I read in the Telegraph today that there is some dispute concerning the centennial of the start of the Great War next year. The United Kingdom, of Europe but not in Europe, is inclined to mark the event as a memorial to those who died serving their country and their empire. (Lest it be forgotten, Asian Indians, West Indians, Africans, etcetera all fought on the side of Britons from the mother country and from the domains overseas) On the continent, especially in Germany, events will be more muted. The war will rightfully be treated as a tragic and unnecessary event with the horrid addition of the celebration of the EU as the institution that spared Europe another major war since the inception of its first ancestor in 1957. (Never mind that the Conference of Vienna provided something resembling peace in Europe for almost a century. Interestingly enough, some 30 years or so after the end of the Napoleonic Wars the Revolutions of 1848 tore through Europe much like the social upheavals of 1968 tore through the continent/world) Diplomatic pressure is being put on the UK to avoid having too triumphant an approach, particularly by Germany with the veiled threat that co-operation on reforms of the EU might not be so forthcoming. Were one to consider only political concerns this would alone be rancid. In general different views of the same events can be accommodated; the perceptions of the victors, losers and those on the periphery all have a place. Threatening political/diplomatic repercussions for this threatens the very existence of free debate.
Few celebrate the death and destruction of a generation (though I will freely admit to having no shortage of contempt for the European obsession with the death tolls of European wars. Per capita Japan’s civil wars, the Hawai’ian Wars of Unification, the US Civil War, Chinese civil wars/dynastic changes, etcetera killed far more without the ensuing political insanity. The Battle of Dan-no-Ura killed 400,000, for example). However, the British view is more realistic – and healthy. Most understand that Germans were fighting for their country, empire and its interests as much as Britons were for theirs. As an historian, the taking hostage of historical fact for the purpose of politics is frightening. It is certainly not unprecedented, but it is dishonest both intellectually and methodologically. It also seems aimed at obscuring the fact that the continent has not learnt the lessons of the wars of the twentieth centuries. Rather than trying to find something that somehow provides stability, Europe seems intent on returning to the 16th century politically hoping that what failed then will not fail now. (Incidentally, the 17th century Thirty Years War was also highly destructive and resulted in something far saner)