May 31, 2004
METZ, France- Memories of World War II and, of course, D-Day, still hang in the air here in this, the world's most heavily fortified city. The German World War I forts on the heights to the west of Metz, and the Maginot Line forts around Bitche in the Vosges, played a major role in holding up the advance of Gen. Patton's 3rd US Army for three months.
It certainly seems right that Russia's Vladimir Putin will be a guest of honor at the upcoming 60th anniversary celebrations of the Normandy landings. The invitation of Germany's Chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, is a bit more questionable.
It's high time Russia was accorded overdue recognition of its prime role in the World War II defeat of National Socialist Germany and its allies. Most North Americans seem to believe the US-British-Canadian landings at Normandy were the decisive stroke of the war. Not so.
When the Allies invaded France, most of the war-battered German units they met were undermanned, short of armor, trucks, and heavy artillery, almost immobile, and reduced to 40% combat effectiveness by previous hard fighting on the Eastern Front.
Most important, Germany's once splendid air force was almost extinct. German forces at Normandy had almost no air cover and were pounded day and night by thousands of Allied strike aircraft and bombers. Few recall that 15,000-20,000 French civilians in Normandy were killed by the ferocious Allied bombing campaign
Germany's star commander, Marshall Erwin Rommel, was seriously wounded in a strafing attack by Canada's Maj. Gen. Richard Rohmer, a gallant warrior and great gentleman.
The Germans still put up fierce resistance against overwhelming odds, inflicting 209,000 casualties on the Allies and suffering 200,000 of their own. As Churchill observed, `you will never know war until you fight Germans.'
Still, in spite of the heroism of the Allied forces at Normandy, the Wehrmacht was not defeated in France, as many still believe, but on the Eastern Front, during 1941-1944, by Stalin's Soviet Union, a tyranny far more murderous and bloodthirsty than Adolf Hitler's Germany.
The Red Army claims to have destroyed 507 German divisions, 48,000 German tanks and 77,000 enemy aircraft; 100 divisions of Nazi-allied Romania, Hungary, and Italy; and at least 450,000 Japanese soldiers, 32% of Japan's total military losses.
Of Germany's 10 million casualties in WWII, 75% came fighting the Red Army. The Luftwaffe lost most of its warplanes and its best pilots in the East. Almost all German military production went to supplying the 1,600km Eastern Front, where elite German forces were ground up in titanic battles like Kursk and Stalingrad involving millions of men.
Soviet forces lost upwards of 20 million casualties; total US casualties (including the Pacific) were one million. To the Russians, D-Day, as well as the North African and Italian campaigns, were mainly diversionary side-shows to tie down German troops while the Red Army pushed on to Berlin.
We may dispute this view, but there's little doubt the Soviets destroyed most of Germany's military capability well before June, 1944. It's interesting to speculate what would have happened if Hitler had not invaded the USSR, and if the Allies would then have landed in Normandy to face intact German forces with air cover. My own view: the Allies would have been beaten as quickly and thoroughly as the French Army in 1940.
On the other hand, if the Allies had not landed in France in June, 1944, the Red Army might well have reached Paris, and the North Sea ports sometime in 1945. D-Day must also be thought of as a race between the Allies and the Soviet Union.
So Russia's Putin merits an invitation to Normandy, thought reluctantly, because of Moscow's frightful human rights violations against the oppressed Chechen - the children of survivors of Stalin's concentration camps.
But what about German Chancellor Schroder? A bit odd, no, Germans celebrating a German defeat? Schroder claims Germans were also victims of Nazism, and so should fête its defeat. That seems a stretch.
Mind you, Schroder, a deft, intelligent politician, is only doing what former wartime Nazi allies Italy, Slovakia, Finland, Romania have managed to do: totally escape their pro-German wartime role and through the magic of historical legerdemain emerge as `Allies.' Call it Euroamnesia.
I recently saw a plaque in Italy lauding the liberation of a town from the Germans by `Italian Allied forces.' Excuse me. I always believed Italy was on the German side, at least until late 1943. If the wily Italians could start on one side in the war and end up on the other, why not the Germans?
It makes you wonder just who was fighting against the Allies? Everyone seems to have been either anti-Nazi, in the Resistance, or vacationing in South America at the time. Maybe all that shooting was just friendly fire?
Whatever, the war is long over and today's Germans bear no responsibility or guilt for such long-ago events. Let them join the party. Maybe we'll even see a smiling Japanese delegation at Pearl Harbor next year saying `so sorry for travel agent error, meant to attack Singapore. Not Honolulu.'