Q & A with Mary Louise Roberts
June 6, 2014, marks the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy, France: one of the most iconic moments of World War II, which resulted in an unprecedented loss of life and quite literally shifted the tide in the Allies’ favor, leading to a restoration of the French Republic. Yesterday, to commemorate the event, we ran an excerpt from historian Mary Louise Roberts’s D-Day through French Eyes: Normandy 1944, which approaches the battle for Normandy from the perspective of French civilians, bearing witness in their homes and as part of their everyday life. Today, we’re following up with a brief Q & A, via which Roberts expands on how our understanding of that single day in history—June 6, 1944—has changed a much larger story.
On the 70th anniversary of D-Day, how would you say our perspective of the event has shifted since June 6, 1944?
The memory of any important event like D-Day undergoes change over time. If you read a novel such as Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, you’ll see an image of the American GI in Europe which is not flattering. Writers like Heller (and also, arguably, Kurt Vonnegut) used the American GI to register their protest against arbitrary authority in the 1960s—a broad cultural theme of that era. In the 1990s, which marked the fiftieth anniversary of the landings, we became used to thinking about the GIs in a brighter light. Thanks to Tom Brokaw’s notion of the “Greatest Generation,” as well as films such as Saving Private Ryan, we came to remember American soldiers in France almost exclusively as strong, self-sacrificing heroes.
The problem with this image of D-Day is that it ignores other agents who contributed greatly to the victory. Chief among them were the British, Canadian, and French armies, whose enormous efforts in Normandy should never be forgotten. Also overlooked by certain historians (Stephen Ambrose, for example) were the contributions of French civilians. In the days following the landings, these civilians committed small but substantial acts of courage. They guided the Americans through the woods and terrain, and gave them valuable intelligence concerning German military installations. In addition, they sheltered and cared for wounded paratroopers who had landed on the morning of the invasion.
So much of your work engages with reparative, reconstructive, and alternative accounts of history, esp. those surrounding sex, gender, and war: what was the impetus to start researching D-Day as seen by the Normans?
My previous book, What Soldiers Do, began with a simple question: What were relations like between the American GIs and French women during the years from 1944 to 1946? To answer that question, I began by looking at the US trench journal Stars and Stripes. By way of the pages of that journal, I quickly realized two things. First, the American stereotype of the French woman was that she was not only seductive but easy to seduce. And second, the GIs were getting “sold” on the invasion through an old gender narrative: the knight who comes to rescue the damsel in distress. The GIs were fed an image of France as a nation of woman awaiting American rescue. If you put those two things together, you have the version of the war presented to the average Joe in Stars and Stripes: if you fight bravely and liberate the women of France, you will be rewarded with kisses, embraces, and possibly more.
Much of the testimonies and first-person accounts of French civilians in D-Day through French Eyes rely on rich, sensory details and deeply personal narratives of terror and euphoria: What did it feel like to uncover these writings in the archive?
When I was researching What Soldiers Do, I traveled to many municipal and departmental archives in Normandy and Brittany in order to consult documents. Many of the archivists in these regions had collected unpublished memoirs from the summer of 1944. They were stunning. Not only did they demonstrate the efforts of the French to liberate themselves, but also they presented a newly intimate look at the American soldier that summer as he fought in the Norman bocage. I wanted very much to share these memoirs with the American public, and that is why I wrote D-Day through French Eyes.
What should we take away from D-Day through French Eyes?
The most important take-away from the book is just how much the French suffered for their freedom. The statistics are sobering: about three-thousand Normans died in the first few days of the invasion—the same as the GI death toll in those days. Before the summer was over, about 19,000 Frenchmen had lost their lives. Hundreds of thousands more watched their homes reduced to rubble, or came back to a hometown that had been completely destroyed. Death—the bodies of soldiers and animals—became an everyday sight for children, as well as for adults.