Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Normandy Museums

Today we went to two museums related to the Battle of Normandy.

The text across the front reads, La douleur m’a brisée, la fraternité m’a relevée, de ma blessure a jailli un fleuve de liberté (Pain broke me, Brotherhood raised me, from my wound has sprung a river of freedom — Paul Dorey)

The Caen-Normandy Memorial Center for History and Peace is really a museum of World War II, although its most detailed exhibits are of the D-Day landings and the immediate battles after.

We spent over 3 hours here. The first part of the exhibits is a timeline of history from the end of the First World War, through the beginning of the Second, with news photos, some archival films of Nuremberg rallies, and so on, including some events that were new to us — although we got some insight into that period from the Berlin Wall exhibit, "Topology of Terror," that we saw Berlin in 2010.

There are detailed exhibits on the occupation of France, on the formation of the Vichy government, on De Gaulle's formation of the Free French army, and on the development of the French Resistance.

There is a detailed timeline of the planning for and execution of the D-Day (Jour J in French) landings, with photos and maps. But then one is lead into exhibit areas on the Shoah, which it frankly calls the attempt to exterminate Jews, and on into exhibits on the evolution of total warfare, in which bombing of civilian populations is simply another means of fighting. It's a strong anti-war statement.

The tour ends with a short film made entirely of contemporary archival film, a split screen with the D-Day preparations and landings on the left, and the German defense preparations and fighting on the right. It's an exciting and scary piece of film editing.

OK, so we ate a little lunch in the car and zipped the half-hour drive back to Bayeux and decided to visit the Battle of Normandy Memorial Museum here, which oddly seems not to have its own website that we could link to.

This museum's time focus is tight on the ten weeks of June-August 1944, from the first landings through the effective end of German resistance in France, battles that caused over 200,000 casualties (killed, injured, captured) on both sides. It actually covers less of the D-Day planning and execution than the Caen museum. On the other hand it has lots of big stuff: several tanks, several varieties of artillery, a jeep, a half-track, and other vehicles and weapons, all nicely displayed with period equipment and uniforms.

In general if your interests are social, historical, and political, the Caen museum is excellent. If you are a war or military buff, the Bayeux one is best.

Or both, of course, or no doubt some of the others we'll see when we drive up to the landing areas in a day or two.

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