World War I Centenary The Symbolic Power of French Victory

The passionate commemoration of World War I is a vital element of France's contemporary national cohesion. But before a momentous turning point in August 1914, the country looked to be on the brink of defeat.


By Romain Leick

Whenever the topic came up over the course of his biblically long life, Lazare Ponticelli always doggedly rejected the idea of being buried in a state funeral. But shortly before his death, under pressure from both the media and political leaders, he gave his consent for a solemn ceremony, "without much fuss and without a big parade, in the name of all those who died, men and women."

Ponticelli was the last recognized veteran of in France, the last living survivor of the more than 8 million people who were called to arms by the French Republic. Of that number, some 1.4 million did not survive the massive slaughter. When Ponticelli passed away on March 12, 2008, in Le Kremlin-Bicêtre near Paris, at the age of 110, his death moved the entire nation.

He was known as "le dernier poilu" (the last of the hairy ones) or "le der des der" (the last of the last), a popular term for the ordinary soldiers fighting at the front in the "Great War," who held the line in the mud and filth of the trenches, unwashed and unshaven (hence the term of endearment "poilu," or hairy), suffering the greatest of deprivations and ultimately becoming an icon in the mythological imagery of France's collective memory.

The funeral mass was broadcast on live television from the Les Invalides complex in Paris, and it was attended by some of the country's highest ranking leaders: then-President Nicolas Sarkozy and his predecessor Jacques Chirac, the presidents of the National Assembly and the senate, the prime minister and key members of the cabinet. Eleven French Foreign Legion soldiers carried the coffin.

From Poor Immigrant to National Treasure

When Ponticelli, born in Italy in 1897, came to France at the age of nine, he was illiterate and didn't speak a word of French. He joined the Foreign Legion at the beginning of the war, lying about his age to be accepted. "I wanted to defend France, because it had given me food," he said. He was only awarded French citizenship in 1939.

And now Ponticelli's adopted country was bidding farewell to him with military honors and a mass in Saint-Louis Cathedral. Writer and author Max Gallo, a master of French patriotic literature, delivered the eulogy to the deceased, a "man of peace, modest and heroic, Italian by birth and French by choice." Guillaume Kaleff, a French schoolboy, recited a poem that his ninth-grade class had written in memory of the poilus and their fight for freedom. Flags flew at half-mast on public buildings, and schools and government offices observed a minute of silence.

"When we began an assault," Ponticelli used to say, "we promised each other: You must think of me if I die." France has remained true to this promise, and there is no doubt that the country will solemnly reinforce it in the 100th commemorative year of the Great War.

In contrast to Germany, France does not treat the war as a remote and de-emotionalized part of history, but as the vivid subject of what historian Nicolas Offenstadt called a "social and cultural practice," or "Activism 14/18." The nation, internally divided, plagued by self-doubts, and at greater risk than ever of falling behind in the competitive struggle of a globalized economy, is turning inward to find refuge and protection.

Collective Memory as Comfort

The memory of the last war of the modern age from which France emerged victorious -- and the invocation of those four years in which a united, heroic and self-sacrificing people (at least in the prevailing self-image) passed a test of global history -- provides contemporary France with an excellent source of meaning. It gives the French confidence and support, despite the current economic and political upheavals. And it allows for an ecumenical interpretation of the past, in which those on the left and the right, pacifists and patriots, European idealists and nationalists can find common ground.

The symbolically exalted poilu serves politicians as a useful point of crystallization and orientation in the reconstruction of an unhappy, suffering national identity that threatens to come apart in the wind gusts of modernity.

Both conservative former President Sarkozy and his Socialist successor, François Hollande, saw the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I as a welcome opportunity to transfer the national unity, courage and willingness to make sacrifices of the French in 1914 to the present. The virtues of that moment can be tapped again today: solidarity, closing ranks and standing together as one are the recurring buzzwords in a patriotic discourse that appeals to those alive today by honoring past generations.

A memory intended to bolster dwindling self-confidence produces a completely different commemorative culture than in Germany, where the culture of remembrance is dominated by what French philosopher Pascal Bruckner calls a "guilt complex." The last presumed German participant in World War I, Erich Kästner, a retired court official, died in Cologne at the age of 107, only three months before Ponticelli's death. It was telling that the German public learned almost nothing about the quiet death of this veteran, who had the same name as a famous German writer. There was no official German reaction to Kästner's death. In fact, the British, Canadians, Americans and French paid more attention to it than did his own countrymen.

