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History

Rose Valland: The Unassuming WWII Heroine of French Art

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With the recent 71st Anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, the conclusion of the Second World War in Europe, TGNR is commemorating one of the most astounding contributions during that struggle which is still largely unknown. Today Paul K. DiCostanzo recognizes Rose Valland, a savior of French artistic heritage who fooled the Germans for nearly four years directly under their collective nose.

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“There are two great days in a person’s life – the day we are born and the day we discover why.” – W. Barclay

The study of national security and military history has long been an interest of mine. It began when I was introduced to the topic of the Second World War by my father, and it sparked an enduring fascination in all aspects of the conflict. It always offers something new to be learned, something to be analyzed. As I have grown, and my research has advanced, I have come to certain conclusions. The first is an understanding that World War II was propelled out of a deep ideological struggle between civilizations, an unsurpassed struggle for collective identity. Ideological conflicts are often the most brutal, and always jeopardize destroying humanities greatest achievements.

The second conclusion is that war is often fought on fronts distant from the front lines. Such a melee spurs the contribution of all peoples who’s lives are affected by the titanic undertaking of war. In World War II, there was an overwhelming amount of civilian contribution toward victory; including organized partisan resistance, human intelligence efforts, workforce mobilization, and leadership during the darkest of days. These are but a few examples of the many challenges met bravely by the people of the world during that period. It is one of the aims of TGNR to share the stories of determined individuals, perhaps not the likeliest of heroes, who manage to make a positive impact in spite of the chaos surrounding them. With all this in mind, meet Rose Valland: The museum curator and heroine who found herself a midst the chaos of May and June, 1940.

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Rose Valland: The Heroine

Rose Valland in a hatWikicommons

Rose Valland is a national heroine of France and one of the most decorated women in French history. Her story remains largely unknown to the average person despite pivotal roles in one of the most pervasive unresolved elements of World War II: the unlawful seizure of art by Nazi Germany. In resisting the German effort, Rose Valland became an unlikely hero.

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Rose Valland was born in November 1898, in Saint-Étienne-de-Saint-Geoirs, Isère. Rose’s life and education was deeply founded in her lifelong love of art. Originally desiring to become a teacher, she underwent extensive training in art and art history, studying at prestigious schools in Lyon and Paris. Her life would take an unexpected and dramatic turn after accepting a position at the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris as a volunteer assistant curator in 1932.

Jeu de Paume, the employer of Rose VallandWikicommons

The Jeu de Pame, Paris.

On 25 June, 1940, the French government formally surrendered to Nazi Germany following their invasion a month prior. The French surrender marked the beginning of four years of German occupation and exploitation of France’s cultural treasures.

Adolf Hitler was a failed artist, and one with an immense ambition to force his artistic vision on the world. Consequently, Germany undertook systematic looting of countless works of art, a mirrored act of organized plunder previously instituted in Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. The French managed to conceal and protect several of their most valued pieces (e.g. The Mona Lisa), but not everything could be kept from German hands. German forces seized public museum pieces and works from private collections alike with calculated brutality.

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Art had always been a prize of wars past, though German efforts operated on an unprecedented scale, with a leader who’s appetite for art was insatiable. In doing so, they looked to conquer not just land, peoples and material resources of a nation. In fact it was also to take from conquered nations the jewels of their cultural identity, in so far as those jewels were not deemed “degenerate” by Nazi philosophy. The mission to confiscate art was one of the most devastating fronts of the Nazi ideological war.

A Debt Humanity Can Never Repay

Following the fall of France, German occupation forces used the Jeu de Pame as throughput for confiscated art. From the Jeu de Pame, the Germans would send by rail all the works in their custody to galleries and individuals throughout the Reich.

Rose Valland services were retained by German officials to act as head of the museum during that time. The position created the unique opportunity for Valland to become a singular hero of the French Resistance, as she recorded every detail regarding the fate of the pieces that passed through the museum.

