceremonies to honor its last survivors, we are forgetting the ideals brandished by those who courageously stood up for our values on June 6, 1944. Instead, we are letting those thirsty for blood rise up again, amongst our own ranks and all around us, with impunity.
Instead of building upon the foundations of peace so painstakingly assembled by our predecessors, and fixing what needs fixing, we are casually and dangerously attacking the entire edifice, our edifice, even calling it illegitimate, hence giving help to the enemies of democracy and justice in the process. Instead of asking ourselves what we can do to improve our hard-won institutions, our hard-earned peace, recent European elections show that people are willing to gamble our future by voting for extremist, anti-European parties, which is a trend that has been ongoing since the Brexit referendum and Trump’s election, among other signs of the times. While I perfectly understand the frustration people have with elite power structures, I wholly disagree with firebombing everything as a solution. Our democracies may not be perfect, but they do allow people to participate and influence the system without killing it. Revolution should be a last-recourse in the face of unjust absolute power, not a method for governing.
What frustrates me most in these times, however, is the seeming lack of desire to construct a common destiny as a planet. Most urgently, the European Union as well as the United States (two entities which are connected by history and by similar philosophical foundations, and which are an inherent part of who I am) need to find their center again and to understand who they are and what they represent. Our common cultures are increasingly fractured within, with more and more issues separating us, not just politically and economically, but culturally. Losing our common reference points means we cannot speak the same language (in figurative terms), and we cannot work together for the common good.
As a musician, it seems essential to me to bring people together around cultural commonalities, to find our common denominators, and learn to appreciate and value the culture of others around us. Just like in music, we need harmony to operate, and cannot only function on dissonance. In Bach’s music, which is based on counterpoint and harmony, there is plenty of room for dissonance and dischord, for individual lines to forge their own paths and express their revolt. But underlying it all is a tonal grounding that allows for these disharmonies to resolve in final harmony at the end of a piece. Things may fall apart, but they always come back together in mutual understanding before everything comes entirely undone. Bach gives each voice the right to be heard individually, and yet for harmony, and thus peace, to rule in the end.
In this still young 21st century, we are focusing too much on what differentiates us, and not nearly enough on what brings us together. This is a dangerous situation and requires us to find ways to bind society together before its growing fractures explode it all together. How can we find our way back to a harmonious resolution before it is too late? If we cannot do this, we will fail not only in social terms but in global terms, leading us to a near-tribal system controlled by modern warlords and technological algorithms devoid of humanity and heart, on a dying planet that will have lost its beauty. Our values are only as powerful as our unity, and yet we are caving in upon ourselves in seeming gleeful disunity. This vacuum is allowing for very dangerous forces to reappear. Instead of resolving in peace as Bach’s music does, we are headed for a terrible future in human and planetary terms.
Let us not believe that there is still time, or that things are not as bad as that. Many of our own parents, grandparents or great-grandparents thought exactly that in the years leading up to Hitler’s concentration camps. D-Day was a moment of necessary bravery that was partially fueled by the guilt of those who let Hitler and his allies accumulate power and commit crimes against humanity in untold numbers. It is time to take a stand, and for the righteous to unite and stand up for justice, for climate health, and for peace.
Culture has an important role to play, to make new generations aware of the greatest artistic achievements of the past, and of the best of what humanity is capable of. Culture is also what allows us all to find our commonalities, as well as to find what we admire in others. Why can’t we rise above our base instincts? Why can’t we work toward a more beautiful, more just, more peaceful world? Wherefrom this urge to destroy what we have worked so hard to construct?
Yes, this first 21st-century generation wants a new world order. Understandably, people are tired of abuses, of inequalities, of corruption, of hardships. Yet we do not need to repeat the past to find out what is important to us. We can use the gift of peace, however fragile it is now, to build the world we want, in respect of others, and not succumb again, and again, to the temptation of violence and destruction. There will be no other D-Day. Let us positively construct a new and more just world order, but let us not raze everything under our feet to do so.
Initially, D-Day was scheduled for the early morning of June 5th, 1944. However, the harsh meteorological conditions over the Atlantic forced Allied leaders to reschedule the European invasion to June 6th. When it came time to launch the largest armada the world had ever seen, the weather was only slightly improved and far from ideal. Precaution would have dictated another delay, but doing so would have meant possibly waiting another two weeks for the right conditions to appear, giving the Nazis too much time to prepare for the coming onslaught. It was a challenging call to make, but General Eisenhower made up his mind, with the weight of history on his shoulders: “Let’s go.” And with those three simple yet determined words, the decision to win the war at all costs was truly made.
May our generation have the same courage now to save the world from its worst impulses.