Centenary of Great War stirs bad memories for fractured continent

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The commemorations this year of the centenary of World War I – still known as the “Great War” (see background) – are likely to reawaken the ghosts of nationalism and highlight stark differences in how Europeans remember the conflict.

Europe was devastated by four years of warfare unleashing the military application of industrial advances, but its nations – whilst equally traumatised by the conflict – remember it differently.

Britain and France, allied through the Triple Entente with Russia, see the conflict as a ruinous but necessary action to forestall the militaristic ambitions of Germany’s “unbalanced” leader, Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Both countries – whose schoolchildren have long been taught to consider the war as resulting in victory for their nations – have organised hundreds of commemorative events and media coverage.

Germany sees the centenary as a chance to promote European integration and arrive at a shared remembrance of the disaster, and is keen to play down national sentiments, in common with its former Triple Alliance partners Austria/Hungary – whose empire collapsed in the aftermath of the conflict – and Italy, which ultimately joined the war on the side of the Entente powers.

In her New Year message, German Chancellor Angela Merkel looked back to the past, though, noting that the year would be the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, the 75th anniversary of the start of World War II and a quarter of a century since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“This was the beginning of the end of divisions of Germany and of Europe," she said.

At the last EU summit on 19 December Merkel said that she had read the book “The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914” by Australian historian Christopher Clark.

“They [the European countries’ leaders] failed everything, and this brought World War I," she said. 

Merkel used the historic reference speaking about the divisions among EU countries as a touchstone on how to handle the eurozone crisis. But diplomats told EurActiv that Germany does not want the anniversaries to make the communication between capitals even more difficult.

Some joint events are carefully planned, including a “peace demonstration” on Bastille Day, 14 July, in Paris.

Leaders set to join together for reflection

The presidents of Germany and France, Joachim Gauck and François Hollande, will stand side by side in France on August 3 to mark the start of the war “with gravity and reverence”.

An Anglo-German ceremony is planned the following day in Belgium, invaded by German troops on the first day of the war.

Tensions have simmered below the surface however. UK journalist Max Hastings called on commemorations to be unflinching in their apportionment of blame for the conflict with the Triple Alliance.

Meanwhile in August last year, Norman Walter, press attaché at the German embassy in London, said “it would be easier” for Britain to adopt a “less declamatory tone”.

“The biggest single contribution to the start of the First World War was Germany, but others played a part. Whether it was a win or not, it wasn’t worth it,” he said.

These tensions have been most pronounced in the Balkans, where the collapse of the Ottoman empire combined with Serbian nationalist sentiment to light the touch-paper of the war, with the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian crown prince, Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.

Plans for a meeting of leaders of all sides in Sarajevo have had to be dropped due to a lack of international consensus.

Origins, result of the conflict remain sensitive

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra is planning to hold a concert in Sarajevo on the anniversary of the assassination, carried out by Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb and member of the nationalist “Black Hand” group.

Princip’s legacy remains extremely controversial in the Balkans. During the Yugoslav era, he was celebrated as the liberator and streets in Belgrade still bear his name.

Meanwhile Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dačić last year told media sources he feared that commemorations of the war would "lead again to Serbian people being accused of triggering the biggest armed conflict in the history of humanity". Serbia prefers to lay responsibility for the outset of the conflict squarely with the Austro-Hungarian empire.

The European Commission’s approach to the commemoration reflects the fractured memory of the war amongst its combatant nations, now united within the bloc.

“As such we will not organise commemoration events, as 2014 means very different things to different countries but we do not exclude that the President and Commissioners may attend specific events, if invited,” a spokesman for the EU executive told EurActiv.

Timeline: 

August 3rd 2014: French and German presidents to commemorate start of war together in France

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Comments

an european's picture

But european citizens plan IS in fact the being of an Unified Europe and NOT an german one with its own economic interests & competitivness by it's austerity measures to other EU countries to !

That's clear how the “Great War” in history was provoked!

Americans in general know the sense of the Unity but apparently the EU-institutions/nationals don't have any clue about it !

El Pluribus Unum

Thika's picture

It might be true that Europ.'s nations just before WW1 were fully armed and ready for a full scale conflict.

It might also be true that different reasons could have been found in order to initiate the Great War, but the fact that Europ.'s power were involved in the war scene, right after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand; this is an undeniable fact.

I understand that somebody's hero could be someone's else enemy, but I wonder:
"Why heroes most of the time have to be criminals and not something else?"

Lm's picture

Italy did not switch sides during the war, but before it entered it in 1915! It was on the side of the Allies all the way. So it does not make any sense to say it switched sides.

Iwantout's picture

As a member of the Triple Alliance Italy was bound to support Germany and Austro Hungary only if one of the three members were attacked by another country. As Germany and Austria Hungary were the attackers Italy had no obligation to enter the conflict on their side. Given this it is completely erroneous to say Italy switched sides.

When Italy signed the Treaty of London 26th April 1915 committing it to fight for the Entente Powers, it did on the promise that it would receive all of South Tyrol, Trieste, Gorizia, Istria, Dalmatia (as far as Trogir) and most of the islands down to Dubrovnik. Essentially Italy entered the war because they were promised territory that up to that time was part of the Austro Hungarian Empire. Interestingly Germany was also pressurising Austria Hungary to give up territory to the Italians to get them to fight against the Entente. Fortunately for the Entente, they could happily guarantee to give more of the Austro Hungarian Empire to Italy than Austria Hungary ever could.