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Memorializing the D-Day beaches at Normandy

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By John J. Metzler

PARIS — The Normandy Beaches which witnessed the epic 6 June 1944 Allied landings leading to the liberation of France and Nazi-occupied Europe, have been etched in the annals modern history. Now in a move supported by the French government, the  landing beaches would be inscribed into UNESCO’s World Heritage List, hopefully in time for the 70th anniversary of the landings in 2014.

First, a word about the World Heritage list.   The list contains a compendium of  962 sites globally which have historic, cultural and natural geographic significance as recognized by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization. They are culturally protected treasures.

American troops on D-Day.

For example in France the Mont-Saint-Michel Monastery (very near the landing beaches) is on the list as is Chartres Cathedral. Such European historic city centers of Florence, Sienna and  Prague along with the Tower of London are included too. In the USA, Yosemite,  Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Redwoods National Parks are inscribed. In Asia for example, the Great Wall of China, ancient Kyoto and Nara in Japan, and Gyeongju historic city in Korea are but a few of the wonders.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s planning for and executing the D-Day, the largest amphibious military operations in history was hobbled by inter-service infighting and national rivalries.  Now getting the famed Normandy landing beaches on the select list requites both historic standing and equally the political patience to navigate the Byzantine bureaucracy of UNESCO’s  Paris headquarters where bureaucracy reaches the level of   fine art.

The French newspaper Le Figaro headlined, “Landing; Battle for the classification of the Beaches by UNESCO. The Normans wish to inscribe Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword to the national patrimony.”  Yet, the article concedes that battlefields anywhere are rarely listed in the World Heritage list.

Alessandro Balsamo,  program specialist at UNESCO told the France 24 news channel, of a lengthy and complex process for applications which could see the idea “stuck in the pipeline for decades.”   He stated, “Even getting such a project into a tentative list can take years of preparation.”  Currently France has 34 sites waiting to be evaluated, some since 1996.

Despite what could be expected to be strong French lobbying in the 190 member state organization, UNESCO officials concede that even considering the application could take five years.

Official French support for the inclusion came during the waning days of the Sarkozy administration; now President Francois Hollande has expressed interest in the project and recently Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear visited Normandy as part of a contact program encouraging investment and trade. All sides realize both the historic and business boost the World Heritage status would add to the Normandy region.

The landing beaches  were the springboard from which 160,000 American and Allied troops went ashore on D-Day to storm Nazi-occupied Europe. The American landed on Omaha and Utah Beach, Gold and Sword hosted British forces, while Juno saw the arrival of the Canadians. Landing units were augmented by Free French troops.  At least 10,000 allied troops were killed on what came to be known as the longest day.

After the initial success of the landings, the Allied forces were bottled up near the coast by stiff German resistance for nearly two months until the breakout and the dash across France. The Liberation of Paris came on the 25th August with the arrival of the French 2nd armor Leclerc Division, backed up by U.S. forces.  Gen. Charles de Gaulle, leader of Free France, properly insisted that French troops be the first to enter the capital city.

Though the beaches have hosted annual D-Day commemorations, none was as memorable as President Ronald Reagan’s magisterial speech at Omaha beach in 1984, praising the heroism of the generation which liberated Europe from Nazi tyranny.

Now the political battle begins through the bureaucratic labyrinth of  UNESCO’s  headquarters. Clearly France has much political capital and clout with the organization.

But serious additional support and lobbying by the nations United States, Britain and Canada, will bring additional weight to the cause.

Though the goal of inscribing the Normandy Beaches seems unattainable in less than two years, the spirit and the sentiment to enshrine this hallowed ground should serve to motivate countries who recognize the Normandy landings historic role in forging Europe’s post war freedom and peace.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for

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