Commemorating the centenary of the end of World War I

The centenary of the end of the First World War is an appeal both to look back and to look forward. Looking back, to commemorate the suffering and the horrors of the war itself and to reflect on its aftermath and its effects on the 100 years since the armistice of 11 November 1918. Looking forward, to learn lessons for peace and reconciliation today, including the new challenges of exclusive nationalism and populism.

German troops advance across open ground at Villers-Bretonneux during Germany’s last major effort to secure victory on the Western Front. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
  1. Looking back

In looking back, we must first of all commemorate the victims. The millions who died, the millions who had to continue their lives maimed both physically and mentally, the millions who stayed behind mourning their beloved, the millions of refugees. In commemorating the First World War, the emphasis in Western European countries is on the horrors and the senseless killing on the battlefields in Flanders and France. But the war hit many parts of Europe and elsewhere. And soldiers came from all continents, including the colonies.

Estimates of casualties vary, but the following figures show the order of magnitude. France counted some 1.4 million soldiers killed, Germany 2 million, Russia 1.8 million, Austria-Hungary 1.1 million, the British Empire close to 1 million, Turkey 800.000. The total number of deaths of what in some countries is still called the ‘Great War’ is estimated between 17 and 20 million, of which 9 million were soldiers (twice this number were wounded). In percentage of the population Serbia suffered most: estimates are between 16% and 27 %. (As comparison: both France and Germany lost 4.2%, the UK some 2%.) For the first time in the history of warfare chemical weapons (poison gases) were used on a massive scale. It would take some 80 years until these weapons of mass destruction were prohibited (the Chemical Weapons Convention, 1997).

It is important to realize that the ‘Great War’ in Flanders and France differed from the wars in Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa. There were uprisings by minorities and revolutions, aims included the (re)gaining of independence, securing areas of influence and conquering colonies. Also the dates of the end of the war differ. After the revolution in 1917, Soviet Russia concluded an armistice followed by a peace treaty with the Central Powers. In the weeks before 11 November 1918, the Allied Powers concluded separate armistices with Bulgaria, Austria-Hungary and Turkey. However, 11 November is generally considered the end of the war.

Also the aftermath differed substantially. Three multi-ethnic and multinational empires had ceased to exist: the Ottoman Empire, the Habsburg Empire and the Russian Empire. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s insistence on self-determination resulted in a radically new map of Europe. Some 2.000 kilometers of borders were added. New countries were established, though often with large new minorities. The Central Powers were punished with losses of territory and huge financial burdens. Germany lost its colonies in Africa. The Middle East is a story by itself. Its future was not shaped by self-determination but by British and French interests.

In some countries ‘Armistice Day’ is a public holiday with emphasis on the guns falling silent. But it is impossible to do justice to the many interpretations and sentiments about the peace treaties that were concluded (or imposed) following the war. Poland celebrates that after 150 years it returned on the map as an independent state. But Hungary still mourns the loss of two thirds of its territory. Healing memories remains a task today.

After the war, resentment in Germany about the Treaty of Versailles played a key role in the rise of Hitler. Also, Mussolini’s movement was a product of the war. (In 1915, Italy joined the Allied Powers, but it suffered dramatic losses on the battlefield and felt humiliated by receiving far less territorial compensation in the Treaty of Versailles than had been promised.) In several other countries, young democracies soon turned autocratic if not dictatorial, especially when the economic crisis of the 1930s hit Europe. Trust in parliamentary representation gave way to the longing for a ‘strong man.’

Meanwhile, the effort of establishing an international peace order, the League of Nations, failed. National interests prevailed. After the Second World War the lesson was learned, as the United Nations represented at least some form of international law, although the victors had veto power in the Security Council.

Historians still differ about the causes of the First World War, what it was about, and who was to blame. However, there is a consensus that the seeds were sown of the violent century that followed, with the Second World War with some 50 million dead as its most dramatic phase, culminating in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And it was followed by the Cold War as well as many new ‘hot’ wars, until today.


