The 6th of June

  • Posted: June 6, 2019
  • Category: Blog
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To misquote the legendary radio announcer of the New York Yankees, John Sterling, “You can’t predict sports”. Perhaps that explains my fascination with baseball, a slice of life so alien to my own. This spring, Denver gave proof of John Sterling’s astute quip. Our hockey team, the Avalanche, and our basketball team, the Nuggets, were both in the playoffs. Neither one was expected to be there.

In a puzzling departure from its usual practice, our local paper, the Denver Post, has a really fine sports reporter by the name of Mark Kiszla. In his column, Mr. Kiszla contrasted the fans of the two different games. It is his opinion that the Nugget’s fans are “a fickle crowd that needs to be entertained.” The Avalanche fans by contrast “have the back of Gabe Landeskog and the boys”, giving the players a “constant emotional push”.

Having been to a lot of Avalanche games myself, I heartily agree with something else Mr. Kiszla says, ““From the moment (Av’s) fans shout “Our flag was still there!” with full hearts during the national anthem”. There is no mistaking the heart felt love of country, just plain old patriotism, displayed by the crowds at Avalanche games. Is it the same at Nuggets games? I don’t know, but given my deeply held biases, suspect not. Mr. Kiszla goes to the games of both teams and had a point to make, a sad point, but a point nonetheless.

Our national anthem was written at a dark time in our nation’s history. British troops had just marched into Washington D.C., and set fire to our Capital building along with most of the city. Francis Scott Key watched the Royal Navy firing on Ft. McHenry near Baltimore, penning the words we would come to know as The Star Spangled Banner. It is likely he could see the smoke of our burning capital as he wrote it.

Our national anthem is a song of defiance written during a time of national despair. The words are a fist shaken at those who would dare to put chains, or even arbitrary taxes, upon a free people. It proclaims that we shall endure. We shall stand. We are the “home of the brave and the land of the free”. Ever since that time, even as our country has grown to unprecedented power and wealth, we have continued to pride ourselves on those virtues.

Are we still “brave”? Are we still “free”? Do we even aspire to either of those virtues? Standing in long lines of hockey fans resembling nothing so much as a herd of nervous cows waiting their turn in the cattle shoots of security, docile as we empty our pockets and submit to body searches, I wonder. I really wonder.

But no matter our present indifference to the violation of our person, there can be no doubt we were once brave. We were once free. And those who came before risked greatly in making good the boast we now echo before settling down to drinking beer while applauding Millionaire Millenials on ice. Perhaps some future historian will set the high water mark of our nation as a free and brave people at a time soon to be celebrated, the Diamond Anniversary of D-Day, the Sixth of June, 1944.

The 6th of June was a narrow window, a brief interlude of calm weather, in an extended stretch of storms. That June morning German lookouts began to see indistinct shapes out at sea along the Normandy shore as the moonlit night slowly gave way to the first light of dawn. The morning watchers might have been the malingerers and out of favor, the second team, required to be on duty while everyone else rested in an anticipated stand down. Because of the bad weather a privileged few, mostly high-ranking officers such as their commander – Erwin Rommel, had taken a break from the weeks of stressful waiting to return home for a brief vacation. The invasion was coming. Everyone knew that. The question was – When and Where?

The Germans on duty in their blockhouses had a noisy night as the early morning hours had seen heavy bombing, but that was neither new nor particularly worrisome. Years of experience told them that nighttime bombing was a nuisance to be lived with but not overly troublesome. The inaccuracy of night bombing was such that it was often difficult for the German’s to even know what the Allied bombers had been trying to hit during the night.

But as the dawn continued to break, those dark indistinct shapes continued to gain clarity in the binoculars of the now alert Wehrmacht sentries. Awareness became suspicion, quickly crystalizing into stomach knotting certainty. Those shapes were ships, lots of ships! Suddenly at 5:30 AM there was no longer any doubt. Orange flowers bloomed out in the brightening gloom, closely followed by the shriek of incoming shells. The distant echoes of the naval cannon were drowned amid the explosions of their shells as they rained down upon the shore fortifications. D-Day had begun!

