Book Review: Sam Edwards, Allies in Memory: World War II and the Politics of American Commemoration in Europe c. 1941-2001 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2015).

Book Review: Sam Edwards, Allies in Memory: World War II and the Politics of American Commemoration in Europe c. 1941-2001 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2015).

Harriet Beadnell, Department of History, University of York

Heb533@york.ac.uk

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Even as the Second World War was taking place, memorials to honour American soldiers were being constructed in Britain and France.  The story of this Anglo-American memorialisation, which continued in the decades following the conflict, appears to have been largely ignored in favour of studies on national commemoration. However, Sam Edwards’ Allies in Memory: World War II and the Politics of American Commemoration in Europe c. 1941-2001 aims to offer a ‘fresh perspective on the commemorative response to World War Two’ by tracing the transatlantic commemorations of the Second World War (p. 9).  The book strives to uncover a ‘story of Europeans and Americans, a story of contest and compromise, a story of transatlantic cultural politics’ (p. 2).  This review will begin with an overview of the contents of the book and then discuss the themes explored in Allies in Memory.  It will highlight how Allies in Memory innovatively explores how US commemorations ‘encountered the landscape and, most importantly, the people of Europe’ (p. 9).  It will examine the importance of the local groups and of the American veterans in shaping and influencing American commemorative sites in Britain and France.  Finally, this review will consider the contribution of the book to the debate surrounding the commercialisation of the legacy of the Second World War in Europe.

The book is formed of two main sections.  The first outlines the inter-war relationships between the nations and notes the transatlantic attitudes that existed before the Second World War.  This section also considers the initial post-war period and the formation of commemorative sites in France and Britain and how these efforts were developed by a variety of groups.  The second half of the book deals with the growing American influence in the development of later commemorations.  Edwards explores the increasing presence of American veterans who were actively visiting and expanding sites of remembrance and the commercialisation of the legacy of the war in Europe.  He uses a wide variety of sources to chart the changing efforts to remember American soldiers in Britain and France.  These include the plans for building memorials, correspondence between nations via military and political groups and local communities, speeches, newspaper articles and the memorials and commemorative events themselves.  This wide variety of sources from across the three nations gives a fascinating multi-dimensional perspective on the construction of commemorative sites in a global context.

Allies in Memory uniquely considers American commemorative sites from an international perspective.  Many academic works surrounding the building of memorials and the memory of conflict have been explored in a national context.[1]  Edwards’ previous collaborative work D-Day in History and Memory examines the memory of the Normandy Landings from national perspectives.  Individual scholars discuss the ways in which various nations distinctly remembered the events of 1944.[2]  Only in the conclusion does Edwards write about the wider international context of commemoration.[3]  He argues that ‘despite the production and persistence of nationally specific D-Day narratives, this volume also demonstrates the often interlinked nature of remembrance practices’.[4]  He has clearly chosen to develop upon this idea of the interconnectivity between American and European commemorative activity in his latest work.  In Allies in Memory, Edwards demonstrates how the construction of transatlantic memorials reflected the international climate in which they were being formed.  The post-war years saw the formation of the Marshall plan which led Britain to politically encourage commemorative activities as signifiers of their strong friendship with America.  Meanwhile, the USA’s bid for alliance during the Cold War represented a time when relations were strong between the nations.  Edwards shows how commemorative cooperation was encouraged and how memorials could even help ‘to shape this emerging idea of an Anglo-American special relationship’ (p.59).  On the other hand, interactions between Gaullist and American officials surrounding the building of memorials emphasised the ‘Anti-American’ desire of the French wishing to assert their nation’s own role in the liberation (p. 111).  Rather than simply reflecting the political needs of a particular nation, Edwards shows how these transatlantic memorials reflected international politics and post-war global relations.

The book discusses how American memorials built in France and Britain could act as collaborative projects involving government officials, local people and veterans. Edwards innovatively shows how ‘representatives of the different groups frequently joined efforts in order to achieve their ambitions’ (p.8).  The Anglo-American memorials in East Anglia are used as examples of this collaboration of memorial traditions and ideas.  The stained glass memorial at Elveden for instance, highlights a combination of an American ‘commemorative vocabulary’ in the context of an English church setting, which thereby made the American soldiers ‘honorary villagers’ (p. 45).  Edwards shows that these sites are a mixture between the ‘ideas firmly established in the tradition of American war commemoration’ (p. 43) with ‘imagery inspired by the conventions of English pastoralism’ (p. 46).  The book adds valuable evidence to the discussion surrounding the significance of Europeanisation during the post-war period by demonstrating how France and Britain influenced the production and the use of the American memorial sites.  As Pells suggests, ‘the relationship between Europe and America in the last half of the twentieth century has not be as one-sided as European politicians and intellectuals have usually charged’.[5] Pells explores how both Europe and America appear to have been influenced by each other, which resulted in ‘a complex interaction between different and increasingly heterogeneous cultures and societies’.[6]  Edwards’ work further highlights these interactions, showcasing how a mixing of traditions and national ideas surrounding commemoration were visible in the American memorials of the post-war period.

