/ Published May 04, 2011
Normandy: The Landings to the Liberation of Paris by Olivier Wieviorka. Harvard University Press, 2008, 428 pp.
The Allied invasion of Europe on the beaches of Normandy on 6 June 1944 has taken on the status of epic myth over the years, according to author Olivier Wieviorka. As such, the actual truth of the events leading to the liberation of Paris has been lost. Normandy: The Landing to the Liberation of Paris focuses on breaking these myths and portraying Operation Overlord as the author claims: “Stripped of the glorious trappings of a legendary exploit, the invasion of Normandy can now be seen as a supremely human event—human both in the greatness of what it accomplished and in the magnitude of what it left undone” (p. 361).
Over half of the book focuses on the political, military, and material preparation leading to the invasion. These discussions provide some insight into the overall history of the Allied invasion seldom discussed in other books, such as political concerns; the logic in selecting the time, location, and size of the invasion force; and planning limitations.
While the translation appears solid through the book, a glaring error, claiming the United States built “1,200 battleships” between 1942 and 1945 (p. 43) raises doubt about the accuracy of countless statistics the author relies on to prove his various points. This error is magnified by how he extensively uses often convenient statistics to prove a point. One such example concerns the motivation (specifically, lack of motivation) of US forces. Any value or salient points are lost in the myriad numbers and questions as to the relevancy of the topic.
Unfortunately, the author contradicts himself in his discussion of the preparation and planning for D-day. In the first chapter (p. 12,) he points out the late start of planning for the invasion as April 1943, while later noting the date for the same event as March 1943 (p. 65). This contradiction, while slight, magnifies questions about the author’s analysis. This continues as he describes the initial planning guidance as “exceptionally vague” (p. 65) for the initial invasion planning, having as an objective “anticipate the destruction of the Wehrmacht’s forces in northwestern Europe” (p. 66). While not addressing any objectives concerning the fate of Germany’s political state or similar issues, the objective given does provide an adequate starting place for the invasion. More specific guidance was given six weeks later.
It would be naïve to assume that all of the US Army forces were highly motivated, perfectly behaved, exceptionally skilled, routinely heroic to a fault, or dedicated to spreading an American system of democracy; however, the author argues that the infantry was manned by “the weakest conscripts—weakest in every respect (p. 52). He continues questioning their motivation by citing a multitude of survey statistics, including anecdotal information from an army psychiatrist—“I found a lot of men who didn’t care to fight” (p. 55)—and a postwar survey that noted the most common question American soldiers preparing for D-day asked was when they could go home. This presentation of motivation as having an impact on an army’s ability to fight could have some relevance to D-day if it included the German army. Unfortunately, coverage of such topics related to the German army is minimal. The author also makes a great effort to highlight individual American crimes against the French population, yet again provides an unbalanced approach by not providing equal coverage of crimes committed by German forces. Perhaps, this difference in coverage is based on a lack of available German military documents; however, the author does not explain.
The author devotes the entirety of chapter 10, “Psychoneuroses,” to psychological issues, mental breakdowns, and American slow response to such problems. The overall relevance of this issue to the topic of the Normandy invasion is sketchy at best. To be expected, coverage of the Axis aspects on this topic is completely missing, as is an index, which makes looking up particular points or facts extremely difficult.
Wieviorka provides a solid review of the issues dealing with General de Gaulle’s status as the potential heir apparent to the French government, the conflict over recognizing and defining his role in D-day, and the role of the French Resistance movement. These discussions add merit to the book.
In conclusion, Normandy: The Landings to the Liberation of Paris reads as an attempt at revisionist history written to rectify the reader’s “Triumphalism” mythological understanding of an epic tale. While some of the author’s points are enlightening, they are buried unevenly throughout the book, or lost in mind-numbing, conveniently used statistics, such as those used to discuss motivation. The book’s bibliography indicates it was well researched, but unfortunately, the author takes every opportunity to bring out perceived failures in the Allied effort while downplaying any successes. Ultimately, this book should only be read as a companion to others on the subject to expand understanding of the planning and political issues surrounding the invasion. As a standalone source, it misses its intended mark of paying the “most honest homage” by treating the young British, American, and Canadian soldiers “not as demigods, but as human beings.”
Lt Col Dan Simonsen, USAF
Commander, AFROTC Det 305, Louisiana Tech University
"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."