Directly under the noses of her German superiors, Valland used her prodigious memory to retain crucial facts: where works were shipped, who received them, and their purpose. Rose would go home each day and note these vital details on a secret hidden register. Yet her list was not the only crucial secret Valland kept.

Valland possessed a working knowledge of the German language, and considerable contacts in the French Resistance. Valland was able to succeed because she recognized that the Germans viewed her personal character as nonthreatening, allowing her to operate above above suspicion.

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Valland looked and acted as the least likely candidate for organized resistance. Despite how she was perceived, Valland had no room for error. If even one of those secrets had become known to the Germans, it likely would have lead to her death as well as that of others.

Despite the incredible risk of her activities, she assumed a critical role in saving France’s cultural heritage. Prior to the liberation of France in 1944, Valland used her contacts in the French Resistance to protect works being shipped on trains that were targeted for sabotage.

In Valland’s ultimate tour de force, she arranged to stall final shipments of art just prior to the Allied liberation of Paris in August 1944. That last shipment was recovered by Free French forces shortly there after. In the aftermath of the fall of the Third Reich, her detailed records lead to innumerable pieces of art being identified, and recovered.

Raphael_missingPublic Domain

Raphael’s “Portrait Of A Young Man.” A casualty of Nazi looting who’s location is still disputed as of 2015.

The issue of stolen and destroyed art was a major consideration for the Allied powers as their battlefields were consistently within or interlaced with some of humanity’s greatest artistic achievements. As of 2015, the vast majority of works seized by Germany have still yet to be recovered.

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Valland dedicated her post-war career addressing the consequences of the Nazi’s industrialized plunder of art. Her great recovery and protection efforts following the war culminated in her appointment as Chairwoman of the “Commission for the Protection of Works of Art.” Of the many titles and decorations she received for her achievements by various Allied powers; the most prominent were being made a Commandeur of the Order of Arts and Letters, receiving the prestigious Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur, and the Médaille de la Résistance .

Rose Valland and her decorations Wikipedia

From left to right: Médaille de la Résistance, Commandeur Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur.

(Article Continues Below…)

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Why We Owe Rose Valland

On the 71st anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, I try to keep in my thoughts the enormity of that achievement. Remembering that the scope of the Second World War required the bravery and sacrifice of many different people, provoking some to demonstrate courage in a way that only war could illicit.

One may ask, “How is war good news?” War is not good news. However, even in humanity’s darkest moments, the efforts of people like Rose Valland demonstrate the goodness that is inherent to this existence. They are people who see the very essence of their greatest achievements in peril, and step forward to resist with whatever tools they may possess.

There are many individuals with many astounding efforts during that conflict to whom we owe our greatest debt of gratitude. Remember the spirit of Rose Valland and others like her who risked everything to protect the better part of our nature.

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Sources: Monuments Men Foundation, Archives of American Art, The Rape of Europa (Documentary), Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino

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Paul K. DiCostanzo is the Managing Editor for TGNR. He is a noted public speaker, an emerging historian of the Second World War, a vocal advocate for Crohn’s Disease/Ulcerative Colitis, and highly regarded interviewer. Prior to TGNR, Paul has a background in American National Security and American Foreign Policy. He has served as the Managing Editor for TGNR since March 2015.

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WW2 Brain Bucket

How did Hitler Fool Stalin so Badly with the Invasion of the USSR? | WW2 Brain Bucket Reader Q&A

Today we’re talking about how Hitler conned Stalin in 1941, Hirohito staying on the imperial throne post-war, the most underrated figure of WW2, and German/Italian Axis troops kept as POWs by the British and Americans.

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From left to right: Emperor Hirohito, Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke & Axis POW surrendering WW2
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In the Second World War, there is nothing as perplexing as to how Hitler fooled Stalin so completely in launching Operation Barbarossa – the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Nor are there many debates that are still so relevant to the politics of a nation than Emperor Hirohito’s role directing the war for Japan. It is also a tragedy for posterity that most people don’t know the names of either General George C. Marshall or Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke. Even fewer know the incredible story of how German and Italian POWs were kept by the Allies, especially the camps in the United States. However there is a more pressing introduction before getting down to your questions. 