Edwards stresses the importance of a local level interest in commemoration amongst French people which could override official and political hostilities.  This serves to emphasise the importance of local attitudes in the construction of American memorials.  Despite anti-American sentiment emanating from political leaders under De Gaulle, local people in Normandy continued to enable and encourage American memorials to be built (p.127).  Edwards describes how the Mayor of Normandy agreed to ‘provide the maintenance’ for veteran memorials during the war and how local people aided post-war memorial building ‘to help secure their own regional recovery’ (pp.95-201).  He suggests that this represents a local level connection between American veterans and the people of Normandy.  Edwards believes that Anti-Americanism ‘was already firmly established by the 1930s’ and local connections were able to override the political concerns surrounding memorial building both during and after the war (p. 90).  It suggests that in particular areas such as Normandy, ‘unity in these locations had a reality born of actual and individual contact’ (p.124).  The book compliments studies such as those by Kuisel, which show the complexities of ‘how the French perceived America and how they responded to Americanisation’.[7]  Allies in Memory clearly ‘complicates the idea of the 1960s as a decade of passive French Anti-Americanism’ (p. 10).  Edwards suggests that anti-Americanism could be highly variable, particularly when looking at local French attitudes to the Normandy Landings.  The book is significant in showcasing how Europeans and Americans could sometimes share memorial traditions and influence each other, even when political hostilities between nations were apparent.  It also demonstrates the importance of analysing commemorative attitudes and practices at grassroots level.

This work highlights the role of American war veterans as significant players in the construction of memorials and commemorative culture in Europe.  From the 1970s, ‘there was now a more assertive American presence; veterans provided the money and meaning’ (p. 163).  Veterans ‘formed up’ in associations and they ‘embarked upon a pilgrimage of the past’ back to European sites (p.139).  They ‘assumed control’ and created their own memorials to their comrades while also helping to shape the Second World War as a ‘symbol of American greatness’ alongside ‘federal agents of official memory’ (pp.163-165).  Edwards goes beyond pre-existing studies dealing with the portrayal of the Second World War generation, by exploring their actual role in the memory making process and how they were part of the political and cultural Americanisation of the Second World War.[8]  Allies in Memory builds on other explorations of the active role of war veterans.  Scholars such as Prost have noted the political importance of French Great War veterans.[9]  More recently, scholars such as Makepeace and Oliver have investigated groups of veterans such as the Far East Prisoners of War.[10]  They emphasise the veterans’ own initiatives to gain compensation and recognition.  Allies in Memory compliments these works by uncovering the importance of American veterans in asserting their own memories in European nations.  The book raises further questions about the importance of American veterans in the memory making process, and signals the need to explore the important role of those who served in producing and using sites of commemoration.

Furthermore, as discussed earlier, Allies in Memory adds to the debate surrounding the rise of the commercialisation of the past which was visible in the transatlantic commemorations held at European memorial sites.  Edwards contests the idea that this was a solely negative development or even that it was a new phenomenon in the 1980s.  He views the commercialisation of these events as ‘a product of post-Cold War concerns regarding the future of memory’ (p.202).  Edwards suggests that the 1980s were a time of ‘the expansion but not the beginnings, of commercial commemoration’ of the Second World War as a result of ‘economic affluence’, ‘1940s nostalgia’ and the conflict slipping out of living memory (p.218).  He explores these themes in relation to the case studies of the Normandy commemorations, and American commemorative events held in East Anglia.  He argues that in East Anglia communities ‘embraced commercialisation of memory’ not ‘to corrupt it’, but to ensure its survival by adapting certain ‘ideas and images regarding the wartime past’ and by producing tourist materials (p.237).  Exploring these materials is shown as valuable to understanding how the transatlantic narratives of the war became more Americanised and how local level commemoration adapted to change.  Unlike scholars who feel that this commercialisation was solely negative and representative of an ‘amnesiac culture’, Edwards sees it as ‘simply the production of memory in new and different forms’ (p.215).  These views contrast the arguments of scholars such as Robert Hewison, who argued that the ‘heritage industry’ and the commercialisation of history was a product of modern times which generated a sanitisation of the past in a declining society.[11]  Allies in Memory successfully presents an alternative perspective on the rise of commercialised commemoration and highlights the importance of these activities to the international legacy of war.

