World marks 100 years since guns fell silent

Pages of the Sea: Danny Boyle’s commemoration of WWI victims at Swansea Beach in Wales. © Getty

Is it time to stop remembering the war? Yesterday, bells rang out around the world to commemorate the centenary of the end of the First World War. Some say it is now time to move on.

Yesterday in Paris, 70 world leaders gathered at the Arc de Triomphe to mark 100 years since the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, when the First World War finally came to an end.

At beaches around the UK, the faces of casualties from that war were painted in the sand, only to be washed away by the tide.

Around the world, bells rang out at 12:30pm to celebrate the end of war and the beginning of peace — just as they did 100 years ago.

They also signalled the end of four years of First World War centenary events. Britain alone invested £50 million in commemorating the war. Back in 2012, former Prime Minister David Cameron said the money would be used “to honour those who served, to remember those who died, and to ensure that the lessons learnt live with us forever.”

But have those “lessons” been learnt? Not according to French President Emmanuel Macron, who delivered a pointed speech yesterday warning of “old demons coming back […] to wreak chaos and death.” He said the millions of soldiers who died in the First World War were fighting against the “selfishness of nations only looking after their own interests. Because patriotism is exactly the opposite of nationalism.”

Listening to this speech was US President Donald Trump, who called himself a “nationalist” at a rally last month, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Some have even argued that the rituals of remembrance themselves stop us from learning from history. In 2016, writer David Rieff argued that too often collective memory “has led to war rather than peace.”

In The Spectator this weekend, journalist Simon Jenkins agreed: “Most of Europe’s wars have resulted from too much memory, not too little.” For example, Adolf Hitler rose to power partly due to the grievances Germany felt about its treatment after 1918. Nationalism is now rising in Europe again. “Remembering is not learning,” Jenkins concludes.

Is it time to stop?

Lest we remember

Of course not, say some. Remembrance of the two world wars still often goes hand-in-hand with the slogan “Never Again” — words that Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel called “a prayer, a promise, a vow.” Europe has mostly been at peace for 70 years, partly thanks to this message. By keeping the memories of fallen soldiers alive, we stop them dying in vain. That is our duty.

We must move on, argue others. No one who fought in the First World War is alive to remember it — we only have memories of memories, and that is no way to understand history. It makes the war personal, so our view of it is biased. For example, Britain rarely reflects on its own role in the empires and arms races that led to war. To truly learn, we must begin to forget.

You Decide

  1. Has the world forgotten the lessons of the First and Second World Wars?
  2. Should the UK stop commemorating Armistice Day?

Activities

  1. Write down definitions of the following six words, paying special attention to the differences between each pair: patriotism and nationalism; history and memory; war and peace.
  2. Class debate: This house believes that Britain was wrong to declare war on Germany in 1914.

Some People Say...

“[Europeans are] obsessed by a new cult, that of memory.”

Tzvetan Todorov

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The agreement to end the war was signed at 5am in a railway carriage near Compiègne, France in 1918 — although the fighting continued until 11am. November 11 has been commemorated around the world ever since. Some countries call it Remembrance Day or Armistice Day. In Poland it is known as Independence Day. Americans call it Veterans Day, where it is a public holiday to honour military veterans.
What do we not know?
How it will continue to be remembered by future generations, especially as there are very few people alive who still remember the war. We also do not know whether the peace that Europe has enjoyed for more than 70 years will continue into the 21st century.

Word Watch

Arc de Triomphe
The famous monument in the centre of Paris was finished in 1836. Beneath it lies the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, an unidentified First World War casualty who was buried on Armistice Day in 1920. There is a similar tomb in Westminster Abbey.
Painted in the sand
This project, called Pages of the Sea, was the brainchild of the British film and theatre director, Danny Boyle.
£50 million
The programme of artworks in Britain is called 14-18 NOW. It includes They Shall Not Grow Old, a film by Peter Jackson which colourises old First World War footage.
Nationalism
Unlike patriotism (supporting your own country), nationalism is the belief that your country is superior to others.
Collective memory
A shared memory which is passed down through generations using stories. Collective memory often affects how we see ourselves.
Grievances
The Treaty of Versailles forced Germany to accept all responsibility for the First World War and pay vast amounts in reparations.
Rising
Many nationalist politicians have either been elected to power or become the main opposition in recent years in Europe.

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