Skirmishes flare over WWI centennial plans
This photo is said to show British and French troops playing a soccer game against the Germans during World War I.
FOLKESTONE, England — The war that was supposed to end all wars didn’t. But who knew it would still be causing skirmishes nearly a century later?
As Europe prepares to mark the 100th anniversary next year of the outbreak of World War I, clashes have erupted over how best to remember a dreadful conflict that claimed the lives of millions and radically changed the course of human history.
With commemorations set across the continent, some want to recognize it as an important victory for nations such as Britain and France, which won at a heavy price. Yet that risks upsetting current ally Germany, which lost.
Others warn that the real lesson — the madness of war — is in danger of being ditched in a show of militaristic pride; the focus, they say, should be on peace. But then how to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice?
The arguments, played out in both public and private, illustrate the fascination the Great War continues to hold on this side of the Atlantic and the ongoing debate over its meaning, even though hardly anyone alive now can remember it, much less have fought in it. For many Europeans, the 1914-18 conflict remains the defining event of their modern history, a cataclysm on a scale that no one had seen before and that sowed the seeds of a second global conflagration.
What began with the assassination of an Austrian archduke by a Serbian nationalist, on June 28, 1914, swiftly bloomed into a wider conflict between alliances of powers alarmed by each other’s territorial ambitions, with Britain, France and Russia on one side and Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire on the other. Trench warfare and gas attacks introduced new horrors to the battlefield. By the time fighting ended four years later, the conflict had pulled in the United States and dozens of other nations.
In Britain, the cash-strapped government is planning four years of “national acts of remembrance,” including films, lectures, museum installations, ceremonial vigils, community history projects and school trips to the fields of Flanders.
French President Francois Hollande is issuing an unprecedented invitation to leaders of all 72 nations that took part in the war to join him in Paris for its annual military parade in July. France, which lost more than 1 million soldiers, will also unveil its latest monument to the dead and recall the strategically vital but exceptionally bloody 1914 Battle of the Marne, the confrontation that left as many as half a million soldiers dead or wounded in about a week and led to years of hideous stalemate in the trenches of the Western Front.
Similar events are to take place in neighboring Belgium. Even Germany, considered the chief aggressor, is putting on a number of exhibitions for the centennial, emphasizing the sense of European Union unity so many decades later.
“Our look is at reconciliation, to have as many former enemies together as possible and to show that we have learned from our mistakes,” said Norman Walter, a spokesman for the German Embassy in London.
But the nature and tone of some events elsewhere have become hotly contested, especially in Britain.
When Prime Minister David Cameron compared the upcoming commemorations to last year’s Diamond Jubilee for Queen Elizabeth II, many were aghast. They’re concerned that the government’s four-year plan, encompassing 2,000 exhibitions and events, will end up celebrating a war that should never have taken place. A coalition dubbed “No Glory,” which opposes any downplaying of the war’s terrible toll, has drawn the support of high-profile Britons, including actors Jude Law and Alan Rickman.
“Any remembrance of World War I that is run in a sane or humane way has to be about warning against any repetition,” said Chris Nineham of Stop the War, an organization of peace activists. “That’s not a political position. That’s a humanitarian position.”
Critics are leery of patriotic fervor or military pride in the official program; some even detect a political agenda at work, an attempt to reinterpret the past to justify a more hawkish current British foreign policy.
“If you read the literature around the event, there’s an explicit commitment to rehabilitating one of the most terrible slaughters of the 20th century and indeed of world history,” said Nineham, whose group is devising counterprogramming. “The reason why these people are wanting to rewrite history is to free them up to fight more wars in the future. It’s not an academic question.”
The British government denies that it is trying to glorify World War I and says it welcomes discussion on the historical questions.
Hew Strachan, a professor at Oxford, warns that depicting the war as merely an exercise in futility and carnage is also misguided, because it ignores the fact that many Allied soldiers and leaders believed their cause was just: preserving freedom and preventing German domination of Europe.
“I’m certainly not saying we should celebrate any war. … But on the other hand, if you have to fight a war, it may become important to win it, and so the notion of celebration within that context, for the victorious side, makes sense,” Strachan said. “If you happen to believe that the values for which you’re fighting are important ones, as they did in 1918 just as they did in 1945, then that also becomes important.”
Disagreement over the war’s significance, aims and prosecution is, in many ways, as old as the war itself. Polarization increased in the 1920s, particularly with the publication of “All Quiet on the Western Front”; later, the overarching narrative of incompetent generals but heroic soldiers — “lions led by donkeys,” in the classic phrase — became widespread, Strachan said.
Unlike the 50th anniversary in 1964, when many veterans of the trenches were still alive, making dispassionate discussion more difficult, there’s an opportunity now to look at the war more objectively and multidimensionally, said Nigel Steel, a historian at the Imperial War Museum in London.
The museum was created while World War I was still raging, as people then already understood the magnitude of the events and the importance of remembering. Its World War I galleries will reopen next summer after a $57 million refurbishment, providing Britain’s most comprehensive view of the conflict, including not just accounts of exploits on the battlefield but the immense challenges and changes on the home front.
“We’re about explaining and making sure people don’t forget, within a broad historical context,” Steel said. “We’re here to explain why it happened. It’s absolutely not about glorifying the war and presenting a triumphalist message.”
Then there’s the tricky question of diplomacy. Over the summer, British news media said Germany was concerned about Britain’s four-year program and preferred for the events to strike a “less declamatory” tone that didn’t dwell on assigning blame for the war.
Walter, the German Embassy spokesman in London, said “there was no and is no friction” between the two former antagonists — now firm friends — over event planning.
Hostilities, however, have broken out here in Folkestone, a port town in eastern England where tens of thousands, some say millions, of British troops embarked for the Western front.
The local member of Parliament, Damian Collins, has led a campaign to erect an arch at the top of the path trod by many of the soldiers down to the docks.
“You’re following a journey whose physical landscape hasn’t changed that much. For a lot of those soldiers, it would’ve been their last journey on home soil,” Collins said.
But there are already two other World War I memorials near the spot, plus a contemporary artwork made of thousands of numbered rocks, one for every soldier killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
For some Folkestone residents, the folly of war has now been compounded by the spendthrift ways of local officials who insist on building a new monument costing about $615,000.
“There’s no need for it,” said Nick Spurrier, a retired bookseller. “I don’t know what a stainless steel arch actually tells you about the war. What does it speak of? I don’t think very much.”
A promotional brochure describes the project as a potential tourist attraction, which Spurrier finds “dishonorable.”
“They didn’t dig the trenches or fight the war to bring tourists in.”
But plans for the arch are moving forward. It’s expected to be unveiled in August, on the 100th anniversary of the day Britain and Germany declared war on each other.
“If they build it, they build it. On Aug. 4, I’ll go over to France and spend some time in the district of the Somme,” said Spurrier, who feels that the occasion calls for somberness, not showiness. “I think it’s a ghastly mistake. But I can’t do anything about it.”