Overall, Allies in Memory provides a fascinating overview of transatlantic commemoration of the Second World War since 1945.  The book would appeal to anyone interested in war and memory, and to those fascinated by the influence of Americanisation and Europeanisation in post-1945 remembrance practices.  Although the book explores a multitude of different themes, it excels in drawing attention to the idea of post-war commemoration as collaboration between different nations and groups.  Those wishing to understand commemoration on different social levels and the interaction between veterans, local communities, governments and the military, would also gain plenty from reading this work.  Allies in Memory is most crucially significant in its contribution to the concept of commemoration as a global activity and it emphasises the value of exploring international attitudes, traditions and concerns in the process of war remembrance.

 

Bibliography

 

Dolski, Michael, Edwards, Sam and Buckley, John (eds.), D-Day in History and Memory: The Normandy Landings in International Remembrance and Commemoration (Denton, University of North Texas Press, 2014).

Gobel, David and Rossell, Daves (eds.), Commemoration in America: Essays on Monuments, Memorialization, and Memory (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013).

Gregory, Adrian, The Silence of Memory: Armistice Day, 1919-1946 (London: Bloomsbury, 1994).

Hewison, Robert, The Heritage Industry: Britain in a Climate of Decline (London: Methuen Ltd, 1987).

Kuisel, R., Seducing the French: The Dilemma of Americanisation (London: University of California Press, 1996).

Makepeace, Clare, ‘For “ALL Who were Captured”? The Evolution of National Ex-prisoner of War Associations in Britain after the Second World War’, in Journal of War & Culture Studies, vol. 7, no. 3, (2014), pp. 253-268.

Oliver, Lizzie, ‘”What our Sons went through”: The Connective Memories of Far Eastern Captivity in the Charles Thrale Exhibition, 1946-1964’, in Journal of War & Culture Studies, vol. 7, no. 3, (2014), pp. 236–252.

Pells, Richard, Not Like Us: How Europeans have Loved, Hated and Transformed American Culture since World War II (New York: Basic Books, 1997).

Prost, Antoine, In the Wake of War: ‘Les Anciens Combattants’ and French Society (Oxford: Berg, 1992).

Rose, Kenneth D., The Myth of the Greatest Generation: A Social History of Americans in World War II (London: Routledge, 2006).

 

 

[1] See Commemoration in America: Essays on Monuments, Memorialization, and Memory, ed. by David Gobel and Daves Rossell, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013) and Adrian Gregory, The Silence of Memory: Armistice Day, 1919-1946 (London: Bloomsbury, 1994).

[2] D-Day in History and Memory: The Normandy Landings in International Remembrance and Commemoration, ed. Michael Dolski, Sam Edwards, and John Buckley, (Denton, University of North Texas Press, 2014).

[3] Dolski, Edwards and Buckley, D-Day in History and Memory, pp. 263-264.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Richard Pells, Not Like Us: How Europeans have Loved, Hated and Transformed American Culture since World War II (New York: Basic Books, 1997), p. xv.

[6] Ibid.

[7] R. Kuisel, Seducing the French: The Dilemma of Americanisation (London: University of California Press, 1996), pp. 152-153.

[8] See Kenneth D. Rose, The Myth of the Greatest Generation: A Social History of Americans in World War II (London: Routledge, 2006).

[9] Antoine Prost, In the Wake of War: ‘Les Anciens Combattants’ and French Society (Oxford: Berg, 1992).

[10] Clare Makepeace, ‘For “ALL Who were Captured”? The Evolution of National Ex-prisoner of War Associations in Britain after the Second World War’, in Journal of War & Culture Studies, vol. 7, no. 3, (2014), pp. 253-268 and Lizzie Oliver, ‘“What our Sons went through”: The Connective Memories of Far Eastern Captivity in the Charles Thrale Exhibition, 1946-1964’, in Journal of War & Culture Studies, vol. 7, no. 3, (2014), pp. 236–252.

[11] Robert Hewison, The Heritage Industry: Britain in a Climate of Decline (London: Methuen Ltd, 1987).