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Over the last several years during my myriad published pieces on the Second World War, as well as critiquing its role in Amazon Prime’s adaptation of The Man in the High Castle, I have received many emails from readers asking questions about the subject as a whole. Its amazing hearing from people who have a strong curiosity about the wars history, and want the best information possible. After I was encouraged by those reaching out to me to start a reader submitted question and answer column, providing informed answers to any questions relating to WW2, I have chosen to take up the gauntlet. 

First things first, what the hell is a brain bucket? A brain bucket is a military colloquialism for a combat helmet. When searching for answers and historical understanding, the process is often volatile and incendiary. So, it’s always good to wear that brain bucket.

Here are the Brain Bucket Q&A ground rules:

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  • I will choose several questions a month. If your e-mail isn’t picked, don’t be discouraged. I can only answer so many at a time. Feel free to resubmit the question for the following month. 
  • Any question about or related to the Second World War is fair game. Even if you think its a little strange and off the beaten path, send it in. More often than not, history is both of those things and more. That also includes its place or role in popular culture, current or ongoing controversies related to the subject, and pretty much anything else you can fathom.
  • My replies to your questions will be thorough. If you have taken the time to e-mail a question I have chosen, you deserve the best possible answer. 
  • Most importantly as an unequivocal rule, I am only interested in evaluating history within the context of the era concerned. Imposing contemporary values and societal norms on history accomplishes less than nothing. One can learn from history and take those lessons to help better guide to a better future, but viewing entirely within the scope of a modern worldview is an exercise in futility. It has been said that the past is like another country, and much like learning about another culture it can only be evaluated in the context of its people and their ways. In the end, the only real goal is understanding, whether or not it comports to the beliefs of the present. 
  • My answer to your question is only the tip of the iceberg. I will include recommended reading and viewing so you can research the specific issue further. 

Do you have a question about WW2? E-mail the Brain Bucket!

Now, down to business and your questions!

Q: I am just getting into the history of the Eastern Front. The more I learn, the more I can’t understand how Stalin was actually so caught off guard by the Nazi invasion of Russia. It seemed pretty obvious even at the time. How did Germany dupe Stalin so completely? 

– Kyle, Macon, GA

This really goes under the category of Stalin being too close to the forest to see the trees. While contemporary Soviet propaganda would have you picture the dictator ruling omnisciently from his Kremlin perch, Stalin was just as limited as his fellow dictators at the time.  In short, he was still human and fully capable of misinterpreting even the best of intelligence about Nazi duplicity, as we shall see.

A Pact of Mutual Assistance

Hitler-Stalin pact division of Eastern Europe and the BalkansWikicommons

So it is important to recall that prior to 22 June 1941, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were bound together in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact (named after each country’s respective foreign ministers). Publicly each side was very careful to refer to the political relationship as only a pact of non-aggression. However their two year affiliation went much further despite neither side forgetting the near decade worth of mud each had slung at the other. They both were, after all, ideologically opposing powers.

To begin, the two antithetical nations fired the war’s opening salvo practically hand-in-hand. The Soviets discreetly provided operational support for Germany during the Poland invasion, as well as for the German U-Boat campaign prior to the occupation of Norway in April/May 1940. Secondly, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union actively exchanged supplies for the duration of the pact, with the Soviet Union exchanging raw materials for the industrialized goods and civil/military technologies of Germany.

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The pact also carved out distinct “spheres of influence” between the two countries in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Specifically, the overrun Poland would be partitioned between the two powers while the Baltic states would be ceded to Moscow. Likewise, the region of Bessarabia (modern day Moldova) would be annexed from eastern Romania and transferred to the Soviet Union. In exchange for these zones, Germany secured their eastern flank from attack, allowing them to concentrate on their wars in the West. Without a doubt, both Germany and the Soviet Union gained firm, tangible yields from their association. 

