D-day's colonial underbelly

D-day's colonial underbelly
6 min read
06 Jun, 2019
Comment: Millions of colonial subjects fought and died in defence of their oppressors, but were denied their freedom or a place in the history books, writes Malia Bouattia.
6 June marks the 75th anniversary of the Normandy Landings [Getty]

French, British, and US leaders met in Northern France today mark the 75th anniversary of the Normandy invasion by the allied forces, commonly known as D-Day, as well as - by extension - the end of the second world war.

Grandiose ceremonies mark this moment in history, which has come to represent a crucial aspect of the western collective imaginary. When President Macron of France declared that we owe our freedom to the soldiers who died on the beaches that day, he played into a powerful narrative familiar to all of us, rehearsed in school textbooks, films and museums.

Yet, if WWII indeed represents the end of Nazi occupation in Europe and the liberation of the territories seized from 1939 onwards in their attempt to build the so-called Third Reich, it also carries a very different history for much of the world.

In the Global South, this war was associated - just as its predecessor was - not so much with freedom but with colonial oppression, control, violence and broken promises.

It is a history that takes place well beyond the beaches of Normandy, and one that shaped the second half of the 20th century.

Let's pause for a moment, and remember why exactly the war was a world war, especially in light of official commemorations and popular culture depicting it mainly as an inter-western affair, fought almost exclusively on European soil.

Instead the war was truly global for two reasons.

The colonial empires recruited millions of their subjects to die for the defence of the metropolis

Firstly, it pitted the dominant colonial empires, mainly Britain and France, against colonial late comers Germany, Italy, and Japan. The new world powers of the USA and the USSR joined the fray later, truly making the war about the future and the shape of the political world to come.

The war was a world war because it was fought over global hegemony.

Far from being limited to western Europe, it was fought across continents. From the Pacific Ocean to the planes of Stalingrad. Across Africa and Asia, Allied and Axis powers wrestled for control over trade routes, natural resources and access to the workforces of the colonial empires.

On these colonial battlefields, the fight to regain control over African territories was already well established prior to the Allied landing in southern and western Europe. It was Algeria that De Gaulle claimed first, and it was there that the French government regrouped and where its army was rebuilt by recruiting hundreds of thousands of Algerians.

Trump attends a ceremony with French war veterans to mark the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings [Getty]

Secondly, the international character of the war also stemmed from the participants in the conflict.

The colonial empires recruited millions of their subjects to die for the defence of the metropolis. The British, for example, recruited over 2 million Indian soldiers alone, while around two thirds of the French army were drawn from the empire.

There is a deep and painful irony of course in the fact that millions fought, died, and were wounded for life in defence of their oppressors and colonisers. Similarly, large sections of the US army were made up of African American soldiers, who fought under a flag that imposed Jim Crow laws on them and continued to legalise their treatment as second-class citizens.

In all of these cases, black and Asian soldiers were convinced to serve under their oppressors' flags with promises of increased freedom, equal rights, and/or independence.

Mahatma Gandhi even actively participated in recruiting soldiers to support the war effort. It was in fighting for their own freedom from colonial masters, that countless African and Asian soldiers landed in Europe and liberated it from Nazi rule. Yet, when the war ended, their hopes would be violently dashed. The promises made by the great powers proved, once again, to be a game of colonial smoke and mirrors.

Nothing exemplifies this better than the celebrations of the liberation of Paris itself.

Two thirds of the French army were drawn from the empire

While African soldiers - drawn manly from the North and West of the continent - had played a crucial role in the campaign to rid France of Nazi rule, when it came to parade victoriously through the streets of Paris they were pulled back and left to wait outside of the city.

Nearly exclusively white troops were rolled through the city instead. The famous newsreels we have all seen so many times were already an exercise in whitewashing Europe's rebirth.

In the colonies themselves, the situation was even worse. Setif, a northern Algerian town, became an international symbol of the colonial powers' betrayal of those France called "les Indigenes" - the natives.

Indeed, as crowds gathered to celebrate the end of the war in May 1945, people raised the Algerian flag alongside the French one to symbolise their coming freedom, which they had been promised.

In response the French army opened fire on the crowd, killing many. The riots that followed were met with mass collective punishment, both in Setif and surrounding villages. Tens of thousands lost their lives for celebrating what Macron today still calls the beginning of "our" freedom.
Read more: France's war on the hijab drives Muslim women into the shadows

Similar events took place in Senegal, Vietnam and around the colonial world. It was important to immediately put the natives back in their place and remind them that freedom was for some, and that their land, their labour, and their resources would continue to belong to those under whose flags they died. 

In that sense, WWII also signified an important turning point; a point of no return.

From then on it was crystal clear even to the most moderate among the colonised peoples that there would be no freedom through showing good will. Freedom would have to be fought for, and bitterly - an important lesson which still holds today.

Writing the sacrifices, demands and betrayal of the people of the Global South out of history continues to this day, both in war narratives, and materially. Countless war veterans and their children continue to fight for the financial compensations promised by France, which remain unpaid, and most films about the war - most recently Dunkirk - continue to portray it as a white, intra-western affair.

Tens of thousands lost their lives for celebrating what Macron today still calls the beginning of 'our' freedom

It is this engineered historical amnesia, started at the gates of Paris, which makes it possible for May, Macron, and Trump to commemorate their "fight for freedom" with a straight face, while continuing to wage war on the children and grandchildren of the countless black and Asian men and women who were killed, betrayed and written out of history.

Reclaiming that history is a crucial aspect of writing the wrongs of the past.

Not simply to remind those who would like to forget how central people of colour were to Europe's greatest battles and achievements (with all the contemporary consequences this has), but also to remind ourselves and all those who want to fight racism and imperialism today of the lessons learnt by our ancestors.

"Power concedes nothing without demand" - in the words of Frederick Douglas – and without arduous, uncompromising, and organised mass struggle.

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.