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.
World War I, also known as the First World War, was a global war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918. More than nine million combatants were killed: a scale of death impacted by industrial advancements, geographic stalemate and reliance on human wave attacks. It was the fifth-deadliest conflict in world history, paving the way for major political changes, including revolutions in many of the nations involved.
The war drew in all the world's economic great powers, which were assembled in two opposing alliances: the Allies (based on the Triple Entente of the United Kingdom, France and the Russian Empire) and the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary. Although Italy had also been a member of the Triple Alliance alongside Germany and Austria-Hungary, it did not join the Central Powers, as Austria-Hungary had taken the offensive against the terms of the alliance.
These alliances were both reorganised and expanded as more nations entered the war: Italy, Japan and the United States joined the Allies, and the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria the Central Powers. Ultimately, more than 70 million military personnel, including 60 million Europeans, were mobilised in one of the largest wars in history.
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.
August 3rd 2014: French and German presidents to commemorate start of war together in France