For Stalin, the biggest benefit was possibly bogging down Germany in their war with the West. Stalin believed that with a German invasion of the West, a major war of attrition between the waring powers would ensue. Stalin hoped that such a quagmire would be similar to the Western Front of the First World War, keeping his German partner wholly engaged with Britain and France. If that become so Stalin figured, the Soviet Union would be given a free hand to do as it pleased. Perhaps even with the Soviet Union playing agent provocateur to keep both sides in a vicious fight indefinitely. 

Stalin was also buying time to ready the then chaotic state of the Red Army, before the growing conflict engulfed the Soviet Union. After decapitating his officer corps with politically motivated purges, reorganizing the Red Army to adopt new doctrinal priorities, and implementing an array of new weapons technology – the Red Army was pretty much a mess between 1939 – 1941. This strongly bore out in their humiliating, yet ultimately successful, Winter War with Finland to seize the Karelian Isthmus and the Arctic port of Petsamo. 

As events unfolded in continental Europe, Stalin became quickly disabused. Hitler would complete his conquest of Norway, Denmark, the Low Countries and France by the end of June 1940. 

Ideology vs. Strategy

Regardless of the realistic benefits the pact provided, ideology eventually won out in Hitler’s mind. One of National Socialism’s main philosophical tenets was a violent rejection of Soviet communism. The Nazi movement has, in fact, it’s genesis as a reaction to the various far left movements in Germany following its defeat in the First World War.

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Even worse to Hitler, Soviet communism was directly connected to the groups Nazism infamously targeted most – above all others, the Jews and Slavs. It did not help that many major Bolshevik figures involved in the 1917 October coup were both. To this day, Nazism’s views roughly informed what was known as “The Judeo-Bolshevik Conspiracy.”

To explain this ridiculous ideological patchwork, it can be best understood as follows:

The conspiracy boils down to the idea that Judaism, by virtue of a massive international conspiracy, seeks to dominate and enslave humanity through Communism. Moreover Soviet communism, specifically Moscow itself, was viewed as the epicenter of this conspiracy. This is due to prominent cohorts of the Bolshevik party leader Vladimir Lenin being of Jewish descent.  Though Hitler’s designs of the Soviet Union expand beyond the mere ideological. 

Accompanied with the fact the USSR and Nazi Germany were natural economic powers, Hitler much preferred to conquer those Soviet assets than trading for them. In Mein Kamp Hitler spoke of German “Leibensraum” – living space – for colonization in what was the western Soviet Union. Ultimately seeking to forcibly seize the very raw materials they were trading for, and enslaving the Slavic population. This idea was not unique to Nazism in Germany. Leibensraum roughly comports to the 19th century German nationalistic concept of “Drang nach Osten” or “Drive to the East,” that promoted a unified Germany conquer the traditional Slavic lands.

What is quite interesting is that if you look at the entirety of the European war, almost everything Nazi Germany did was clearly outlined in Hitler’s so-called autobiography he dictated serving prison time, Mein Kampf. 

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Did Stalin even read Mein Kampf?

Apparently so. Stalin was an avid reader, accumulating a vast personal library. It included many books one might not expect to see on the shelf of Maxist-Leninist number one – like say, the Bible. Stalin had a translated copy of Mein Kampf and marked it up quite well. He knew exactly the ideology that Nazism embodied, as well as the target sitting on his back. 

Yet in the first half of 1941 the Vhoz had reason to believe himself outside the Nazis’ crosshairs. 

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The Soviet Pre-Barbarossa Intelligence Debacle

Historian Stephen Kotkin explains in his newest release, Stalin Volume II: Waiting for Hitler 1929-1941 that Soviet intelligence sources were unknowingly blinded to Hitler’s true intentions through misinformation and disinformation campaigns skillfully run by German counterintelligence in early 1941.  

Before their invasion of the Soviet Union, the Nazi regime conveyed many different but equally plausible reasons for the Wehrmacht’s growing presence in Eastern Europe. In one such explanation, the German’s asserted that their presence, at what was essentially Stalin’s doorstep, was only a temporary stop en route to operations against the British Empire in the Middle East. Even Hitler actively participated in the deception. He communicated directly to Stalin that his troops in Poland and East Prussia were nothing to worry about; that they were only there to be out of range of RAF bombers hitting Germany.

