Why the EU should not eschew the centenary of the First World War

This is the full and original version of the interview I recently gave to Portuguese newspaper Público. (See the published version here). Since many – like me – do not read Portuguese, I thought it might be useful to publish the English original.

In this interview, I briefly argue why European institutions should not shy away from the centenary of the First World War.

(This interview was conducted by email on 23 January 2014)

  • National commemorations are all about the remembrance of the suffering in the trenches, the brutality of death by the millions of the soldiers faced with the modern instruments of war. The processes that led to the war and that allowed the European powers of the age to stay in the war for four long years are rarely in the limelight. Is this the right approach to look at the Great War? Are the European citizens going to learn something about it, and how it influenced the rest of the XX century, or are we just going to end up with a lot of patriotic enthusiasm that really doesn’t go anywhere?

The sacrifice of combatants and civilians alike will rightly be at the core of the commemorative process. There is no escaping – nor should there be any attempt to escape – from the terrible, unprecedented human and material cost of the First World War. The origins of the war have always been the object of a passionate and often highly politicized debate. This remains the case across Europe as Britain and Serbia have attested in recent weeks. It is indeed important for us all to look into the causes of the conflict for they raise political and ethical issues of continuing relevance to our world today: when should war be considered a reasonable option – if ever – to resolve international disputes? How should diplomats and policy makers be held accountable and report to public opinion on matters of war and peace? What should we do to avoid or limit the risks of such general conflagration in the future? Such questions should not just be of concern for historians or scholars of international relations; it is the responsibility of every citizen to engage with them.

Having said this, while there is a great deal of interest in the centenary of the war, we should not assume that the commemorative sequence will necessarily further our collective understanding of the conflict. Politicians, publishers, broadcasters – and some historians I am sorry to say – are all too keen to stick to established and comforting narratives and we could miss a great opportunity to address the critical issues of contemporary import that the First World War raises.

  • You raise the subject of consent, of why the populations of Europe allowed the carnage to go on so long. Do you think this subject is present in the centenary commemorations? It’s amazing how the war lasted so long, going nowhere in the western front.

With 10 million dead and millions of mutilated, traumatized veterans, widows and orphans, the First World War is one of the defining tragedies of the twentieth century. Yet, the real tragedy of the First World War is perhaps that belligerent populations consented to it and consented to it for so long. The belligerent populations were not only victims of the war; they were also agents of their own victimization. In consenting to fight, to spend money or energy to support the war effort, they allowed the conflict to last as long as it did. The point here is not to ascribe blame on or to denounce our forebears as fools or criminals; it is critical we understand why and how they came to see this war, by and large and across the frontline, as a necessary, defensive struggle that they soon invested with existential significance. That is typically the type of question that we would rather avoid, for it is much easier to commemorate the victims of war than to address the fact they were also, in a sense, perpetrators of violence in this industrial conflict.

  • School age children generally learn about what was the First World War? Do they really understand why it was a world war, or why it started?

Most of us – including academic historians – tend to underestimate how difficult it is to educate young children about our history. Our frames of references are largely alien to those of WWI combatants. Teachers must also contend with the dominant memory of the conflict that has often determined not only what the children know about the war but also the curriculum, how they learn in school, and what they may learn through literature, TV, or cinema. The Great War was a world war because it involved empires and their colonies. To contemporaries however, waging a world war also meant fighting to defend or impose a particular worldview: the British and the French called this “civilization”, the German “Kultur”; Churches – catholics, protestants as well as jews across the belligerent world – all thought God was on their side… This is perhaps something that should be emphasized in teaching; the cultural and indeed ideological aspects of this war.

  • The European Commission gave up on a common commemoration of the centenary – because each country has a different interpretation of what happened. Was that the right thing to do, just let it be, or was it a lost opportunity to try to bring together the different Histories of the European nations, which are mostly unknown to each other?

One can see why European institutions would be reluctant to address the history and memory of the First World War, but I hope that the Commission and the European Parliament in particular, have not given up on its centenary. It is true that national memories still diverge, but the point of a European commemoration of the war is not to produce a rather improbable, consensual, European narrative. Assuming you could come up with such a narrative, it would certainly be counterproductive and would misrepresent the role that European institutions could play at this important moment. The European Union is not a nation-state and should not attempt to replicate the myth-making of nationalist movements. It could however play a critical and positive role by encouraging european commemorative and educative programmes that would bring Europeans together to discuss the experience and legacies of the First World War. Today’s Europe – its maps, political cultures, many of its institutions – was largely forged in the furnace of the wars, civil wars, and revolutions that the continent went through between 1912 and 1923, from the Balkan War to the end of the Greco-Turkish war, through the First World War, the Russian Revolution and the Armenian Genocide.

We may still disagree about the interpretations of some aspects of this critical period but no one would deny that this is our common heritage and that, for better or worse, contemporary Europe is the product of the era of the First World War. European institutions provide us with the ideal framework for this continental conversation and commemoration to take place. One hundred years on, historians are now increasingly thinking and writing about the First World War in transnational, European and global terms. The International Society for First World War Studies is perhaps the best example of the transformation of the historiography. With 300 members in almost 30 countries around the world, it demonstrates that the historical expertise is here and available to help us all make sense of this terrible period of our history.

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