World War I: Europe and the politics of remembrance

Exactly 100 years ago, World War I came to an end. France and the UK will be holding major commemorative events, and high-ranking German leaders will be attending. What does this tell us about our respective cultures?

On the morning of November 11, 1918, at 10:59, American soldier Henry Nicholas Gunther stormed towards a German machine gun position and was killed — exactly one minute before the armistice that ended World War I came into effect. Gunther was the last soldier to fall in the so-called Great War. He was one of roughly 10 million soldiers that perished in the fighting. Millions of civilians were killed, too.

Trench warfare led to unimaginable numbers of casualities but brought few military advantages for either side

Now, 100 years after armistice day 1918, the former belligerents are commemorating all those who lost their lives in the bloody battles of World War I. In Britain and France, keeping the memory of the Great War alive carries great importance. Indeed, French President Emmanuel Macron has announced his country will host a major centennial ceremony. Naturally, Germany will also commemorate this special day. Though in Germany's national psyche, the catastrophe and horror of the Holocaust during World War II continues to overshadow the bloodshed of World War I.

The historical significance of Compiegne

On November 10, Macron will meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the town of Compiegne, about an hour north of Paris. It was here aboard a train carriage that the World War I armistice was signed between the Western allies and Germany on November 11, 1918. And it was in the exact same location that Adolf Hitler forced the French military leadership to sign their capitulation in June 1940 after German troops had invaded the country.

The World War I armistice was signed aboard a train carriage in the French town of Compiegne

The French government has announced it also wants to commemorate the important reconciliatory gesture between then-German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and then-French President Francois Mitterrand in 1984, when both famously held hands at a Verdun's war cemetery. The gesture made worldwide headlines.

Read more: How the battlefield sounded as World War I guns fell silent

France plans to hold a major commemorative ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Macron has invited more than 80 heads of state and government from countries which were either directly or indirectly involved in the Great War. United States President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, will mostly likely be in attendance, too. Macron hopes both leaders will use this opportunity for talks on how to salvage the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), which the US wants to quit.

Will Trump and Putin's attendance at the French WWI commemoration help lead to nuclear disarmament?

An opportunity to bask in the limelight

Macron is keen to use the ceremony as a means to boost his approval ratings, which have tanked amid resistance to his plans to reform the European Union, said French historian Etienne Francois. The ceremony will briefly "make him look as if he were at the center of political universe," he added. However, Macron will also want to use the event to find "a way out of the European and global deadlock," Francois said.

Between November 11 and 13, the French capital will also host the Paris Peace Forum to bring together political leaders, international organizations and intellectuals to promote and advance global multilateralism. Germany's Chancellor Merkel and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will each give opening speeches.

Read more: 31 artists interpret the First World War with a souvenir from the front

Germany, therefore, will play a prominent role in the centennial ceremony to mark the end of World War I. A few days ago, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier attended a commemorative concert in the city of Strasbourg in the French Alsace region, which between 1871 and 1918 belonged to the German Empire, after which it became French once more. 

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German leaders underscore European culture of remembrance

Britain, meanwhile, will hold its very own World War I ceremony. Historian Etienne Francois calls this "totally normal," noting that Britain has always "considered itself somewhat unique."

The British wear poppies to commemorate the Great War

London, like Paris, has extended an invitation to German leaders to attend its armistice commemorations. President Steinmeier will be the first German head of state ever to attend a Cenotaph wreath-laying ceremony in the British capital. A UK government statement said the upcoming event would mark an "historic act" of reconciliation and cited British Prime Minister Theresa May as saying it will provide an opportunity to "remember all the fallen and give thanks for peace." Though not everyone, it seems, welcomes Steinermeier's planned visit. UK tabloid The Sun warned his attendance could cause outrage among UK war veterans. Yet, so far, all is quiet on that front.

Read more: The First World War captured in film

The presence of Steinmeier and Merkel at these international armistice ceremonies, German historian Jörn Leonhard believes, has to do with Germany's "desire to underscore its deep-rooted Europeanness." Leonhard said German leaders are at pains to avoid nurturing a specifically German commemorative culture "out of fear of opening Pandora's box" and prompting some to ask whether the Treaty of Versailles contributed to the collapse of the Weimar Republic. Leonhard believes there is some merit to this political analysis, but noted that Germany nevertheless adheres to an "extremely defensive" approach when it comes to remembering World War I.

Polish independence day popular with far right

European bishops recently gathered in the Belgian municipality of Ypres to commemorate all those of died there in the bloody battles of World War I. Germany bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck, who also serves as a military ordinariate, warned against downplaying the danger of armed conflict, saying we should not be fooled by a "false sense of security." He added that nationalism and populism were on the rise, and that "approval for the European project is waning," which could undermine peace.