These mis/disinformation operations could only succeed so long as they fit Stalin’s preconceptions of Hitler’s military goals.  Unfortunately for the Soviet Union, they fit a little too well.  The paranoid dictator may not have accepted the stated reasons for Germany’s presence but he did believe that Hitler was trying to put pressure on the Soviet Union by his military buildup on their frontier, hoping to coerce various concessions from the Kremlin to Germany’s benefit. Speculation to this end varied from hoping to extract greater material benefit via trade, to the Soviet Union leasing Ukraine to Germany for a 99 year lease. 

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Throughout this ordeal, the Soviet Union’s main intelligence arm the NKVD, was not asleep at the wheel. The NKVD created a bulging intelligence dossier codenamed “Zateya” or “Venture” to examine Hitler’s intentions. Though as far reaching as NKVD assets were, they did not impress Stalin. For example, in early 1941 there were countless reports from Soviet agents that portended the German date of invasion – that would invariably pass without incident. This only reinforced Stalin’s own diposistion and views. Moreover, any Soviet apparatchik was careful to report intelligence that the Soviet despot didn’t want to hear. Many had been purged and executed for less. Naturally this created a perilous situation for the Soviet nation. 

Still, some Soviet intelligence assets did try to raise the alarm with accurate reports about the impending Nazi betrayal. The most prominent was Richard Sorge, a German journalist posted to the German embassy in Tokyo that worked for the NKVD. From his position at the embassy, Sorge was able to provide the exact date for the invasion to his superiors. Yet Sorge was one voice among many, however, and no leader has ever lost an empire by taking all their spies reports at face value.

Richard Sorge was even placed on an East German stampBundesarchiv

In the history of espionage, most spies are seldom honored with their own stamp. Kim Philby enjoyed this honor as well in the Soviet Union.

Furthermore, Stalin slavishly believed that Hitler would never attack the Soviet Union while still being at war with the British. In Mein Kampf Hitler was unequivocal about his belief that Germany lost the First World War because they were engaged in war on two fronts. Stalin hitched a great deal to this oft stated opinion by Hitler. This conviction neglected one obvious fact: Germany may still have been at war with the British Empire, however, the British Army did not have a single fighting soldier in continental Europe. Yes, there was the fighting happening in colonial North Africa and British strategic bombing, but this hardly constituted a second front great enough in Hitlers eyes to deter his ambitions.

Who was really calling the shots in the Third Reich at war?

Last, but hardly least, Stalin had a major misperception of how power was exercised within the structure of the Third Reich. Stalin, by using the First World War as precedent, assumed that the military leadership once again had the real decision making powers for use of force during war, thus paralleling Kaiser Wilhelm II effectively ceding control of Germany to the duumvirate of Paul von Hiddenburg and Erich Ludendorff. As such, Stalin supposed that the Wehrmacht generals – not Hitler himself – wanted war with the Soviet Union. In truth, more the opposite was true. Based on this erroneous assumption, Stalin issued strict orders to avoid doing anything that could be perceived as a provocation,especially at the common western border.

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With the benefit of hindsight and access to archival records from both sides, Hitler’s intentions appear incredibly obvious now, and for some the Führer’s schemes may have seemed just as clear at the time. Yet when using prospective history, as opposed to retrospective history, one can see how this calamity came to pass. When you consider the highly effective disinformation employed by Germany, a Soviet intelligence apparatus unwilling to tell their mercurial boss something he didn’t want to hear, combined with Stalin’s devotion to his own interpretation of events, disaster ensued. Ultimately, the only opinion that mattered was Stalin’s, and the Vhoz drastically misread the Nazi dictator. Now you know the rest of the story, as it were. 

