This is the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy. It is a great blessing that western Europe is now at peace – regardless of how much political leaders squabble at the commemoration ceremony. D-Day back in the news reminds me of my first visit to World War Two venues.
In 1977, after dropping out of college, I hustled up the money to take off for a two-month hitchhiking tour of Europe. After landing and spending five days in Paris, I headed to the city’s western suburbs to catch a ride to Normandy.
Like most American kids in the 1960s, I loved TV series on World War Two – from Combat to Rat Patrol to Hogan’s Heroes. I was also transfixed by movies like “The Longest Day” (1962) and “Is Paris Burning?” (1966). I hoped to visit the landing sites, especially Omaha Beach – where the fiercest fighting took place on June 6.
But the hitching went badly. Perhaps French drivers were appalled by my use of a loaf of French bread to try to flag down a ride – like a giant thumb. (I avoided that flourish later in the summer when hitching in south France.) After several hours of strikeouts, I caught a ride with a trucker going to Le Havre, a port city fairly distant from the famous landing beaches. I had long since exhausted my meager French vocabulary, so I caught a boat to Southampton.
After a week of bad weather and worse food in England, I returned to the continent and, a few days later, was hiking along the Dutch North Sea coast. I accidentally stumbled onto a nude beach and was stunned to see so many natural blonds.
After leaving the bare buns behind, the beach was almost deserted. I strolled northwards a dozen miles, soaking up the undulating waves, sunshine that brightened without burning, bracing salty air…. and a giant round concrete bunker that suddenly arose out of the dunes. Its walls were sturdy enough to survive almost anything except a direct hit from a battleship’s 400-pound shell. From the bunker’s slots, soldiers could peer out and spray death on anyone who dared set foot on the beach. But the bunkers had no defense against the folly and depravity of the regime that built them. There were signs in several languages warning people not to walk in the nearby dunes, but hapless tourists still occasionally discovered unexploded land mines. (This is not a photo of the bunker I saw; I did not have a camera with me on that trip, and I have not been able to track down a photo of installations along that stretch of the Dutch coast.)
This was one of the few massive remnants of the “Thousand Year Reich” outside Germany’s western borders. I thought of Shelley’s poem, when a traveler came across the shattered sculpture and sneering visage of Ozymandias, the “King of Kings”:
“Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
*** The next immersion into World War Two venues during the trip occurred a couple weeks later in Berlin. West Berlin had mostly recovered from the war, though the bombed-out Kaiser Wilhelm church was left ravaged as an antiwar monument. Thanks in part to central planning, East Berlin had been less disturbed by progress. I made my first excursion behind the Iron Curtain with a Dutch lady I had met on the West Berlin subway. Hendrika was built a bit like a wheel of Gouda cheese, but she had bright cheeks and mischievous eyes. She and I were both planning to visit East Berlin, and we figured there would be safety in numbers.
Traveling from West Berlin to East Berlin was like passing into the mirror image of Disneyland. Instead of ticket takers at the entrance of rides, there were undercover cops enticing visitors to exchange currency on the black market – after which they would be arrested, fined, and perhaps jailed. The police were backstopped by civilian informers lurking everywhere, waiting to get paid for tidbits or smears. Hendrika’s fluent German helped keep us from being arrested as we traversed semi-forbidden parts of the city.
On AlexanderPlatz, near the city center, we saw elite East German soldiers goosestepping down the street. West Germany banned the goosestep after the Third Reich was destroyed. But that particular march naturally appealed to the Stalinist regime that the Russians imposed on East Germans after World War II. The goosestep perfectly captures the relation of the State to the people: anyone who did not submit would be crushed. The parading soldiers were complemented by the bullet holes left in many buildings from the bitter street to street fighting that occurred in 1945 when the Soviets took the city. (Some of the bullet holes may have also been leftover from the popular uprising in 1953 against the Soviet occupation.)
Almost all the people on the East Berlin streets looked browbeaten worse than the eternally-damned bureaucrats I later saw trudging the halls of USDA headquarters. I noted in my travel journal: “Perhaps despotism drains the soul. It would be difficult to have a high opinion of one’s powers if one was constantly being coerced and subjected to others’ wills.”
We visited the ghoul-like, cavernous main library in East Berlin. It was necessary to purchase a pass to enter, and only East Berlin students and visitors from non-communist nations were allowed inside. Every room had a guard, and we had to sign a registry and show our passes before entering it. There were vast empty spaces inside, perhaps symbolizing the Northwest Territory of information beyond the pale. The East Germans toiling with books and papers probably knew that anyone who raced across No Man’s Land to some forbidden idea might be terminated with extreme prejudice.
Why have libraries where thinking was a crime? Any government terrified of ideas must be doing something wrong.
As we gallivanted around East Berlin, Hendrika rattled on about life on her commune in southern Holland. She talked of being a “free spirit,” and I soon realized that the Dutch translation meant “also does animals.” She bragged of frolicking with any and all types of mammals with no reservations or prejudices. She was the first person I met who viewed anthrax as a sexually-transmitted disease.
The following day, I hitched back through East Germany and got dropped off late at night on the edge of Frankfurt’s sprawling metropolis. After slumbering in a field next to the autobahn, I set off next morning to check out Frankfurt’s historic district. At one street corner, I saw a gaggle of middle-aged guys warming their hands over a fire in an old oil drum and sharing the first bottle of the day.
“Wo is die Zentrum, bitte?” I asked, seeking directions to the city center.
One old guy with a beard even scruffier than mine responded in rusty English: “Are you an American?”
He unleashed a torrent of English profanity with superb pronunciation and even better inflection. The only thing missing was any trace of anger. Instead, his voice sparkled with joy as if he was embracing old friends. Turned out this guy had been a prisoner of war at Camp Pickett, Virginia. He was delighted to hear that I hailed from the state where he gained 15 pounds. When he offered me a swig of Schnapps, I told him I never drank anything more than 40 proof before breakfast. He was the first German veteran I encountered who flourished American cuss words like others whipped out pictures of their grandkids.
*** The above story is partly a spinoff from Public Policy Hooligan