While the shake and shock of the shelling seemed to last forever, it was short lived, perhaps only 40 minutes on the stretches of sand soon to be immortalized as Omaha and Utah beach. And in all truth, German engineers had done their work well. The Atlantic Wall was built to withstand such punishment. But now the watchers could see the straight lines of wakes stretching behind long ungainly boats making their way to the shore below the cliffs on which the Germans waited.

No one needed to explain the unfolding scene to the watching men. They knew what it meant. They were prepared and even if they were malingerers, they were proud members of the finest army in the modern history of Europe, perhaps the world. The supersonic cracks of German 88 MM cannons, the best of their era, began to be heard. Quickly the “piano music” of the 88’s was joined by a cacophony of lighter artillery, machine guns, even rifles. Spouts of water erupted, rained and drizzled among the incoming landing craft. Even as they watched the front prows of these ungainly craft began dropping, disgorging tens, hundreds, even thousands of distance-shortened figures into the boiling surf.

Dozens of the stick figures went down as they advanced into the fire, but they just kept coming, moving onto the beach among the barbed wire and grotesque abbatois of the tank traps. Fighter aircraft, Thunderbolts and Lightnings, Spitfires and Hurricanes, in screaming dives loosed long chains of raging lead that tore and ripped along the line of German defenders.

Festung Europa (German: Fortress Europe) was under attack. Festung Europa, a name given by the Thousand Year Reich to the defenses constructed by Nazi Germany to protect their conquered territories from invasion by the Allies. The massive beach fortifications known as the Atlantic Wall were the first line of defense for Festung Europa. That Atlantic Wall was now under attack. The long awaited Second Front had opened.

Perhaps on hearing confirmation of the landings in his Kremlin offices, Uncle Joe smiled and took time to light an early morning cigar. Who knows the thoughts of a Josef Stalin? But he was well aware that American troops on French beaches signaled the end of the Thousand Year Reich well before its self-proclaimed end date.

Given the casualty rates along the Eastern Front, the Normandy landings saved hundreds of thousands if not millions of Russian lives. But did Josef Stalin care? His life gives the lie to that conclusion. But Uncle Joe would understand, very clearly, that Normandy was the starting gun for a race to Berlin, a race he meant to win.

This Sixth of June will be a time of celebration and ceremony in Normandy. Dignitaries and folk from around the world will come together in public remembrance of the event. The peaceful beaches, the crowds both festive and somber, the manicured cemeteries with well ordered rows of crosses give testimony to the rewards and costs accruing to the day.

Here we are, seventy-five years later, in a world very different from that morning. What strange twists and turns events took since that day. Georgy Zhukov relentlessly drove his numberless hordes over the roads of Central Europe towards Berlin. Josef Stalin won his race to Berlin at a terrible cost in suffering and blood. But it was a close run thing.

Victory over Germany did not end the suffering of the European people or the burdens of the victors. A grey cloud enveloped and hid much of the continent. An “Iron Curtain” grew along its grey borders to separate the nascent Eden of Socialism from the contamination of those living outside the hive. The German people were split into two, the East and the West. Those in the West rejoined the heritage of the Enlightenment, of Athens and of Rome. Those in the East lived the fate of conquered populations, both in mind and body.

In their turn, the sons of the men on the Normandy beaches assumed the responsibilities that came along with their fathers’ victories. The sons stood at Checkpoint Charlie, maneuvered tanks on the German plains in training exercises and manned the cockpits of nuclear bombers. The largesse of their fellow taxpayers primed the pump and fueled the post-war renaissance of Europe.

Eventually the Socialist Utopia crumpled as all utopias do. The impoverished millions behind the “Iron Curtain” were allowed to rejoin humanity and prosperity dawned. But prosperity can be a drug that numbs and bewitches. Human beings, even the best of us, seek contentment rather than wisdom, becoming short sighted as well as forgetful. We all too easily fall into believing our own BS.

As the good times have allowed us to take a long vacation from reality, we ponder the world as we celebrate the sacrifice of our forebears. Germany once more stands united and prosperous – a giant on the continent. Perhaps the grandsons of the men on Normandy’s beaches have forgotten too much, have been asked for too little. Perhaps the impoverished arid valleys of Afghanistan have blinded us to where true dangers lie.

