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Faraway, So Close: Why WWI Still Haunts Europe a Century Later

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Part 5: Celebrating Life

The spread of violence was reflected in weapons technology. Engineers developed flamethrowers, tanks and fighter planes. Even poison was used, first by the Germans and later by the Allies.

In this time of total war, victories and defeats were no longer decided by the genius of generals, but by economic and military mobilization strength. In 1917, Russia was no longer able to keep up -- ironically, it was precisely the power that the German Kaiser, his chancellor and the generals had once feared the most. The Russian economy collapsed, the czar abdicated and the prospect of land reform led to mass desertions by soldiers, most of them farmers.

Lenin, the new man in charge, wanted peace at any cost, and in December talks with Berlin's envoy began in Brest-Litovsk. Lenin eventually gave up a quarter of his European territory, including the Baltic states, Poland and Finland, which all yearned for independence.

After the peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Central Powers could finally wage the single-front war Schlieffen had envisioned. But by then, the United States had already entered the war. It marked the "decisive strategic turning point," as historian Gerhard P. Gross puts it.

The largest industrialized nation on earth had already been energetically supporting England with food, raw materials and ammunition since 1914. In the belief that the British Empire would come to the negotiating table if its supplies were cut off, in early 1917 the Kaiser and his advisers launched unlimited U-boot attacks on freighters, including US ships.

It was probably Kaiser Wilhelm II's biggest mistake. The total U-boot war did not achieve the desired success, and it also brought the United States into the war, against the Central Powers.

Meeting in a Rail Car

By July 1918, a million well-rested GIs had landed on the old continent. The Allied forces were soon pushing back German divisions along a broad front. The war was lost even before it had reached German territory.

On the evening of Nov. 7, 1918, a German column of three vehicles crossed the front near Chimay, Belgium. Engineer units had cleared away all land mines along the route. A large white flag was displayed on the first car and a trumpeter blew short signals, so that no one would inadvertently open fire. The German delegation had come to sign a ceasefire agreement.

French military vehicles took the group, led by Matthias Erzberger, a Catholic member of the Reichstag, to a train that stopped the next morning near Compiègne in northern France.

The mood was icy when French Marshall Ferdinand Foch, who had recently been named the supreme commander of Allied forces, and three British officers received the Germans in one of their rail cars.

Erzberger signed the ceasefire on the morning of Nov. 11. "A nation of 70 million can suffer, but it cannot die," he announced dramatically. "Très bien," Foch replied. The parties chose not to shake hands.

The guns fell silent at 11 a.m.

A Dented Helmet

The survivors of World War I included Franz Warremann, a journeyman bricklayer from the northeastern German city of Rostock, whose grandson, Joachim Gauck, is Germany's president today. Warremann brought home a helmet from the front that had been dented when it was grazed by a bullet just above his left temple. He had apparently been extremely lucky.

The dented helmet has since been lost, says Gauck in his office at Bellevue Palace in Berlin, but the sight of it created such a strong impression on him that he could "still draw it" today.

When his grandfather got together with other veterans in the evening and they talked about the war, young Joachim was always surprised at how exuberant they seemed. How could they be so happy after those harrowing experiences?

Only much later did he understand that the men treasured spending time with fellow soldiers who had also looked death in the eye in the trenches. Only they could understand what it meant.

And that was why they were celebrating life.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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1. The people of Europe are being deliberately misled!
Inglenda2 01/08/2014
The problems in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, indicate clearly, that the leaders in this world have learnt nothing from the two world wars. Weapons are still considered more important than co-operation between nations. It is a scandal, as British Prime Minister David Cameron does, to make such conflicts, in which so many innocent people died, a reason for pride and glory. This is only possible, because the facts and truths of such wars have been enormously manipulated, by politicians and historians alike, who refuse to show both sides of the story. We, who lived through WW2, see theses matter quite differently. Locally too, the Kaiser may have gone, the class system has not, or how else could one explain, that a German president, in retirement, receives a higher net income, than the average German worker earns before tax, for doing a full time job?
2. World War I Article
skywriter134 01/08/2014
Excellent job describing the horrifying results of political maneuverings that led to two bloody wars and suffering of millions.
3. Who started the war?
David Kirk 01/08/2014
This is a very instructive article but for one thing: it assumes that all the decisions in Austria-Hungary were being made by the Kaiser Franz Joseph. In fact he was deeply sceptical of the idea of war and remained so after the war had started: he only finally signed the declaration of war against Serbia when he was lied to by his Foreign Minister (Berchtold) about Serbian troop movements. Whilst some sort of war was probably inevitable with the prevailing attitude of the great powers at the time, there was no inevitability that Austria-Hungary would have started it or even taken part. The Empire had frequently not taken part in the European wars of the late nineteenth century and had had in Berchtold's predecessor, Aehrenthal, a very powerful foreign minister would would not conceivably have let the country into a war with Russia - it was contrary to everyhting that he had been trying to do. He was also the first Austro-Hungarian foreign minister for a generation to have followed a policy that was to some extent independent of Germany. In all this he was much trusted by Franz Joseph. Sadly he died in 1912.
4. optional
peskyvera 01/08/2014
And have we learned anything in these 100 years? Absolutely nothing! We continue to kill each other, we continue to hate, we continue to persecute, we continue to discriminate, we continue to pit one culture against another one.
5. Disaster Centennial
bonsai1953 01/08/2014
For those who want to get a "gut" feel for the havoc WW1 caused I suggest read the published biographies of those who suffered lose. I suggest "Mr. Britling sees it Through" by HG Wells - specifically where Mr. B. walks thru his house remembered his lost son. "The Gardener" by Rudyard Kipling - brings home the mind numbing enormity of the casulty list. Several personal memoirs of combantants - "War Birds" - describing the a pilots stress. There are several others I would suspect hundreds most out of print but worth looking in used bookstores
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