Recommended Reading:

  • “The Devil’s Alliance: Hitler’s Pact with Stalin, 1939 – 1941” by Roger Moorhouse
  • “Stalin, Volume II: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941” by Stephen Kotkin
  • “What Stalin Knew: The Enigma of Barbarossa” by David E. Murphy
  • “Grand Delusion: Stalin and the German Invasion of Russia” by Gabriel Gorodetsky

Recommended Watching:

  • “World War II Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, The Nazi’s and the West” directed by Laurence Rees
  • “World War Two: 1941 and the Man of Steel” hosted by David Reynolds 
  • “Warlords” (2007) directed by Simon Berthon

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History

The Forgotten Declaration of Independence Signers Who Lost Everything for Signing

It never ceases to amaze how these U.S. Founding Fathers, among the foremost collaborators in the American Revolution, paid for their treason against the British Crown. It is also astonishing in equal measure how, despite their immense personal sacrifice, they have been all but lost to American history.

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From Cromwell to Trotsky, history repeatedly demonstrates that revolutions devour their own children. Despite the constant patriotic thrum that recounts the Olympian deeds of the American founding fathers who signed the Declaration of Independence, they were no exception to this rule. Some who signed that most radical of declarations did survive the struggle to achieve great prominence in their newly found country. Many more, however, sacrificed no less than their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor for the liberty they sought by the war’s end. The following names are only 13 signatories of the Declaration of Independence who gave all and more when their “John Hancock” inked that seditious parchment, freeing themselves of the British yoke and simultaneously marking themselves as traitors against the Crown.

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Benjamin Harrison V 

Declaration of IndependenceWikicommons

A planter by profession, Benjamin Harrison V was a member of both Virginia’s House of Burgesses and the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1777. History must think one traitor deserves another because during January 1781 Harrison’s Virginia home and all of his possessions were destroyed by none other than the forces commanded by Benedict Arnold.

 

George Wythe

Declaration of IndependenceWikicommons

A skilled practitioner of law, Wythe served as a judge in Virginia, and was a noted scholar. He was  party to both signing the Declaration of Independence as well as the Continental Congress.

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Unfortunately, a farmer leasing land on his Virginia plantation Chesterville was a British spy. The spy, Hamilton Usher St. George, encouraged four British raiding parties to destroy neighboring farmers, settlements along the James river, and the burning of Williamsburg using his inside information.  Evan after the eviction of St. George, Wythe’s tribulations continued when the Yorktown battlefront resulted in the destruction his library and scientific instruments  at the College of William and Mary fire.

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D-Day in Perspective: What if the Allied Invasion of Normandy Failed?

For most people today, there are few historic counter-factual questions more disturbing than, “What if D-Day failed?” This is a detailed look at the nightmarish, dystopian world that might have resulted if Operation Overlord ended in catastrophe.

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D-Day
Image Credit: History.com

On June 6, 1944 the Western Allies launched Operation Overlord – better known as D-Day – an amphibious invasion of northern France that was a dramatic and unprecedented gamble for the future of Western Europe. It’s success ensured the defeat of Nazism by creating a western Second Front in Europe opposite the Soviet Union’s Red Army in the east. Their presence also guaranteed that Soviet influence would not extend beyond their furthest reach in the occupied eastern portion of Central Europe.

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Today, D-Day is rightly remembered as a day of heroes with forces from every Allied nation assaulting the heavily defended beaches of Normandy. Through its mythologized retelling, countless consider the landing’s success a historical inevitability. However, that belief could not be further from the truth. Overlord’s architects who planned and executed the offensive understood that their efforts may have instead been mourned as one of the greatest disasters in military history. Yet with profound conviction Allied leaders accepted the risk because success might ensure the freedom of humanity from one of the greatest evils it had ever faced. On the other hand had it failed, world history would have become unrecognizable compared to our own.

To appreciate the sacrifice of those who boldly attacked the Atlantic Wall 73 years ago today, one must consider the world they risked their life to avoid. As we take a moment today to honor their sacrifice, let’s consider what that other course of history may have entailed. This piece postulates what turns the war may have taken if Germany had succeeded in repelling the Normandy attack, squashing the Allied invasion, and leaving the Second Front stillborn.

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