WWI, 100 years on

Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) - - FRONT PAGE - By James McAu­ley and Griff Witte

PARIS — The grave­yards ex­tend for miles, far­ther than the eye can see.

For a cen­tury now, parts of north­ern France and Bel­gium have been an eerie mau­soleum, a land­scape rav­aged by trench war­fare and the hor­rors of World War I, a con­flict that was then the dead­li­est event in mod­ern his­tory.

More than 60 world lead­ers will gather in Paris this week­end to mark the cen­ten­nial of the 1918 ar­mistice. As host, French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron is em­brac­ing a post-na­tional, pan-Euro­pean un­der­stand­ing of the past — and vision of the fu­ture.

But the World War I cen­ten­nial ar­rives at a mo­ment when the Euro­pean project and transat­lantic al­liance are un­der strain — and na­tion­al­ism is see­ing a star­tling resur­gence.

Anti-Euro­pean Union sen­ti­ment has grown even in coun­tries where right-wing pop­ulists have per­formed poorly at the polls, and Brus­sels has strug­gled to re­spond to fla­grant as­saults on Euro­pean val­ues as ba­sic as the rule of law.

Heads of state as­sert “Italy First,” “Hun­gary First” and “Amer­ica First,” echo­ing lan­guage de­ployed by those who ar­gued against U.S. in­volve­ment in the world wars and League of Na­tions.

And col­lec­tive aver­sion to the term “na­tion­al­ist” has be­gun to re­cede.

“You know, they have a word — it sort of be­came old-fash­ioned,” Pres­i­dent Trump said at a rally last month. “It’s called a na­tion­al­ist. And I say, re­ally? We’re not sup­posed to use that word. You know what I am? I’m a na­tion­al­ist, okay? I’m a na­tion­al­ist. Na­tion­al­ist. Noth­ing wrong. Use that word.”

Mar­garet MacMil­lan, a World War I his­to­rian at the Univer­sity of Ox­ford, said the cav­a­lier lan­guage evinces a men­tal­ity that peace is the de­fault and even in­evitable con­di­tion.

“We in the West, in par­tic­u­lar, have been extremely lucky. We’ve lived through an extremely long pe­riod of peace,” she said. “The worry is that we take peace for granted and think it’s a nor­mal state of af­fairs. We should re­flect that some­times wars do hap­pen — and some­times not for very good rea­sons.”

In ad­vance of the gather­ing in Paris, Macron has po­si­tioned him­self as Europe’s lead­ing chal­lenger to the ris­ing tide of na­tion­al­ism. He has said that lead­ers such as Hun­gary’s Vik­tor Or­ban are right to see him as their big­gest op­po­nents and warned — in an ad­dress to the United Na­tions — that uni­lat­er­al­ism in­evitably en­gen­ders “with­drawal and con­flict.”

“A sur­vival-of-the-fittest ap­proach does not pro­tect any group of peo­ple against any kind of threat,” Macron said.

Macron’s Ar­mistice Day plans re­flect his com­mit­ment to the post­war project. As en­vis­aged by the French pres­i­dent, a cer­e­mony Sun­day on the Champs-El­y­sees will be a solemn af­fair, re­mem­ber­ing lives lost rather than cel­e­brat­ing a war vic­tory — much to the cha­grin of some French con­ser­va­tives. That will be fol­lowed by a three­day peace fo­rum that aims to “strengthen mul­ti­lat­er­al­ism and in­ter­na­tional co­op­er­a­tion.”

If the event cel­e­brates any­thing, it will be the long legacy of peace, which eluded the con­ti­nent af­ter the First World War but has now held more or less in­tact for seven decades. To Macron and other de­fend­ers of the Euro­pean Union, the oft-ma­ligned in­sti­tu­tion is a crit­i­cal rea­son.

“The Euro­pean Union is the re­jec­tion of the two world wars — that’s what it is. It’s a way of creat­ing the eco­nomic and demo­cratic sta­bil­ity that did not emerge af­ter World War I,” said Yale Univer­sity his­to­rian Jay Win­ter.

