The ceremonies commemorating the end of the First World War, 91 years ago today, took on a special significance this time. They are remarkably uniform throughout Europe. Each of the nations involved in that murderous conflict continues to honor those who gave their lives with a special reverence.
There’s a reason for the circumspection. The “war to end wars,” as President Wilson described it, did nothing of the sort. More than 8 million servicemen and women died in World War I, 126,000 of them were American; another 21 million were wounded or missing. The war shattered the economies of every country in Europe, both winners and losers. It engendered another 80 years of conflict.
Totalitarian regimes – fascism, Nazism, Bolshevism – dominated large parts of Europe. Those in power subjugated and murdered millions – mostly their own citizens – even before World War II broke out to make the slaughter more general.
But the generation that fought and died in “the Great War,” as it’s called in France, are now gone. The last French “poilus” died in 2008. Britain buried its last three survivors earlier this year. Their sacrifice nonetheless lives on undiminished. However, the rancor, the hatreds and the thirst for vengeance that spawned the Great War and its aftermath have largely faded from the collective memory.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in the ceremonies held in France, which emphasized cooperation with Germany. The two countries fought three wars in 60 years. World War I claimed the lives of 1.397 million French soldiers; another 4.266 million were wounded – 76.3 percent of those engaged. German casualties were even higher, as they fought the war on two fronts. The hatred between the two nations was strong and deep.
But for the second time in two days French President Nicolas Sarkozy stood beside Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel to commemorate an historical event, and to express the deep commitment each nation now has to cooperate with the other.
The first occasion was in Berlin for the ceremonies marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dismantling of Eastern Europe’s Stalinist system.
The second was at the foot of the Arc de Triomphe this morning when the two leaders symbolically rekindled the flame over the tomb of France’s Unknown Soldier. The leaders pledged that “never again” would their countries go to war.
That message was repeated throughout France. In Andresy, the town northwest of Paris, where I live, some 200 people were on hand for the memorial ceremony. Like all French towns, Andresy has its Monument aux Morts (Memorial for the Dead) from the Grand Guerre. It was decorated with yellow flowers, and one could clearly read the names of the 74 soldiers from the town who died in the war. “In 1914 Andresy probably had between 2000 and 2500 people,” Hughes Ribault, the Mayor said.
Two French veterans stood before the Monument and conducted the ceremonies. They called on a boy of 14 from the local College [middle school] to raise the flag to half-mast to begin. That was somewhat symbolic. The boy was my son Daniel. He is both French and American. Two girls from the College then read each of the names on the Monument, and the Mayor gave a speech citing the (now) historic ties between Andresy and its sister city in Haren, Germany.
Next June Daniel will go with others from his school to the Normandy beaches. He will visit the American cemetery at Coleville to honor the memory of those who died on June 6, 1944 and afterwards to free France from the Nazi occupiers. He will also go to the nearby German cemetery in an ecumenical remembrance of all of those who lost their lives in World War II, and as a symbol that there is now peace between three great nations.
The U.S. no longer specifically celebrates “Armistice Day” on November 11. It has become part of “Veteran’s Day” – a day set aside to honor the men and women who fought America’s wars over the last 200 plus years. In Europe, however, November 11 remains a special day, a day of reverence for the dead and a reminder to the living of what they owe to those who fought and died, and to the millions more who were wounded or displaced by the First World War.
This year, more than ever before, one had the feeling that the great sacrifice those men and women made so long ago was not totally in vain, as it has often appeared to be. At great cost, Europe has at last buried most of its hatreds. Things are even quiet in the Balkans. War is no longer seen as a proper means to political ends.
It is a bitter lesson, but one that the rest of the world would do well to consider. Since November 11, 1918 French, Germans, all Europeans, have been saying “jamais plus” (never again). Maybe the rest of the world can reach that point without going through the horrors of war.
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