As the world marks armistice day, nationalism rises again
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 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, panEuropean 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 US involvement in the world wars and League of
fire. Questions remain whether the gains were worth all the human losses. Historian Joseph Persico estimated the total dead, wounded and missing on all sides on the final day was 10,900.
Other nations also were not spared such casualties. With two minutes to go, 25-year-old Canadian Private George Lawrence Price was slain by a German sniper.
About 250km away in France, a 23-year-old American, Henry Gunther, was killed by German machine-gun fire one minute before the armistice.
Trebuchon, 40, also was shot minutes before the cease-fire. He was running to tell his comrades where and when they would have Nations. And collective aversion to the term “nationalist” has begun to recede.
“You know, they have a word — it sort of became oldfashioned,” 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.”
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
a meal after the armistice.
All three are considered their nations’ last men to fall in active combat.
The futility of the larger war Anti-German sentiment ran high after the United States declared war in April 1917, and Gunther and his family in Baltimore were subjected to the kind of prejudice and suspicion that many of German descent faced at the time.
“It was not a good time to be German in the United States,” said historian Alec Bennett.
Gunther had little choice when he got drafted. He was given the rank of sergeant, but he later was demoted when he wrote a letter US President Donald Trump engenders “withdrawal and conflict”.
Macron’s Armistice Day plans reflect his commitment to the post-war project. A ceremony Sunday on the Champs-Elysees will be a solemn affair, remembering lives lost rather than celebrating a war victory. 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
home critical of the conditions in the war. Soon after, he was thrown into the biggest US battle of the war, the Meuse-Argonne offensive in northeastern France.
There were reports he was still brooding over his demotion on November 11. When he emerged from a thick fog in the valley around Chaumont-devantDamvillers, he and his comrades faced a German machine-gun nest on the hillside.
Indications are the Germans fired one salvo over his head as a warning, knowing the war was almost over. But he still charged onward.
“His time of death was 10.59am, which is just so haunting,” Bennett said. Gunther was decades. To Macron and other defenders of the EU, the oftmaligned institution is a critical reason why.
“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 EU’s post-nationalist vision has transformed the continent is evident in the German region of Saarland, an area of 1 million residents 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 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
recognised as the last American to die on the battlefield.
Questions remain whether it was a suicide run, an attempt at redemption or an act of devotion.
“It is just as puzzling now as it was 100 years ago,” Bennett said, adding that one thing is clear: “Gunther’s act is seen as almost a symbol of the futility of the larger war.”
A need to kill one last time There was no mystery surrounding the death of Price, the Canadian. It was an utterly senseless loss of life.
He was a farm labourer in Saskatchewan strict controls. But today, it’s largely invisible. French citizens commute to Saarland for work, Germans drop in on France to pick up a bottle of wine.
World War I occupies a more limited space in the German historical imagination than it does for France, the UK or Belgium. Few of the battles were on German soil, and the horrors of the war that followed — 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 Germany has stayed rooted in international cooperation.
Unlike during other major anniversaries of the war, Germany has marked the centenary occasions alongside onetime enemies. It will do so again on Sunday when Chancellor Angela Merkel travels to Paris and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier visits London for a ceremony with Queen Elizabeth II.
“It has really been a European commemoration,” Ho¨lscher said. “That’s something very new.”
when history plucked him off the land in October 1917 as the Allies sought more manpower for the Western Front. The summer after he was drafted, he was part of the surge of victories that seized villages and cities right up to November 11. By that time, Canadians were retaking Mons in southern Belgium, where soldiers from the British Commonwealth had their very first battle with the Germans in August 1914. It was especially sweet for Commonwealth commanders to retake the city, bringing the war full circle where they lost their first soldier, English Private