The de­gree to which the Euro­pean Union’s post-na­tion­al­ist vision has trans­formed the con­ti­nent is ev­i­dent in the Ger­man re­gion of Saar­land, an area of 1 mil­lion res­i­dents hard on the French bor­der.

The re­gion — marked by lush forests, gen­tle hills and rich coal de­posits that once made Saar­land an in­dus­trial jack­pot — has changed hands eight times over the past 250 years. In the past cen­tury alone, it was traded be­tween France and Ger­many four times.

The first of those came in the af­ter­math of World War I, when France claimed the ter­ri­tory as com­pen­sa­tion for Ger­man de­struc­tion of France’s own coal in­dus­try.

Ger­many lost the land again af­ter World War II and only got it back in 1957.

As re­cently as the 1990s, the nearby bor­der was sub­ject to strict con­trols. But to­day, it’s largely in­vis­i­ble. French cit­i­zens com­mute to Saar­land for work or pop by to buy a dish­washer. Ger­mans cross into France for lunch or to pick up a bot­tle of wine. French — the lan­guage of the long­time en­emy and oc­cu­pier — is part of the fab­ric of Saar­land, and it’s wel­come.

"We're neigh­bours. We're friends. We marry each other. One hun­dred years ago, we killed each other. It's been a great evo­lu­tion," said Reiner Jung, deputy di­rec­tor at the Saar His­tor­i­cal Mu­seum in the re­gion's cap­i­tal, Saar­brücken.

As Jung spoke, trench walls loomed over­head — not real ones but mod­els built by the mu­seum for its World War I ex­hibit to give vis­i­tors some feel for the con­flict’s dom­i­nant bat­tle mo­tif. On the walls, the ex­hibit traces Ger­many’s de­scent into a war that would cost the na­tion 2.5 mil­lion of its own cit­i­zens.

World War I oc­cu­pies a more lim­ited space in the Ger­man his­tor­i­cal imag­i­na­tion than it does for France, Bri­tain or Bel­gium. Few of the bat­tles were on Ger­man soil, and the hor­rors of the war that was to fol­low — World War II — over­shadow all else in the na­tion’s his­tor­i­cal mem­ory.

But the lessons of both wars are wo­ven into the coun­try’s mod­ern DNA. As other na­tions have swung to­ward pop­ulists pledg­ing to look out for their own coun­try’s in­ter­ests — at the ex­pense of ev­ery­one else — Ger­many has stayed rel­a­tively rooted in in­ter­na­tional co­op­er­a­tion.

“Na­tion­al­ism and mil­i­tarism are not a good thing,” said Jung, whose mu­seum is carved out of the base­ment of a cas­tle badly dam­aged in Al­lied bomb­ing raids. “We have to have un­der­stand­ing and re­spect for oth­ers. I hope we’ve learned that.”

Ger­many's World War I com­mem­o­ra­tions were ac­com­pa­nied by lit­tle ran­cor. Al­though World War II sets off red­hot de­bates over whether the coun­try can ever fully atone for its atroc­i­ties, the legacy of World War I is far less com­bustible, said Lu­cian Hölscher, an emer­i­tus his­tory pro­fes­sor at the Ruhr Univer­sity Bochum.

“It’s a long time ago,” he said.

One mea­sure of just how long: Un­like dur­ing other ma­jor anniversaries of the war, Ger­many has marked the centenary oc­ca­sions along­side its one­time en­e­mies. It will do so again Sun­day, with Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel trav­el­ing to Paris, and Pres­i­dent FrankWal­ter Stein­meier vis­it­ing Lon­don for a cer­e­mony with Queen El­iz­a­beth II.

"It has re­ally been a Euro­pean commemoration," Höl sc her said. "That's some­thing very new."

Cour­tesy the Wash­ing­ton Post

French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron takes part in a cer­e­mony at the Notre Dame de Lorette World War I French war ceme­tery, north­ern France as part of a World War I commemoration tour. (Lu­dovic MARIN/AFP)

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