Exactly seventy-two years ago on Monday, June 6 1944, over 150000 allied troops stormed the Nazi-held beaches of Normandy, France, a day immortalised as D-Day.
D-Day began the final, though bloody, phase of the war against Hitler and the liberation of Europe from the Nazi jackboot, achieved with finality the following spring, on May 8 1945, with the unconditional surrender of Germany.
There were many reasons for the Allied success in launching the greatest amphibious landing in history, not least the enormous sacrifice of blood and treasure required to secure the beaches.
But one of the causes of the German defeat in Normandy was the confusion in the ranks of the defenders and the interference by Hitler in the key early decisions on D-Day.
It is recorded how “at first, Hitler believed the invasion was a feint designed to distract the Germans from a coming attack north of the Seine river”. (This was due to a successful British Intelligence deception.)
His unquestioned belief turned out to be false, but in the total dictatorship he commanded, the Fuhrer’s word was absolute law. Thus, in the early hours of the vital battle of the beaches, Hitler refused to release nearby divisions to help with the counterattack.
An even more catastrophic refusal to accept the facts or believe intelligence reports from the field happened on the eve of “Operation Barbarossa” – when a rampant Hitler invaded Russia just three years before D-Day on June 22 1941.
The Soviets had one of the deepest and most effective spy networks in both Germany itself and in occupied Europe. They fed back to “Moscow Central” detailed, credible and specific reports of the looming Nazi invasion, almost correct to the very date and points of entry.
But Hitler’s opposite number, the domineering and even more ruthless Stalin, simply refused to believe them.
As Max Hastings in his new book on espionage The Secret War describes it: “Few military operations in history have been so comprehensively flagged, but it was Stalin’s deafness based on a historic misjudgement” that left the Soviets so ill-prepared when the invasion started.
All of Stalin’s subordinates – survivors of the bloody purges he had unleashed against his own armed forces -were simply too terrified to advance any view that countered the prejudices and preconceived ideas of their supreme leader. Stalin simply refused to believe that Hitler, then in a pact with the Soviets, would invade his country.
Dictatorships, in both war and peace, do not allow for dissent or even countenance ideas that go against the dominant grain.
Seventy-two years later, and in part thanks to heroic struggle and sacrifice, South Africa enjoys democratic freedom.
But this is still a place where a cartoonist apologises for a badly misinterpreted image, where Twitter is a fearsome netherworld policed by race warriors and where students burn paintings based on some grievance.
This feeds into a much larger narrative that goes to the heart of an economic battle in which the country is engaged.
There is nothing secretive about the fact that, for the first time in 16 years, the country faces the prospect of a credit downgrade to junk status.
On Friday evening a reprieve of sorts, hedged in with qualifications, was delivered by Standard and Poor’s.
But what was given in June can be taken away in December, when S&P reassesses the sovereign’s creditworthiness.
Are we going to hear the siren voices requiring fundamental pro-growth reforms or will the political masters and mistresses in Pretoria, like Stalin in Moscow, be deaf to the potential peril?
I don’t know how many foreign investors or rating agencies watched the spectacularly ill-starred performance of our cack-handed and charmless Minister of International Relations Maite Nkoana-Mashabane last week on Al-Jazeera.
It was almost impossible to actually watch it to the end without feeling a sense of deep shame and embarrassment.
Her decision to turn one of the few international televised platforms she gets these days into accusations of racism against her interviewer for the fact of her white South African origins might have played well in the Union Buildings. This sort of retort is now the common currency of those in charge of our depleted currency. But it sure will be a big switch-off for the investors from abroad desperately needed to restart the growth engine here at home.
The minister went, as is now virally popularised on YouTube, on a rant about the hole in the head she carries because of the bucket she carried on it.
But perhaps for her next appearance, grating though it will be to read, she would be better briefed to read the early work of Thomas Friedman – one of the most read columnists in the world – who provides a useful primer on how the hard-headed world of investment actually works. And it has got nothing to do with either fairness or history. Just cold reality.
In his 1999 classic on globalisation, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, he describes the “electronic herd”.
It comprises all the faceless stock, bond and currency traders sitting behind computer screens all over the world transmitting their money around “with the click of a mouse”.
As for the pain which the minister expresses to her international audience? Friedman is unsympathetic: “If any country in the [emerging] world feels that they are owed a favour, whether in the non-aligned movement or some post-colonial outreach, the electronic herd says the following: They don’t tell you that they feel your pain or that they understand your grievance because of your colonial experience.
“They don’t tell you that you are so unique, so important to stability in the region that they won’t lay a finger on you.
“They just have their way with you and move on.”
These unsparing words apply with interest to South Africa right now. Past pain will not help keep the electronic herd from voting against us with their mouse. Strong and corrective deeds by this government will. One hopes the Union Buildings is on red alert and is not deaf to all the warning signals it has received.