Is this the last time we shall witness the ingathering of world leaders to mark the First World War? It is hard to imagine the 101st anniversary receiving the same attention, so this is a milestone for sure. President Emmanuel Macron of France on Sunday hosted 70 world leaders at the Arc de Triomphe, including Presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump and Chancellor Angela Merkel. In Britain, for the first time, a German president laid a wreath at the Cenotaph alongside Prince Charles. A thousand beacons were lit across the country.
Who survives from the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month back in 1918? We do not remember. We were not there. How can today’s generations truly empathize with those who experienced a conflict where 10 million soldiers and 7 million civilians, possibly more, were killed? Even on the last morning of the war, 2,700 died. Many succumbed to disease and famine. This was a war that saw the first use of mustard gas, the birth of the tank, and artillery as a weapon of major destruction.
Was the First World War — all that loss and carnage — necessary to protect civilization? Was it a necessary tragedy? Were there not alternatives; different roads and paths that could have been travelled? Just 21 years later, Europe was embroiled in yet another apocalyptic round of bloodletting. The post-war settlement in Europe failed and the one in the Middle East still has lethal and devastating consequences to this day. Extremist nationalism did not die with war. The First World War led to the second; the Second World War to the Cold War. Only since 1990 has Europe achieved a degree of peace with itself.
Remembering wars and those who lost their lives in them does matter and effort should be made. We may do it in different ways: Monuments and cemeteries may well be replaced by websites and online photo archives. Too many people take for granted the sacrifices made, the losses sustained and the pain endured. Too often people push for war and military action from the comfort of their sofas. There is loose talk of the lessons of war needing to be learned, but what exactly are those lessons?
A positive trend has been to remember the non-Europeans involved, which is long overdue. Some 8,586,000 soldiers from the British Empire participated, while about 100,000 Chinese laborers supported British troops in the Great War.
One of the many lessons not learnt is that we still appear to need an enemy. Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union, communism, China, Islamist extremism (even just Muslims), and immigrants have all served political purposes as scapegoats. Popular culture, especially films, entrenches binary good versus evil views. “Us and them” narratives are still too dominant.
But the downsides to war commemorations must not be ignored. Does remembering the two world wars threaten to keep old antagonisms alive? Heartening images of Merkel and Macron warmly marking the armistice together cannot mask ongoing bitterness surrounding the two wars. Germany was defeated twice, and Armistice Day is not so huge there as it is in Britain and France. Would Britain spend so much effort in the marking of a war if it had lost it?
Memorialization can keep the bitterness of the past alive. Different events in history are remembered very differently by differing parties. How many historic grievances and feuds around the world continue for centuries? All Irish know about the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, which is marked on July 12 every year by the Orange parades in Northern Ireland. The key defining moment for Serbs is the Battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389, when they lost against the Ottoman Empire. The Holocaust helps shape Jewish identity, but a debate can be had as to how Jews can move on after that horror with so many hundreds of memorials and museums around the world.
In Spain, re-enactments of great battles from Reconquista, when Christian armies defeated the Moors and threw them out of Spain, hardly encourage healthy Christian-Muslim relations.
Most states have foundational stories and legends surrounding their great revolutions and leaders, but these are largely accompanied by extraordinary myth-making industries. All this heroic past is cemented in flags, anthems, marches and national holidays. It fashions identity — national, regional and local.
We choose to remember for a reason, just as we choose to forget. Forgetting matters too. Often, we need to be better at it. Moving on after conflicts is vital, as it is the basis of any reconciliation following civil wars and bitter wars between neighbors. We have to make peace with the past.