For many European countries, 1914-1918 is etched into the collective memory as an inferno that transformed the high-flown expectations of the century just commenced into desperation and hate. As the French poet Paul Valéry (1871-1945) wrote in 1919, “We civilizations now know that we are mortal.”
How do we memorialize this war a century later? Mainly it is at a national level. Each country has its own monuments and ceremonies, and thus tries to assign meaning and weight to the events of 1914-1918 in way that jibes with its own national history. Two important elements are consequently absent from these remembrances: the sense of futility, and the revulsion for nationalism, that the Great War elicited in many participants regardless of whose trenches they fought in.
I would like to put forward three propositions as arguments for commemorating the war at a European level. Firstly, the First World War was a Europe-wide experience; secondly, the First World War was simultaneously an individual experience; and thirdly, Europe needs a new culture of remembrance.
A Europe-wide experience
The First World War swept away not only a whole world but a widely held conception of Europe. Modernity had hitherto stood for continual progress in knowledge, technology, welfare and – encapsulating the whole project – humanity itself. The new European could not only expect to enjoy a better life but also to become a better person in moral respects. He would think for himself, shake off old myths and uncertainties and, helped by art, continually strive to reach a higher spiritual plane. This outlook inevitably drew some scepticism. The “three masters of suspicion” (Paul Ricoeur) had posed their trenchant questions: Freud about the rationality of humankind, Marx about capitalist industrialisation and Nietzsche about morality and religion. The Dominican friar Bartolomé de Casas (1484-1566) was one of the first to take up a cause of human rights, in his case on behalf of the Indians of the New World. Modern Europe was from the outset open to critique and explicit self-questioning. That is exactly what made it a modern society.
But the dark side of this fundamentally optimistic world was not to be revealed until the “short” twentieth century, and then catastrophically. In retrospect it is shocking to read that many of the most respected thinkers and intellectuals of the time went so enthusiastically to war. Thanks to all the achievements of modern technology, it was assumed, the war would soon be over, bringing fame and a boost to national morale. It would be a war to end all wars. Paul Valéry observed in his essay La Crise de l’Ésprit that progress had itself paved the way for carnage. It was technical and scientific knowledge, combined with moral attributes like loyalty and discipline, that made evil possible on this scale. “So many horrors could not have been possible without so many virtues,” he wrote. To Valéry the Great War amounted to a bankruptcy of idealism, of the idea that human spirit shored up the world and made it ever better. Idealism had been replaced by a profound sense of futility. The soldiers from practically all over Europe who fought in the trenches shared not only the experiences of cold, hunger, mud and rats, together with the appalling awareness that every second could be one’s last, but also all too often the realisation that everything they had hitherto had learned about the “good” life had now become meaningless.
Erich Maria Remarque fought as a soldier on the German side. His novel Im Westen nichts Neues, famous in English as All Quiet on the Western Front, appeared in 1929. The protagonist describes how the world view handed down by schoolteachers who had recruited their pupils for the war burst asunder with every grenade and every fatality. Lying wounded in a field hospital at the end of the book, he says:
“A man cannot realise that above such shattered bodies there are still human faces in which life goes its daily round. And this is only one hospital, one single station; there are hundreds of thousands in Germany, hundreds of thousands in France, hundreds of thousands in Russia. How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture-chambers in their hundreds of thousands.”
That same year, the English writer Richard Aldington portrayed his own war experiences in Death of a Hero. The novel is an account of his disillusionment with the Victorian mentality as well as an ode to a much envied dead soldier:
What right do I have to live? Is it five million, is it ten million, is it twenty million? What does the exact count matter? There they are, and we are responsible. Tortures of hell, we are responsible! When I meet an unmaimed man of my generation, I want to shout at him: “How did you escape? How did you dodge it? What dirty trick did you play? Why are you not dead, trickster?” It is dreadful to have outlived your life, to have shirked your fate, to have overspent your welcome. There is nobody upon earth who cares whether I live or die, and I am glad of it, so glad of it. To be alone, icily alone. You, the war dead, I think you died in vain, I think you died for nothing, for a blast of wind, a blather, a humbug, a newspaper stunt, a politician’s ramp. But at least you died. You did not reject the sharp, sweet shock of bullets, the sudden smash of the shell-burst, the insinuating agony of poison gas. You got rid of it all. You chose the better part.
Passages from French, Belgian and Russian novels could easily be matched with the above quotations. Paul Valéry concluded his essay with the observation that nationalism is intellectually bankrupt and idealism has been murdered. Knowledge had demonstrated its impotence to salvage anything from the wreckage. Science had been dishonoured by the application of its inventions, and was fatally wounded in its moral ambitions. The illusion of a European culture had vanished.
The First World War did indeed destroy the budding collaboration of an elite of European writers and artists, as well as provoking dissolution of the Second International. It seemed like the triumph of nationalism over these efforts towards a Europe-wide culture and politics. Nationalism remains to this day a significant political factor, as it certainly was after Versailles in 1918. Nationalist resentment was rampant in Germany, and it was an ingredient of rising fascism elsewhere in Europe. Many people concluded, like Valéry, that nationalism was hollow as a humanistic ideal.
