Disaster Centennial: The Disturbing Relevance of World War I

By Klaus Wiegrefe

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It has now been 100 years since the outbreak of World War I, but the European catastrophe remains relevant today. As the Continent looks back this year, old wounds could once again be rubbed raw.

Joachim Gauck, the 11th president of the Federal Republic of Germany, executes his duties in a palace built for the Hohenzollern dynasty. But almost all memories of Prussian glory have been eliminated from Bellevue Palace in Berlin, where there is no pomp and there are no uniforms and few flags. The second door on the left in the entrance hall leads into a parlor where Gauck receives visitors.

In the so-called official room, there are busts of poet Heinrich von Kleist and Social Democrat Friedrich Ebert, the first German president after Kaiser Wilhelm II fled the country into exile, on a shelf behind the desk. There are two paintings on the wall: an Italian landscape by a German painter, and a view of Dresden by Canaletto, the Italian painter.

Gauck likes the symbolism. Nations and their people often view both the world and the past from different perspectives. The president says that he doesn't find this disconcerting, because he is aware of the reasons. In 2014, the year of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, the eyes of the world will be focused on Germany's head of state. It will be the biggest historical event to date in the 21st century.

And Gauck represents the losers.

More than 60 million soldiers from five continents participated in that orgy of violence. Almost one in six men died, and millions returned home with injuries or missing body parts -- noses, jaws, arms. Countries like France, Belgium and the United Kingdom are planning international memorial events, wreath-laying ceremonies, concerts and exhibits, as are faraway nations like New Zealand and Australia, which formed their identities during the war.

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Poles, citizens of the Baltic countries, Czechs and Slovaks will also commemorate the years between 1914 and 1918, because they emerged as sovereign nations from the murderous conflict between the Entente and the Central Powers.

Unthinkable in Germany

In the coming months, World War I will become a mega issue in the public culture of commemoration. The international book market will present about 150 titles in Germany alone, and twice as many in France -- probably a world record for a historic subject. The story of a generation that has long passed on will be retold. New questions will be asked and new debates will unfold. British Prime Minister David Cameron is even making funds available to enable all children attending Britain's government-run schools to visit the battlefields of the Western Front.

A response of this nature would be unthinkable in pacifist Germany.

But Western Europeans paid a higher death toll in World War I than in any other war in their history, which is why they call it "The Great War" or "La Grande Guerre." Twice as many Britons, three times as many Belgians and four times as many Frenchmen died on the Maas and the Somme than in all of World War II. That's one of the reasons, says Gauck in his office in the Hohenzollern palace, why he could imagine "a German commemoration of World War I as merely a sign of respect for the suffering of those we were fighting at the time."

The "Great War" was not only particularly bloody, but it also ushered in a new era of warfare, involving tanks, aircraft and even chemical weapons. Its outcome would shape the course of history for years to come, even for an entire century in some regions.

In the coming weeks, SPIEGEL will describe the consequences of World War I that continue to affect us today: the emergence of the United States as the world's policeman, France's unique view of Germany, the ethnic hostilities in the Balkans and the arbitrary drawing of borders in the Middle East, consequences that continue to burden and impede the peaceful coexistence of nations to this day.

Several summit meetings are scheduled for the 2014 political calendar, some with and some without Gauck. Queen Elizabeth II will receive the leaders of Commonwealth countries in Glasgow Cathedral. Australia, New Zealand, Poland and Slovenia are also planning meetings of the presidents or prime ministers of all or selected countries involved in World War I.

'A Different Nation Today'

August 3 is at the top of Gauck's list. On that day, he and French President François Hollande will commemorate the war dead at Hartmannswillerkopf, a peak in the Alsace region that was bitterly contested by the Germans and the French in the war. The German president is also among the more than 50 heads of state of all countries involved in World War I who will attend a ceremony at the fortress of Liège hosted by Belgium's King Philippe. Gauck, a former citizen of East Germany, sees himself as "the German who represents a different nation today, and who remembers the various horrors that are associated with the German state."

The 73-year-old president hopes that the series of commemorative events will remind Europeans how far European integration has come since 1945. Gauck notes that the "absolute focus on national interests" à la 1914/1918 did not led to happy times for any of the wartime enemies.

But he knows that the memory of the horrors of a war doesn't just reconcile former enemies but can also tear open wounds that had become scarred over. In this respect, the centenary of World War I comes at an unfavorable time. Many European countries are seeing a surge of nationalist movements and of anti-German sentiment prior to elections to the European Parliament in May 2014.

In a recent poll, 88 percent of Spanish, 82 percent of Italian and 56 percent of French respondents said that Germany has too much influence in the European Union. Some even likened today's Germany to the realm of the blustering Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Last August, a British journalist emerged from a conversation with the press attaché at the German Embassy in London with the impression that Berlin, in the interest of promoting reconciliation, wanted to take part in commemorative ceremony in neighboring countries. This led to an outcry in the British press, which claimed that the Germans were trying to prevent the British from celebrating their victory in World War I.

Source of Apprehension

Such episodes are a source of apprehension for Gauck. "One can only hope that the voice of the enlightened is stronger today than it was in the period between the two wars."

And if it isn't? "Europe is too peaceful for me to consider the possibility of wartime scenarios once again. Nevertheless, we saw in the Balkans that archaic mechanisms of hate can take hold once again in the middle of a peaceful decade," Gauck warns.

Such "yes, but" scenarios on World War I are often mentioned. In the era of NATO and integrated armed forces, hardly anyone can imagine a war between Europeans. Still, it is possible to sow discord in other ways in the 21st century. Today's equivalent of the mobilization of armed forces in the past could be the threat to send a country like Greece into bankruptcy unless its citizens comply with the demands of European finance ministers. Historians of different stripes note with concern that the course of events in 1914 are not that different from what is happening in Europe today.

Even a century ago, the world was globalized after a fashion. Intercontinental trade was booming, and export quotas were higher than they would be until the era of former Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Germans wore jackets made of Indian cotton and drank coffee from Central America. They worked as barbers in London, bakers in St. Petersburg and maids in Paris, while Poles slaved away in Germany's industrial Ruhr region.

Those who could afford it, traveled around Europe, without requiring a passport. Professors corresponded with their counterparts in Oxford or at the Sorbonne, in English and French. The ruling aristocratic families were related to one another. In fact, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Britain's King George V and Czar Nikolai II were cousins. They called each other Willy, Nicky and George and saw each other at family events, including the wedding of the Kaiser's daughter in Berlin in 1913.

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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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