There is something about the north of Europe. Perhaps J.R.R. Martin’s vision of Winterfell and the Wall is a metaphor, a thinly veiled picture of our own world. It was not the Celts or the Persians who stopped the Roman legions. Rome first met the Germanic peoples at Arausio, the greatest defeat ever suffered by Rome. That disaster brought the Age of Gaius Marius. His reforms lead in a direct line to Julius Caesar and the end of the Roman Republic.

A century later, another fateful encounter with the Germans on the Teutoburg Wald marked the high water mark of Roman expansion. Four centuries of stalemate followed. A DMZ along the Rhine, in todays parlance – a border wall, separated the slowly disintegrating civilization of Rome from the increasingly rambunctious German barbarians beyond. That is until 404 A.D when an exceptionally harsh winter froze the Rhine. Hordes of Germans crossed over the ice into the Roman Empire and the Dark Ages began.

The civilization rising from the ashes was German, the Greater Germany of Charlemagne. We remember the Crusades as French and English warriors in the Middle East, but Germany crusaded farther and with more success into the pagan Eastern & Central Europe. Even as popular historical romance celebrates the England of Henry VIII and Elizabeth, let’s not forget the Reformation was German.

In the fragmented contentious ages since, our interest has narrowed, captured by that concerning our own – the New World, the English speaking story. But Germany was there, a presence both powerful and foreboding. The Hanseatic League controlled much of Europe outside England and France for a long time. A German army arriving onto the battlefield of Waterloo defeated Napolean, delivering victory to the Duke of Wellington.

The Nineteenth Century brought the coming of Otto Von Bismarck and the unification of the German peoples. No more would the fierce energy of the German peoples be diluted. German was united and the bloody 20th Century was born. It was the Germans who invented modern warfare. It was the Germans against the world in the two cataclysmic world wars.

Even a cursory study of Germany’s history since that time is a sobering, even frightening, look at a force of nature. Yes, Germany has been corralled and forced to live at peace, for a time anyway. Without the land of the brave and home of the free would that be true? But can one look at the 75 years since that day on Normandy’s beaches and not feel some apprehension?

A year after that day on Normandy’s beaches, Germany was a shattered wreck. Gangs of feral children collected the tossed cigarettes from under the feet of American soldiers, recycling the remaining tobacco into new cigarettes – the currency of Occupied Germany. Today, Germany is an industrial powerhouse, the most powerful nation in Europe. But of course Germany is our ally, a civilized nation, committed to fighting Climate Change and offering haven to millions of immigrants. What have we to fear from our German friends?

One might pay attention to the recent statements of Angela Merkel. The responsible press acts as a V-chip for Ms. Merkel, the German Chancellor and most esteemed politician in the Adorable World. A V-chip is the technology in television sets that allows parents to filter out violent or sexual content. Instead of violence of steamy scenes, the responsible press filters out Ms. Merkel’s comments about America that don’t fit the approved script.

When Ms. Merkel talks of Climate Change, immigration and other progressive hot buttons, she is covered in an adoring fashion. When she speaks of American influence or the future of Europe, she seems to channel Otto Von Bismarck with her words edited out by the responsible press. After all, there is limited space for news from far off Germany.

It may be useful to remember why so many Jews remained in Germany even as things grew worse and worse. Germany was widely regarded as the most advanced and civilized nation on Earth. No one believed they would actually do what they did. Again as we remember our forefathers on Normandy’s beaches, what do we have to fear from our German friends?


2 Responses to “The 6th of June”

  1. Jeff Esbenshade says:

    My father was in the 7th wave @ Omaha Beech. How much blood does the USA

    have to give to Europe? The USA pays 72% of the cost of NATO and the Germans

    say they will not pay any more than they pay today. I would vote to remove

    all American troops and equipment out of Germany move them to other NATO nations.

  2. Leann says:

    “Germany was widely regarded as the most advanced and civilized nation on Earth. No one believed they would actually do what they did.” This is a thought provoking sentence. It makes me wonder what are we sticking our head in the sand and hoping will pass today…?

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