Amid those nationalistic, war-scarred years, a new Europe was born. This was the Europe of disillusioned young nihilists. It was characterized by new artistic movements like Dada, with its absurdities and intuitionism, which was founded in Zurich in 1916 as a reaction against the horrors of the war. It was a Europe that nurtured a profound mistrust of militarism and authoritarianism and their adherents, and was imbued with ideas of democratization and pacifism. This was the Europe that, frustrated by the failure reassemble the pieces of the shattered European culture, resumed cooperation in the League of Nations. But this Europe began unravelling once more in 1933, and did not again raise the cry of “no more war” until 1945.
An individual experience
The First World War followed by the Second hacked Europe into pieces. The Germans were widely hated for many decades, and the Russian Revolution divided the continent into two camps. The British lost their Empire and withdrew onto their island domain, while Belgium faced a growing rift between its Flemish and the Walloon communities. For Poland, 1918 meant the end of an era of foreign domination that had lasted since 1795. The collapse of the Habsburg double monarchy set off a complicated, arduous process of nation forming in the Balkans.
The impact of the war on political relationships varies from country to country and from region to region. People remain divided by questions of placing blame and making amends for the suffering. The existence of a common experience is therefore a precarious assumption. What people underwent, whether communally or individually, is moreover interpreted and commemorated differently.
There is no such thing as an objective, complete knowledge of the First World War. We can never really know “what it was like”, partly because it was different for every one and partly because history is an ingredient of our outlook on today and the future. In Europe, political and social relations are always a confrontation of different experiences, in which our perception of the other and the other’s stories is once again coloured by our own history and experience.
The First World War is therefore simultaneously a shared European experience, in which Europeans can find common understanding, and a personal experience that makes us mutual strangers.
Is there any point in commemorating the First World War at a European scale? The question is in certain respects superfluous because it already takes place. This year, in particular, there will be countless remembrance ceremonies. The point is that these commemorations will practically all be national ones, although a few cross-border ceremonies are being organised, and diplomats as well as a few heads of state will attend one another’s ceremonies. The main problem with these occasions is that they do no justice to the conclusion drawn by the many profoundly disillusioned survivors of the trenches: that nationalism is intellectually bankrupt, as Paul Valéry argued. Instead of recognising the problematic nature of the national rhetoric that led up to the war, they reproduce the same nationalistic discourse. A good example of this is the UK Royal Mint’s announcement of a coin to be issued this year in remembrance of the First World War; the coin bears the image of Field Marshall Lord Kitchener from the iconic wartime poster captioned “Your Country Wants You”. There is no room here for an experience such as that portrayed in the novels of Richard Aldington and Erich Maria Remarque.
A new style of remembrance is therefore needed; one which fosters cooperation between Europeans but which reflects the diverse narratives. The European Union acts as a symbol for the defeat of nationalism. Not that it has anything heroic; on the contrary, it is a rather untidy aggregate held together by historical coincidences and political compromises. The EU has many discontinuities and defects. It is precisely because it is still searching for an appropriate political shape that the EU is well qualified to undertake the organisation of a new kind of remembrance; a kind that does not focus on national honour but on the horrors of itself. Commemorations of this kind are also framed within a specific political and symbolic context, but, because it is not a nationalistic context, it creates space for the remembrance of experiences that have hitherto been almost or entirely excluded.
Can Europe, so deeply divided as it is by economic and monetary crises, benefit from raking up old conflicts and opening old wounds? For one who commemorates reawakens ghosts of the past, and raises the dead to stand in our midst again.
If we want the project of European cooperation to root itself more deeply than just in administrative and commercial circles, however, or if we want wider public support for development of the Union, we cannot avoid looking those old ghosts in the eye. To find our way out of the present European stalemate of, on the one hand, a lack of economic solidarity and, on the other hand, a deficiency of democratic legitimacy and organization, we shall have to create the space in which mutual trust can grow. To achieve such a space, it will be crucial that we are conscious of one another’s historic grievances and of how they have subsequently affected the shape of politics.
A remembrance under the auspices of the European Parliament, in which diversity and multilingualism are a matter of course, would represent a welcome shakeup for the national and military commemoration culture. The purpose is not to produce a single narrative about the Great War. It is, rather, to disclose the different interpretations of the First World War and of its causes and its consequences. The dead can no longer speak. Their future has never become reality, and Europe is now what it is due to all those unfulfilled promises. The living will have to declare what moves them and what they cherish; what they have lost, and who they hope to become some day. This may create the space and the mutual trust that the European Union so desperately needs if it is to act in harmony.
School history books could include stories from other countries, so that children will understand from the outset that history may be written in very different ways. European cities that suffered bombardment and mayhem could commence the painful process of discussing the past with their former enemies. New rituals could be designed and tried out, in the spirit of Mitterrand and Kohl who, during the 1984 commemoration in Verdun (where over 800,000 perished in 1916), grasped and held hands several minutes long. These rituals would not be dedicated to reproducing nationalist rhetoric but to what we hope to become together in the future.
What is peace, Valéry asked. His answer was: “Peace is perhaps that state of things in which the natural hostility between men is manifested in creation, rather than destruction as in war.” Despite all the inevitable political tensions, the European Union is, along with other European organisations, ideally suited to creating new forms of remembrance and coexistence. Just as the monetary union cannot function without the support of an economic strategy, and just as solidarity in Europe depends on a minimum standard of social security for everyone, political cooperation can only thrive when it is bolstered by an interchange of those narratives that make us who we are.
Erich Maria Remarque, Im Westen nichts neues, Cologne 2004 (1929), p. 177.
Paul Valéry, La Crise de l’Esprit, 1919
Richard Aldington, Death of a Hero, London 2013 (1929), p. 178-179