During my travels through northwest Europe last year I came across some very interesting sites that sparked renewed thinking about how we as Americans have decided to deal with the commemoration and memorialization of the American Civil War. One cause for thought was the presence of German military cemeteries in France and elsewhere — for both world wars. Not far from where George S. Patton, Jr., is buried in Luxembourg, for example, one finds a German military cemetery containing dead from the Ardennes Offensive, while one can view the Aisne-Marne American military cemetery from a small nearby German cemetery when exploring Belleau Wood. At La Cambe Military Cemetery, some seven miles from Omaha Beach, some 21,000 German soldiers are buried.
In short, German dead are buried in enemy territory, and those areas are cause for contemplation and reflection. We talk a great deal about honoring military dead regardless of what they believed (even if we often debate exactly what it was that they believed). After all, they fought for what they believed, and for some people, that’s enough.
Statues, we are told, honor service and sacrifice. They are not political statements about the cause for which these men fought. I might disagree with that argument (most war memorials offer at least implicit explanation and affirmation about the cause of the conflict and related political statements), but let’s set that aside. What, then, should stand in the way of erecting a statue to Erwin Rommel as well as the German fighting man near Normandy? Anything? After all, if certain people are willing to remember the Confederate fighting man, complete with the erection of memorials and the raising of historically appropriate flags as symbols of the military effort of the Confederacy, should not the German fighting man and the generals who commanded them be afforded the same courtesy? If so, why? If not, why not, and what’s the difference (if any) between a discussion about honoring the service and sacrifice of World War I and II dead with one about Civil War dead?
You tell me.