Friday, 18 Jan 2019

As the world marks the centenary of the end of the First World War, nationalism is back on its feet

French soldiers pass in front of graves at Douaumont Ossuaire cemetery near Verdun, France, on November 6, 2018. (Ludovic Marin / AFP / Getty Images)

PARIS – Cemeteries extend for miles, as far as the eye can see.

For a century now, parts of northern France and Belgium have been a strange mausoleum, a landscape ravaged by trench warfare and the horrors of the First World War. This conflict was then the most lethal event in modern history.

More than 60 world leaders will gather in Paris this weekend to mark the centenary of the 1918 Armistice. As host, French President Emmanuel Macron embraces a post-national and pan-European understanding of the past – and a vision of the future.

But the centenary of the First World War comes at a time when the European project and the transatlantic alliance are under severe strain – and nationalism is surprisingly resurgent.

Anti-E.U. the feeling has grown even in countries where right-wing populists have had poor results at the polls and Brussels has struggled to respond to the blatant attacks on such fundamental European values ​​as the rule of law.

Heads of State proclaim "Italy first", "Hungary first" and "America first", echoing the language used by those who opposed US involvement in world wars and the League of Nations.

And collective dislike for the term "nationalist" has begun to recede.

"You know, they have a word – it has become a little old fashioned," said President Trump at a rally last month. "It's called a nationalist. And I say, "Really?" We are not supposed to use that word. Do you know what I am? I am a nationalist, agree? I am a nationalist. Nationalist. Nothing bad. Use this word. "

Margaret Macmillan, historian of the First World War at Oxford University, said that the cavalier language foreshadowed that peace was the default condition, or even the inevitable condition.

"We in the West, in particular, have been extremely lucky. We went through a very long period of peace, "she said. "The concern is that we took peace for granted and thought it was a normal situation. We should think that sometimes wars happen, and sometimes not for very good reasons. "

Before the rally in Paris, Macron has positioned himself as Europe's main challenger to the rise of nationalism. He said leaders such as the Hungarian Viktor Orban were right to see him as their biggest opponent, and warned – in a speech at the United Nations – that unilateralism inevitably engendered "withdrawal and conflict".

"A survival-based approach to the strongest does not protect any group of people from any kind of threat," said Macron.

On November 8, 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron laid a wreath at the Notre Dame de Lorette military cemetery memorial, near Arras, France. (Francois Mori / AFP / Getty Images)

The plans of Macron's Armistice Day reflect his commitment to the post-war project. As expected by the French President, a Sunday ceremony on the Champs-Elysees will be a a solemn affair, recalling lost lives rather than celebrating a war victory – much to the chagrin of some French conservatives. This will be followed by a three-day peace forum aimed at "strengthening multilateralism and international cooperation".

If the event celebrates anything, it will be the long legacy of peace, which had escaped the continent after World War I, but has remained more or less intact for seven decades. For Macron and other defenders of the European Union, this often decried institution is the main reason.

"The European Union is rejecting both world wars – that's what it is. It's a way to create economic and democratic stability that did not emerge after World War I, "said Yale University historian Jay Winter.

The degree to which the post-nationalist vision of the European Union has transformed the continent is evident in the German region of Saarland, which has a million inhabitants on the French border.

The region – marked by lush forests, gentle hills and rich coal deposits that have made the Saar an industrial jackpot – has changed hands eight times over the past 250 years. In the last century alone, it has been exchanged four times between France and Germany.

The Nazi German army parades in Saarland after its accession to the German Reich in 1935. (AFP / Getty Images)

The first of these occurred after the First World War, when France claimed the territory in compensation for the destruction by Germany of its own coal sector.

Germany again lost its lands after World War II and only recovered them in 1957.

As recently as the 1990s, the neighboring border was subject to strict controls. But today, it's largely invisible. French citizens go to Saarland for work or come to buy a dishwasher. The Germans go to France for lunch or to get a bottle of wine. French – the language of the enemy and the long-time occupant – is part of the fabric of the Saarland and is welcome.

"We are neighbors, we are friends, we are getting married. 100 years ago, we killed ourselves. This is a great evolution, "said Reiner Jung, deputy director of the Saarland Historical Museum in Saarbrücken, the capital of the region.

As Jung spoke, trench walls rose above his head. Not the real ones. But the models built by the museum for its exhibition on the First World War give visitors an idea of ​​the dominant battle motif of the conflict. On the walls, the exhibition traces the descent of Germany in a war that would cost 2.5 million citizens to the nation.

The First World War occupies a more limited place in the historical German imagination than for France, the United Kingdom or Belgium. Few battles took place on German soil and the horrors of the war that followed – the Second World War – obscure all the rest of the nation's historical memory.

But the lessons of both wars are integrated into the modern DNA of the country. While other countries are turning to the populists, pledging to defend the interests of their own country – at the expense of all others – Germany has remained relatively anchored in international cooperation.

"Nationalism and militarism are not a good thing," said Jung, whose museum is dug into the basement of a heavily damaged castle during Allied bombing. "We must understand and respect others. I hope we learned that. "

The German commemorations of the First World War were accompanied by little bitterness; Although World War II sparked heated debate over the country's ability to redeem its atrocities, the legacy of the First World War is far less flammable, said Lucian Hölscher, a history professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. 39, Ruhr University in Bochum.

"It's a long time ago," he said.

A measure of duration: unlike other great anniversaries of the war, Germany marked the centennial opportunities alongside its former enemies. Chancellor Angela Merkel will travel to Paris and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier will travel to London for a ceremony with Queen Elizabeth II.

"It's really a European commemoration," said Hölscher. "It's something very new."

Witte reported from Saarbrücken. Luisa Beck contributed to this report.


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