2014: much more than a year of commemoration, lessons for the future

By Annabelle Laferrère | 15 February 2014

To quote this document: Annabelle Laferrère, “2014: much more than a year of commemoration, lessons for the future”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Saturday 15 February 2014, http://www.nouvelle-europe.eu/node/1794, displayed on 27 September 2022

2014, marking the centenary of the First World War, is a landmark year for Europe. It may seem as a macabre birthday, for some, to celebrate the kick-off of the deadliest century in Europe, with its First World War erupting in the summer of 1914. Others may think that 100 years is far away, and that Europe is now immune from war. So why is it important to celebrate the centenary of the Great War?

Germany’s low interest in Commemoration, in contrast with the rest of Europe

European states themselves seem divided in recognizing the importance of the centenary. Germany’s plans for commemorating the First World War stand in stark contrast with other main protagonists of World War I, such as France, Italy, the United Kingdom or Belgium.

So far, Germany has only planned one small exhibition called “1914 – 100 years afterwards” at the German Historical Institute in Berlin. Steffen Seibert, Angela Merkel’s spokesperson, justified this minimal remembrance by the lack of state-approved policy on historical events. Commemorative events are organized by the federal President, rather than by the federal government. Therefore, German President Joachim Gauck will be attending events outside of Germany, in France and Belgium, but no particular policy of commemoration is put in place inside the country.

On the other hand, France, Italy, Belgium, or the UK have either created a specific supervisory body, such as La Mission du Centenaire in France, or appointed an official responsible for overseeing the organization of the Centenary, such as under-secretary to the Italian prime minister’s office Giovanni Legnini or Paul Breyne and Jean-Arthur Regibeau, respectively Commissioner-General and Deputy Commissioner-General for the Commemoration of the First World War in Belgium. French president Francois Hollande was the first to kick off the celebrations on 7th November 2013 by holding an allocution at the Elysee Palace.

A European transnational movement of Remembrance

The diversity and creativity of upcoming commemorational events will include thousands of exhibitions, concerts, ceremonies, debates, tourism fairs, as well as official marches, all across Europe: the First World War Tourism Fair in Gorizia in Italy, the exhibition 'Doomsday - Jewish Life and Death in World War I' in Vienna, the construction of a monument in Kalemegdan Park, Belgrade, Serbia, a major international conference in Sarajevo are non-exhaustive examples of this diversity. Italian filmmaker Ermanno Olmi will honour the Commemoration with an exclusive film that will open the 2014 Venice Film Festival. Even football will invite itself to the ceremonies by replicating the emblematic football game between the cities of Newark (England) and Emmendingen (Germany) that acted as an unofficial ephemeral truce at Christmas 1914.  

In parallel to and in critique of official events, an alternative Commemoration will also take place. The No Glory in the 1914-1918 War campaign in the UK has written an open letter to oppose David Cameron’s £55 million budget for memorial events, criticizing its organization by ex-Defense Secretaries. Opponents fear that this Commemoration will be used to justify other wars, and that these events might mislead the population about the reality of the Great War’s atrocities perpetuated by power-greedy countries. Many figures have signed the open letter, such as actor Jude Law, poet Carol Ann Duffy or fashion designer Vivienne Westwood. Far from opposing the Commemoration of the Centenary, this movement will plan alternative events, aimed at promoting peace and cooperation, rather than praising war heroes and military victories.

The acknowledgement of history as a leap forward

Why is Germany reluctant in organizing events to remember the First World War, when all the rest of Europe, through different means, seems united around this cause? This lack of involvement in commemorating the past is even more striking considering the fact that 2014 also marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany. Symbolically, we would expect Germany to be at the forefront in the Commemoration of the Great War. Recognition of the past provides a form of closure and an opening for the future, as Ulrick Bongertman, President of the VDG-German History Teacher Association, says in a discourse reported by Deutsche Welle, "Looking to the past serves as a way to provide orientation in the present - in a political, but also in a moral sense."

In fact, the German youth is demanding more information about the Great War. According to a study conducted by the pollster Forsa, 77% of the 14-29 generation wants to know more about the War, which is barely covered by history textbooks, overshadowed by World War II and Nazi Germany.

Quite interestingly, the Russian population faces the same disinformation about the Great War, overshadowed by Soviet Russia. The Centenary of the First World War is also ignored by the state. In an interview to the Moscow Times, British historian and journalist Sir Max Hastings explains: "World War I was very nearly written out of Russian history during the early years of the Soviet Union because of the Bolshevik view that it was a capitalist war in which the Russian people had been the victim rather than the protagonist," adding that World War II fits better into the heroic representation of the Russian nation, as articulated by Vladimir Putin.

The Centenary: a unique occasion to unite Europeans around a common memory

The memory of the First World War has never been more present in Europe. In times of debates on the legitimacy and the future of the European Union, the Centenary provides a unique opportunity for European countries to reflect on their shared history and their envisioned future, perhaps to find out that, as Adolf Mushg rightly said, “What holds Europe together and what divides it are at heart the same thing” (Muschg 2005: 26). As The European Union is based on a commitment to peace after two World Wars, the foundations of the European Union also lie in the wars that preceded and justified its creation. The painful memory of the First World War is there to remind us of the necessity to unite ourselves to build a common future, in peace and harmony with each other.

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Source photo : Poppies falling from the top of the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium (November 11, 2013) on Wikimedia commons