Franco-German 'Asymmetry'

For historian Arndt Weinrich, a research fellow at the German Historical Institute in Paris, the example of the two veterans underscores the "stable asymmetry in perception of the years 1914 to 1918" between the French and the Germans. World War II and the Holocaust are the negative myth of origin of the Federal Republic, one that has largely eliminated World War I from the collective consciousness. "World War I plays no role whatsoever when it comes to the symbolism and self-image of the Federal Republic within Germany's political culture," says Weinrich.

The French find this difficult to understand, just as German observers have trouble relating to the idea that, especially in the last 10 to 20 years, 14/18 and the cult surrounding the last poilus have developed into a positive original myth for modern France.

"La Grande Guerre," Weinrich notes, "has thus achieved, in the national collection of symbols of the Fifth Republic, an importance readily comparable with the French Revolution of 1789." Accordingly, the French associate the anniversary year with a historic mission that completely lacks an equivalent moral foundation in Berlin. Europe simply lacks a common memory of the war.

Declarations of commitment to European integration and to the Franco-German friendship have long since acquired the tone of ritual, formulaic prayers on both sides of the Rhine, as if officials there aimed to reestablish the Carolingian Empire. No crisis seems capable of breaking the couple apart, and yet the relationship is becoming more and more imbalanced. France is keeping a watchful eye on Germany, fluctuating between expectation and mistrust. Germany, for its part, runs the risk that its view of neighboring France will freeze into benevolent indifference, together with a dose of condescension.

Betrayal of the Fallen?

The gradual estrangement of Paris and Berlin, accompanied as it may be by constant empty talk of reconciliation, could well be the beginning of the end of the European adventure -- and a betrayal of the legacy of those who gave their lives in World War I. Soon after 1918, French society imposed on itself the dual obligation that Germany was only willing to accept after 1945: never to forget and never to allow such a catastrophe to happen again. The pacification and unification of Europe was based on this common experience, even though it occurred 30 years later in Germany. For France, Nov. 11, the day of the armistice of 1918, was the sad counterpart to Bastille Day on July 14, as Patrick Cabanel, a professor of history in Toulouse, put it. The two dates mark the "death and resurrection of the nation" -- and of Europe.

The many milestones of Franco-German reconciliation -- Robert Schuman's 1951 plan to create the European Coal and Steel Community, the 1957 Treaty of Rome, the 1963 Elysée Treaty between then-President Charles de Gaulle and then-Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, the handshake between later heads of state, François Mitterand and Helmut Kohl in a graveyard near Verdun in 1984, and Sarkozy's invitation to Chancellor Angela Merkel to visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris on Nov. 11, 2009 -- they all lead back to 1914/18.

From the French perspective, that war should have been the last, in keeping with the utopia of poet Charles Péguy, who had written to a friend, shortly before he was killed at the front in September 1914: "I am going to battle for general disarmament, and for the last of the wars."


Discuss this issue with other readers!
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The Bedfordshire Redneck 01/17/2014
1. French Victory ?
When did this happen then ? It's not in any of our history books.
gmorillo 01/17/2014
2. World War I
Word War I was the first part of the same conflict. This first part was not won by anyone. It was a stalemate. It was rather unfair that Germany was treated the way it was. This was the origin of World War part two. This time nobody won either. Perhaps the soviets who stole a large portion of Europe. France cannot claim victory in either part of this conflict. I did not won the first and the second was won thanks to the US. But it is ok to feel good about their "victories".
dtechba 01/17/2014
3. Why did the allies lose more
A variety of reasons: 1. The Germans buit much better trenchlines more resistent to shelling. 2. The allies attacked more and attacking meant more casualties. 3. The Germans gave up when the situation reversed to where they lost the upper hand and would have suffered a lot of casualties. 4. The German generals were better than the likes of Hague who was clueless.
almostvoid 01/18/2014
4. world war 1
what has the holocaust got to do with this part of history? absolutely nothing. keep it in perspective please. revisionism by religous elites is bad enough as it is.
geogkel 01/18/2014
5. Wwi
Thank you for a sober treaty on that old and decisive war. In these days of polarization, please keep it that way. Please. I never understood the reasons for that war. Certainly not just "nationalism". Try and read "Wall Street and the Rise of Hitler" from 1976. (A.S.Sutton,Clairview 2012)
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