For much of Europe, the war did not end in 1918

The Guardian - Journal - - Front page - Na­talie Nougayrède,

Em­manuel Macron is on a six-day tour of France’s first world war bat­tle­ground sites to com­mem­o­rate the cen­te­nary of the armistice. Any­one who’s spent time in places where the 1914-18 blood­bath un­folded will know this could be an emo­tional visit. The fields and forests still bear the scars: the long sin­u­ous fur­rows formed by the re­mains of trenches; the 90-me­tre-wide gap­ing crater left by the ex­plo­sion of a mine; or the war mu­seum in Péronne, in the Somme, with its col­lec­tion of pho­tos of gueules cassées (“bro­ken faces”, dis­fig­ured sol­diers).

Macron is of course also in cam­paign mode for the Euro­pean par­lia­ment elec­tions next year, but his in­ter­est in his­tory is hard to ques­tion. He’s also built up the cen­te­nary com­mem­o­ra­tions as an op­por­tu­nity to show­case France’s spe­cial taste for diplo­matic sum­mitry. On Sun­day he will host dozens of lead­ers at a “Peace Fo­rum” in Paris. It makes for an os­ten­si­bly global – if Fran­co­cen­tric – em­brace of the sig­nif­i­cance of 1918, but one in which eastern Euro­pean mem­o­ries hardly fea­ture at all. This blind spot in the com­mem­o­ra­tion of 1918, rather than fos­ter­ing Euro­pean unity, may in fact com­pli­cate things.

A hun­dred years on, how do Eu­ro­peans re­late to 1918? The British and the French ap­proach it in much the same way: it marked the end of a car­nage that is still vivid in fam­ily sto­ries passed down. Hon­our­ing the mil­lions who per­ished and re­mem­ber­ing lessons learned makes ob­vi­ous sense. By con­trast, in Ger­man me­mory, the first world war fea­tures much less promi­nently – per­haps be­cause of mil­i­tary de­feat and the dire fate of the Weimar Repub­lic, but also be­cause it is largely over­shad­owed by the sec­ond. This isn’t to say that Ger­mans are in­dif­fer­ent to it. Think of that iconic 1984 im­age of François Mit­ter­rand and Hel­mut Kohl hold­ing hands in Ver­dun.

Last month in Ber­lin, on the side­lines of a con­fer­ence on the first world war, a Ger­man diplo­mat in her

50s told me a mov­ing, per­sonal story. I’d no­ticed a beau­ti­ful neck­lace she was wear­ing. She said it had been be­queathed to her by an old French woman who had lost two of her broth­ers in the 1914-18 war. For decades this French grand­mother had re­fused to speak to or even ap­proach any­one Ger­man – even re­ject­ing the young ex­change stu­dent from Bonn who reg­u­larly vis­ited her fam­ily. Yet years later she wrote in her will that her favourite neck­lace should be given to that very Ger­man stu­dent, as a to­ken of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. The Ger­man diplo­mat was that young stu­dent. As she fin­ished the story she added gen­tly: “When I die, the neck­lace will be given to that woman’s great-grand­daugh­ter, in France.”

Com­mem­o­rat­ing can be a very per­sonal thing. When I moved to Lon­don from France a few years ago, I started wear­ing the red poppy as Armistice Day ap­proached – not only as a trib­ute to the fallen but also as a Euro­pean ges­ture. Still, all of this re­mains very fo­cused on “west­ern” Europe. We still fail to ac­knowl­edge that in other parts of the con­ti­nent, 1918 has a dif­fer­ent mean­ing from the one we French or British give to it.

For one thing, 1918 as the date of the end of the con­flict only holds true for the west­ern front. In the east of Europe, the crum­bling of em­pires, the Rus­sian rev­o­lu­tion, civil war and the strug­gle to es­tab­lish the borders of newly es­tab­lished states all meant that armed vi­o­lence con­tin­ued, leav­ing deep scars. In many ways that set the stage for the au­toc­ra­cies of the 1930s and fur­ther blood­shed. The Pol­ish-Soviet war lasted un­til 1921. The con­flict be­tween Reds and Whites in for­mer tsarist Rus­sia (which en­com­passed most of to­day’s Ukraine, Be­larus, Moldova and the Baltic re­gion) con­tin­ued un­til 1923. There was also fight­ing be­tween Poles and Ukraini­ans and Poles and Lithua­ni­ans, and pogroms per­pe­trated against Jews. The Greek-Turk­ish war of 1919-1922 led to ter­ri­ble mas­sacres, and a forced ex­change of pop­u­la­tions that up­rooted 1.6 mil­lion.

For Poles, Czechs, Slo­vaks, Es­to­ni­ans, Lat­vians and Lithua­ni­ans, 1918 rep­re­sented the ad­vent of state­hood, or the restora­tion of na­tion­hood. (Ukraini­ans also ex­pe­ri­enced this, if fleet­ingly.) Poland reap­peared on the map af­ter 120 years of hav­ing been carved up by em­pires. In War­saw this week, 11 Novem­ber will mark the cen­te­nary of “In­de­pen­dence Day”, and is likely to in­clude demon­stra­tions of ul­tra-na­tion­al­ism. For Hun­gar­i­ans, the end of the war is syn­ony­mous with the treaty of Tri­anon by which the coun­try lost two-thirds of its ter­ri­tory and more than half of its pop­u­la­tion. It is about loss and hu­mil­i­a­tion – a deeply felt his­tor­i­cal hang­over that Vik­tor Or­bán cyn­i­cally plays on when he tries to cast his coun­try as a “vic­tim” of the Euro­pean Union.

Why does re­mem­ber­ing this mat­ter par­tic­u­larly now? For one thing, it seems awk­ward to com­mem­o­rate 1918 as if Europe were still cut in two, as it was dur­ing the cold war. To­day, na­tion­al­ists and pop­ulists in Bu­dapest and War­saw thrive on the no­tion that east­ern­ers aren’t treated as fully equal. To be sure, po­lit­i­cal lead­ers can ma­nip­u­late his­tory. But are west­ern Eu­ro­peans all that in­ter­ested and knowl­edge­able about what east­ern­ers have ex­pe­ri­enced?

Markus Meckel, a for­mer East Ger­man dis­si­dent who speaks pub­licly about the need to share east-west ex­pe­ri­ences, put it to me this way: “The mem­o­ries of the first world war and its con­se­quences are very di­verse. Look­ing back to­day still raises im­por­tant chal­lenges.” The point is not that a uni­fied nar­ra­tive should be imag­ined, he says. Rather, it is that we would all gain from bet­ter aware­ness of the mo­saic of Euro­pean mem­o­ries of 1918. The Europe we live in to­day still has its roots in that past.

Crum­bling em­pires, the Rus­sian rev­o­lu­tion and civil war meant that armed vi­o­lence con­tin­ued, leav­ing be­hind deep scars

IL­LUS­TRA­TION: SE­BASTIEN THIBAULT

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