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Three Warnings from the Great War

Three Warnings from the Great War
 Dominique Moïsi
Distinguished Senior fellow

November 11, 1918 was a date that mattered in my father's life. He was 16 years old at the time and was smoking his first cigarette, "to celebrate France’s victory and the end of the war". It meant he wouldn’t have to join his older brothers who had just been mobilized. Yet his turn would come too. 22 years later, in the Spring of 1940, as the only non-commissioned officer still fighting in his unit, he took the remnants of his men across the Loire river, an action that earned him the Croix de Guerre (a French military decoration) - yet which neither prevented him from being arrested by the Nazis in Nice in October 1943, nor from being "escorted" to Drancy by the French police.

Europe's suicide

Today, a century later, the commemoration of the 1918 armistice sends a triple warning.

The first is based on an observation. In November 1918, Europe emerged from a tragedy - which it had inflicted upon itself - with a mixture of oblivion, lightness and stubbornness. It still believed in Clausewitz' formula: that war could be "the continuation of politics by other means". After the Crimean War (nearly a million deaths) and after the American Civil War (more than 600,000 victims), Clausewitz’s formula had become an incentive for disaster.

Europe certainly recovered prosperity and peace, but it never regained its central position.

While, despite its colossal human losses (over 18,000,000 deaths), Europe preserved its central position on the world stage in 1918, this was no longer the case in 1945. After the end of a collective suicide encompassing the two World Wars, Europe was no longer at the heart of History. France and Great Britain were confronted to this bitter reality during the Suez crisis in 1956.

Europe certainly recovered prosperity and peace, but it never regained its central position. Indeed, it failed to overcome its divides and to transcend the hatreds fragmenting the continent between 1918 and 1945.

The failure of the armistice to bring about real peace can be summed up as the aggregation of too harsh nationalist demands (up to the enormity of the sacrifices?) and too weak internationalism, the overall sum being exacerbated by a major economic crisis. The peace conditions imposed on Germany were too rigid, the controls exercised by the League of Nations too weak. By rejecting President Wilson's internationalism, America, driven by isolationism, left Europe on its own to face the suicidal rise of populist and irredentist movements propagating across the continent.

In 2018, it now seems like France and the United States have been playing a game of musical chairs over the past century. Today, Emmanuel Macron's France best embodies the defense of Wilsonian principles. And to understand Georges Clemenceau's uncompromising nationalism at Versailles, one should rather turn to Trump's America. Even though Claude Monet's great friend, the "Tiger" (Clemenceau’s nickname), would certainly - and legitimately - turn around in his grave if he knew he was being compared to the New York entrepreneur.
How can we do justice to the complexity of History other than through nuanced thinking? Just as the present cannot hijack the past, the successive layers of the past cannot cancel each other out. My father was betrayed in the most ignominious way by the Vichy regime, yet he managed to make a distinction between Pétain, the hero of Verdun, and the Nazi German collaborator, who betrayed his country’s values.

This is not the only trap in commemorating the November 1918 armistice. For the French, this date is certainly painful - it evokes the end of a senseless massacre - but it is also a victorious memory. For our main ally today, Germany, it is only synonymous with pain. All the sacrifices made were in vain and the humiliation and suffering led the country to throw itself freely and democratically into the arms of the man who led their country and Europe towards total disaster.

The absence of rules and principles accepted by all leads to disaster.

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

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