Thanks to George Clooney, the work of the “Monuments Men” who saved much of Europe’s architecture and heritage from the Nazis is no longer a secret.
But a new book by Manchester Metropolitan University historian Dr Sam Edwards goes beyond the monuments men and reveals the stories of those who sought to add to the European landscape with their own monuments, commemorating their fallen comrades.
In the weeks and months following VE Day, and just as the Cold War dawned, the European landscape was marked by the first of many new memorials dedicated to those in the American military who had fought and fallen for freedom.
Some of these monuments, plaques, stained-glass windows and other commemorative signposts were established by agents of the US government, partly in the service of transatlantic diplomacy; some were built by American veterans’ groups mourning lost comrades; and some were provided by grateful and grieving European communities.
Dr Edwards said: “Today, the idea of an Anglo-American ‘special relationship’ has become something of a cliché, trotted out by diplomats on both sides of the Atlantic for the benefit of press and public. Similarly, the close political and economic ties between the United States and Europe are increasingly taken for granted.
“But these transatlantic ties, forged during and after the Second World War, are not only diplomatic and economic, and not only the work of Prime Ministers and Presidents.
“As Europe was rebuilt after the destruction of war, as the Cold War dawned, and as the United States emerged as a global superpower, the transatlantic alliance was also carved into the very landscape of western Europe through the collaborative activities of American soldiers and European villagers.”
The book uncovers this story, a story of how Europeans and Americans worked together to remember their war dead whilst also consolidating the foundations of a new transatlantic alliance which continues to shape our world today.
Unlike their Hollywood celebrated counterparts, little is known about the builders of these monuments.
Dr Edwards said: “Thanks to the recent filmic attention of George Clooney and Matt Damon, much is now known about the ‘monuments men’ of World War II – those American soldiers whose job it was to save European culture from the destruction of war, and from the depredations of Nazi thieves. But far less is known about how other soldiers in that very same military built their own monuments in the weeks, months and years following victory in May 1945.”
And the historian has a very personal reason for his interest, which dates back to his childhood. He said: “I first became drawn to the story of these monuments whilst a teenager in the 1990s – each weekend, I and my best friend cycled to the old airfields of the American air force in eastern England, so many of which were marked by solemn and sombre granite memorials. I wanted to know more about who built them and why, and so have spent the past decade wandering around the fields of East Anglia, as well as amongst other locations in Europe (such as along the D-Day beaches in Normandy) to find some answers.
“What I uncovered is a fascinating story of transatlantic cultural history, a story which reveals how Europeans and Americans worked together following years of war to reconstruct and rebuild, and in doing so to forge the close transatlantic relationship which has so shaped the world over the last 70 years.”
The legacy of the monuments built by the American soldiers has stretched across the Twentieth century and even to the present day, as Dr Edwards explains.
“One of the most interesting things explored in the book concerns how acts of transatlantic commemoration – like the building of war memorials – have often been deliberately ‘used’ by politicians in order to make statements about present concerns and problems,” he said.
“So, in the 1960s, President Charles de Gaulle of France, famous of establishing an often ‘anti-American’ foreign policy, hated the annual commemoration of D-Day in Normandy because it reminded the world that France had been liberated by the Anglo-American military – not a story he was keen to draw attention to.
“In the 1980s, by contrast, and with the Cold War again becoming tense, lots of European and American diplomats were keen to exploit D-Day anniversaries as forums in which to make bold statements about the continued importance of the transatlantic alliance. Central to this process was none other than President Ronald Reagan, who specifically attended the 40th anniversary of D-Day in 1984 in order to throw some diplomatic punches at the Soviet Union whilst also celebrating the heroic World War II past and thereby distract Americans from the despair and defeat of the more recent conflict in Vietnam. Significantly, many observers at the time even went so far as to suggest that Reagan’s Normandy speech – given in front of a memorial at Pointe du Hoc – was a key factor in his re-election later that year.
Allies in Memory: World War II and the Politics of Transatlantic Commemoration, c. 1941-2001 is out now, published by Cambridge University Press.