Sunday, June 06, 2004

Freedom isn't free

Eammon writes a wonderful piece on Freedom.

I come from a country that opted for neutrality in the existential 20th-century fight to save Europe from fascism, and I live in the country that had to be defeated in this fight, so you can be sure that on this anniversary of D-Day I have some pretty strong feelings about freedom.

First, my homeland, Ireland. Its decision to stay neutral in the Second World War was based on the memories of its war against Britain for independence, its grievances over the partition of the island and a fear of Republican insurrection. It was this domestic agenda that led Eamon de Valera, the Irish Prime Minister, to remain neutral. Churchill, in his 13 May 1945 victory speech, vented his anger at the Irish stance, when he reminded his listeners of how perilous Britain's situation was in the early phase of the war. If things had taken a turn for the worse because of Ireland's resolve, he said, "we should have been forced to come to close quarters with Mr. de Valera, or perish from the earth. However, with a restraint and poise to which, I venture to say, history will find few parallels, His Majesty's Government never laid a violent hand upon them, though at times it would have been quite easy and quite natural, and we left the de Valera Government to frolic with the German and later with the Japanese representatives to their heart's content."

That latter jab about frolicking was, not doubt, provoked by the 30 April decision by de Valera to visit the German embassy in Dublin and sign a book of condolences memorializing the death of Hitler. De Valera regarded his gesture as a perfunctory diplomatic act by a neutral government. However, despite his ghastly observance of diplomatic niceties, and despite Ireland's adherence to a policy that threatened Allied security, there were Irish people who had the courage to act. Some 43,000 from the south and 38,000 from the north joined the British forces and fought the good fight.

As regards Germany, the participation of the German Chancellor in today's ceremonies is Normandy is to be welcomed as it should help put to an end the debate within Germany about whether 1945 represented Besatzung (occupation) or Befreiung (liberation). The fact is that the Allies liberated Germany from itself, and freed Europe forever from the nightmare of Germany's desire to be a superpower.

Today, we should remember and honour those who paid the ultimate price that Europe might be free. How high that price was can be measured by the numbers who died on the beaches of Normandy, but it is also transmitted to those of us who were born long after D-Day in a more accessible way, in a book, a bestseller in France, called L'Américain, by Franz-Olivier Giesbert.

Giesbert's father was a former GI who never recovered from the trauma of D-Day. "He remained all his life in a state of shock, scarcely able to smile, his soul wounded to the core, for having survived by leaving behind him the dying carcasses of so many friends." As the young GI Giesbert and his comrades advanced along the beach, forming "floods of fresh flesh," they experienced a horror we can scarce comprehend. "Behind them, the beach was filled with remorse that would never cease to torment my father." The result was that the GI who survived beat the author mercilessly throughout his childhood.

It's easy to say that the best things in life are free. Well, freedom isn't one of them. It has to be defended. And, at times, fought for. We owe an outstanding and permanent debt to those who fought and suffered and died for our freedom on 6 June 1944.


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