Once the Allied forces were in France, there was a debate about liberating Paris or bypassing it. Eisenhower eventually let de Gaulle take a division of French forces to liberate the capital, but the French in some ways felt they had traded one occupier for another.
Q: What were some of the tensions that arose in France after the invasion?
Sessions: There was a lot of fighting about prostitution, which became rampant, and the American army was unwilling or unable to manage soldiers at the same time the French economy had been devastated by occupation and mass export of resources to Germany. For women especially, prostitution became one of the ways to survive. The equilibrium, however bad, that had been established during the war collapsed. There was a lot ground-level arguing about soldiers going off with women, in the alleys of northern cities and in people’s back gardens, and there was a lot of anxiety among French men about what that meant. Were the GIs, who were big and healthy and carrying cigarettes and chewing gum and chocolate, going to steal all the French women? There was a lot of ground-level tension.
Stars and Stripes [the U.S. military newspaper] covered the liberation of France with photos of American troops embracing and kissing French women, encouraging some of this tension. Occasionally there was a photo of a GI giving candy to kids, but mostly coverage is about France as this land of romance and opportunity. There is evidence that some of the GIs took them at their word and after the liberation of Paris, they called Paris ‘the Silver Foxhole’ because it was the glittering place full of entertainment, but also brothels, legal and illegal, and other opportunities to meet French women.
There was also an internal power struggle between the external forces of de Gaulle and the Free French and the internal resistance, which was dominated by the French Communist Party. There was a struggle for power over who was going to control the post-war situation. So there was liberation from the Germans, but in the power vacuum, there was also quite a bit of violence and political tension.
Of all the political groups in France who could really claim to have fought fascism from day one, the only group that could do that unambiguously was the Communists, going back to the 1930s. Through the war the Communists were the largest and the most effective resistance force, particularly in the unoccupied zone. Part of that is that they were used to being organized in cells and operating clandestinely. Organizationally, they were in a good place to flip very quickly into resistance activity.
There was a short period of time at the end of the war and shortly afterward when people, especially in Central Europe, thought that communism was a viable alternative to the fascism under which they had been living with the Nazis and to the unstable governments that failed to stop the Nazis from rising to power.
Having lived through the tremendous instability of the interwar period and having lived through the First World War, which was living memory to many adults in Europe, the calculus looks really, really different than it did from the United States. By contrast there were people in the United States who thought that Hitler was better than Stalin.
Q. How is D-Day remembered today?
Hitchcock: I think D-Day is very much a touchstone for the American identity. A non-professional army of factory workers and schoolteachers got into uniform, they went to a place they didn’t know about and they fought the bad guys, and, using their skills and their talents and their cleverness, they overcame a much more powerful, demonic enemy.
There is nothing wrong in telling the story that way, but it compresses a lot of complexity. What I think is regrettable is that we miss the rest of the year. Because from June of 1944 to May of 1945 is a very long, hard year, and that is when most of the casualties in Europe will be lost.
Sessions: When the French step back and think about the bigger picture, it becomes ambiguous very quickly, because their liberators also brought destruction.
Everywhere there were difficult moral and political questions about collaboration and behavior during the occupation that were brought to the surface once the Germans were gone. It is a much more complex kind of story.
But you find it is much more complex when you dig into the American side as well. The mythologies never capture things that well. There is one thing that every historian says at least six times a day: “Well, it was more complicated than that.” That applies equally well here.