In the past, the annual Polish independence march in Warsaw has attracted large numbers of right-wing extremists

His words could prove prescient. For Poland, the year 1918 marks not only the end of World War I, but above all the rebirth of the Polish nation. In the past, the annual Polish independence march has attracted a growing number of far-right radicals. In response, Warsaw's mayor has banned this year's rally from going ahead — but authorities fear far-right extremist such as the international Blood and Honor network could nevertheless descend on the city.

Read more: How World War I ended: 100 years later

Most events commemorating the end of World War I, however, said historian Etienne Francois, are deliberately held with German representatives in attendance. "Many French events are all about Franco-German reconciliation," he explained. But in Poland and elsewhere, ceremonies will mainly focus on the respective national histories, Francois said.

Dark clouds on the horizon?

Some politicians have drawn parallels between the present rise in populism and nationalism, and the turmoil of the early 20th century. Francois, too, believes there are similarities with those times, when "efforts were made to reshape a peaceful Europe and a countermovement emerged as well."

Mitterand and Kohl held hands in Verdun to commemorate the fallen from both World Wars

This countermovement grew strong amid the global economic crisis of the late 1920s, said Francois, who fears we could face a similar situation in the future. The historian projects another global economic crisis "within the next 10 years" and wonders how European nations would react, and whether they would be sufficiently united to overcome the ensuing instability.

Francois said he hopes the commemorative events on November 11 will strengthen an "awareness among us Europeans that we have much in common despite our differences, and that it pays off to build a common future."

Unforgotten victims and memorial places

Douaumont Ossuary

The Douaumont charnel house is a burial site for the bones of soldiers killed on the western front near Verdun, who could not be identified. In 1984, on the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, François Mitterand and Helmut Kohl stood here hand in hand and declared: "We have reconciled. We have come to an understanding. We have become friends".

Unforgotten victims and memorial places

Verdun Memorial

The Battle of Verdun, in the north-east of France, is a symbol of the horror of the First World War. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers died between February and December 1916. The museum, founded in 1967, was reopened in the presence of the French President François Hollande and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the 100th anniversary of the commemoration of this battle.

Unforgotten victims and memorial places

Memorial Notre-Dame-de-Lorette

The Memorial Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, completed in 2014, lists in the "Ring of Remembrance" (L’Anneau de la Mémoire ) the names of around 600,000 soldiers killed in the northern French region during the First World War. These include soldiers from the British Empire, Germany, France and French colonies in Africa.

Unforgotten victims and memorial places

The German-French memorial at Hartmannswillerkopf

This German-French memorial was opened in November 2017 by French President Emmanuel Macron and Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. It complements a national cemetery and a crypt which, since the end of the First World War, have commemorated the victims of a senseless battle of trench warfare over the mountain of the same name in French Alsace.

Unforgotten victims and memorial places

In Flanders Fields Museum

One of the main war sites of the First World War is the region around the Belgian city of Ypres. The war museum "In Flanders Fields" is located in the Gothic textile halls building, which was rebuilt after the devastating destruction. The name of the museum is the title of a poem by the Canadian military doctor John McCrae, whose friend died in 1915 at Ypres shortly before he wrote it.

Unforgotten victims and memorial places

Mons Memorial Museum

Opened in 2005, the museum in Mons, Belgium, does not focus on war equipment or strategies, but on the human being. The display cases contain many personal objects of soldiers and civilians, which give an impression of life during the war and occupation. The region in the northwest of Belgium was a hotly contested site during both world wars.

Unforgotten victims and memorial places

Ossuary of Castel Dante

In the northern Italian town of Rovereto, a war museum, the Castel Dante ossuary and the peace bell commemorate the victims of the First World War. The bell was cast in 1924 from molten cannons of the war opponents Italy and Austria-Hungary. With 100 chimes every evening it recalls the dead of all wars.

Unforgotten victims and memorial places

Kobarid Museum

The region of Kobarid in present-day Slovenia was also the scene of several battles between Austria-Hungary and Italy during the First World War. The Kobarid Museum (Kobariški Muzej documents the battles on the Isonzo front as well as the everyday warfare of the soldiers on both sides.

Unforgotten victims and memorial places

Çanakkale Martyrs' Memorial

Like many others on the Turkish peninsula of Gallipoli, the Çanakkale monument commemorates the battle of the same name between soldiers of the Ottoman Empire and troops from Great Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand. Engraved in stone is a quote attributed to President Atatürk: "There is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets. Therefore rest in peace."

Unforgotten victims and memorial places

Neue Wache

In Germany, remembrance of the First World War is mainly decentralized. In almost every community there are monuments for those who died. The "Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany to the Victims of War and Tyranny" has been the Neue Wache in Berlin since 1993. Inside, the bronze sculpture "Mother with Dead Son" was designed by the artist Käthe Kollwitz.