The "European" lesson of 1918 is that one can behave like Clemenceau to win the war, but not to achieve peace, and that nationalism in its excesses leads - either directly or indirectly - to war.
The danger of blindness
The second warning - conveyed not by the armistice itself, but by the period that followed - is that the absence of rules and principles accepted by all - or, even worse, the existence of structurally dysfunctional institutions - leads to disaster. Post-Wilsonian America’s rejection of multilateralism and the rise of populism in Europe combined their negative effects. In this respect, the contemporary period is worryingly similar to the 1920s and 1930s. "Those who cannot remember the past condemn themselves to repeat it" said the American essayist of Spanish origin Georges Santayana, in one of his most famous aphorisms.
The third warning is more philosophical. Generations that have not experienced war tend to be more blind than others, and to reproduce, almost mechanically, the chain of causes that lead to war, as if by fate. The contrast between the French President’s legitimate willingness to remember the past and too many of the media’s comments is disturbing. While the former referred to "the memory of the poilus" (French soldiers who fought during World War I), the latter emphasized the French people’s dissatisfaction with the rise in fuel prices or, more generally, with the decline in purchasing power, thus encouraging a "defeat of the mind". The goal here, of course, is not to disregard these important considerations. But how can the quality of public debate be enhanced, how can we promote a demanding and ambitious pedagogy, if the media constantly lower the stakes and refuse to treat History with the seriousness it deserves in order to please their audiences?
There are many lessons to be drawn from 1918, and all can be read as a final warning against the Orbans, the Salvinis, the Trumps and others of 2018.
With the permission of Les Echos (published 11/11/18).
Copyright : Jan Dąbrowski