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How is it that there were more civilian deaths than military during the Second World War?

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If devastation during the Second World War does not spare Asia, in the cities which were subjected to the intensive bombings of the Americans, the European countries remain the most affected by destruction. The aerial bombardments - which had as objective to terrorize the civilians and to break their morale, to reduce to rubble a large part of industrial potential and to paralyse communications - led to the destruction of major German cities such as Dresden, destroyed at 75%, or Düsseldorf in ruins at 90%. The rail transport was destroyed at 100% in Poland, 80% in France; but it is the USSR that paid the heaviest toll, accounting alone for half of the destruction caused by the war. This conflict has killed more civilians than members of the armed forces - out of about 55 million deaths, 30 millions were civilian. The Second World War marks a turning point: for the first time in the history of modern warfare, the number of civilian victims surpasses that of military deaths. Why is this so? In order to answer this question and many more, there is a memorial in the 'heart of Normandy', France that is solely dedicated to civilians in war. Located in Falaise, about 30 kilometres South of Caen, this memorial building is a unique place of memory. There is no other known museum that is entirely dedicated to the outcome of civilians in periods of armed conflict. Opening on 8 May 2016, the 'Mémorial des civils dans la guerre' (Memorial for Civilians in War) will tell the story of civilian populations in war and is located within the building of the former small-claims district court, very close to the birthplace and castle of William the Conqueror. While preparing the memorial's construction site, archeologists discovered by pure chance the relics of a home bombed in August 1944, which will be incorporated into the museography. Within the museum's three floors, it will recount the history about civilian suffering, the occupation and the exodus. At a cost of 4.1 million euros, this museum will be administered by the Mémorial de Caen and is meant to complement all of the existing places of memory within the department of Calvados in Normandy.

Shown in the photograph is the railway station and city of Saint-Lô, Normandy, destroyed as part of the disembarkation efforts of the Allied Forces on 6 June 1944, D-Day. The bombing continued on 7 June in order to destroy roads to prevent German troops to advance to the landing beaches. In Normandy a total of 20,000 civilians perished during this conflict. Among the largest Norman cities, Saint-Lô is known for its most radical destruction and drastic effects leaving nearly 500 victims and a city destroyed at 95%, whereas Le Havre had even more devastating losses estimated at more than 5,000 deaths.

On this day, 8 May 2022, we commemorate the seventh anniversary of the official opening of the Mémorial des civils dans la guerre (www.memorial-falaise.fr) in Falaise, Normandy, and remember the more than 30 million civilians who died during the Second World War.

Christophe Kervégant-Tanguy / André M. Levesque

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