  1. Looking forward

What can looking back teach us about the future? One question is whether the rise of extremism, nationalism and resentment (including anti-Semitism) after the First World War can be compared with today’s emergence of populist and nationalist sentiments in many parts of the world. There is no easy answer to this question. Historical contexts differ and many factors play a role: the aftermath of the Cold War and Soviet imperialism, the continuing threat of nuclear weapons and the new threat of cyber warfare, globalization, a growing gap between the privileged and those who are left behind, the power of oligarchs and giant companies, migration including a worldwide refugee problem comparable to the experiences from the two world wars, and the growing difficulty of distinguishing truth from lies and misconceptions in what social media convey.

In these past 100 years, nationalism has never stopped being a controversial issue. It has always had different faces, as is the case today. Still, it is a rather new phenomenon. In the 19th century it often implied a romanticized rewriting of history, but it served nation building after the Napoleonic wars. We have far more difficulty in understanding the nationalistic and patriotic enthusiasm with which millions of young men marched off to war in 1914.

During and after the war new forms of nationalism emerged. Some were about freedom: about establishing or restoring independent states, or about the liberation of suppressed minorities (although this also caused others to become minorities in their own homelands). These expressions of nationalism were quite different from the toxic mix elsewhere of populist appeals, feelings of superiority, resentment about the losses of the war, and the misery of the 1930s. The core of this extremist nationalism was defining one’s collective identity as superior, excluding others, rejecting the rule of law and pursuing this with violent means.

The most important lesson from the aftermath of the First World War was a radically new approach to treating the most culpable countries – except in those parts of Europe occupied by the Soviet Union. This time there was no dispute about who was to blame. But instead of the revenge imposed after 1918, there was the conviction that Germany, Italy and Japan needed to become part of a new international order. And they needed to be become democracies.

In Europe reconciliation between France and Germany was the key. We are still indebted to visionary politicians for the most important peace project of the last century: the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, which was the beginning of today’s European Union. It radically differed from other international structures because it was really supranational. The 6 member states transferred part of their sovereignty to a higher authority. The law of force was to be replaced by the force of law. In today’s European Union, still with 28 member states (pending Brexit), the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg may be called its most important institution, as it represents that the EU is governed by the rule of law.

Does this contradict national identity? In the process of European integration the balance between national sovereignty and shared sovereignty has always been difficult. Obviously, the EU member states own histories and interests lead to diverging views. This is in particular the case in Central and Eastern European countries which could only join after the end of the Cold War and had to combine their newly won national sovereignty with their desire to be part of a supranational body, the EU. In this context, nationalism is not a negative concept. But this differs substantially from the new nationalism of identity politics that defines one’s own identity at the expense of others. And this is becoming a worldwide problem.

Today the EU, as the most important European post-war structure embodying the rule of law, is endangered by strongly diverging approaches to new challenges such as migration and by increasingly conflicting views of the balance between national sovereignty and the rule of law in the EU. Also global structures, like the United Nations, are losing support. The U.S. is withdrawing from international agreements on climate change and nuclear weapons. And all over the world we see a growing and alarming disregard for democratic values and the rule of law by extremist populists.

Therefore, the centenary of the armistice of 11 November 1918 is also an appeal to look forward. We need new approaches to peace and reconciliation in the face of today’s manifestations of exclusive nationalism and populism. These form a new and grim threat to dealing in a democratic way with the problems of our world: oppression, discrimination, violence and the many threats to the survival of our planet, including weapons of mass destruction and cyber warfare.

Here is where civil society comes in. It hardly existed 100 years ago, with the notable exception of the struggle for voting rights, especially the women suffrage movements. Today, civil society claims a leading role in creating a new sense of international responsibility. Initiatives such as banning cluster munitions and landmines and the recent Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons show a new ability of mobilizing not only public opinion but also elected politicians. Civil society can revitalize democracy.

Laurens Hogebrink is a member of Pugwash Netherlands.

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