Remembering Europe’s “Remembrance Day”—94th World War l Armistice Day     Print Email

By Michael D. Mosettig, former Foreign Editor of PBS News Hour

For most Americans, it is the war that barely exists in historical memory, lost somewhere between the Civil War and World War II (and for the baby boom generation, Vietnam). For Europeans, as well as the British dominions, nearly a century later, World War I is the war that will not and cannot go away. Quite simply, the First World War changed almost nothing for most Americans. For all Europeans, nothing again would ever be the same. This coming Sunday, in Paris, London and countless rural villages across Europe, there will be commemoration ceremonies for the millions who died in the conflict that ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, more than four years after it began.

And as something of a grim reminder that it was a war that produced amazing poetry and literature, at London's Cenotaph they will likely read once again, as they have often before, a poem written only two months into the conflict, when the casualties were still in the thousands, Laurence Binyon's The Fallen.

“They shall not grow old,
As we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them,
nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun
and in the morning
We will remember them.”

But on this 94th Armistice or Remembrance Day, as it is still called in Europe, there are commentaries and reminders that the war, its origins and perhaps inexact historical analogies, are not far from the minds of commentators and officials on both sides of the Atlantic.

In Europe, of course, the concerns are immediate. The ambitious project of integration and unification was begun after World War II, which most historians now consider an extension of the first war with a 20 year interlude, with the aim of preventing a third European catastrophe in the 20th century. That project now faces its greatest peril since its inception amid debt, political divisions, resurgent nationalism and in some instances xenophobia and racism from the North Sea to the Mediterranean.

And what of the continuing fascination of the First War to me, beyond my studies of European Diplomatic History at Georgetown University?  One possible explanation: I may be the last working journalist in the United States who can claim a father who was a World War I veteran, in my father's case on the Austrian-Italian front.  He died when I was 19, not leaving time for adult conversations about those experiences. But I do recollect his occasional comments about the cold, wet and rat-infested trenches and on that particular front the absurdity of soldiers shooting at their cousins. (His father's family was from Gorizia, a last remaining Italian slice of the Habsburg Empire). And in the hallway in my apartment is a poster for a concert by students at my grandmother's house and school, in 1912, fin-de-siècle Vienna, imperial capital of an empire, a state of mind and an era that would totally vanish in the conflict two years away.

Henry Kissinger, joining a discussion now current among American military historians, seeks to rebut the contention that the United States and China are coming to resemble pre-World War I Germany and England. In the historical analogy, the U.S. resembles England, the status quo power, and China is like an assertive and expansionist Wilhelmina Germany.

Kissinger writes: "Historical parallels are by nature inexact. And even the most precise analogy does not oblige the present generation to repeat the mistakes of its predecessors. After all, the outcome was a disaster for all involved, victors as well as defeated. Care must be taken lest both sides analyze themselves into self-fulfilling prophesies. This will not be an easy task."

The U.S. entered the war only in 1917, three years after it started, and suffered 116,000 military dead. That is more than double the number of U.S. military killed in ten years in Vietnam but a fraction of the nearly ten million soldiers and sailors lost on both sides of the European conflict. As the late General Vernon Walters, the former U.S. Ambassador to Germany during reunification, once told me, that when he was a pre-World War II cadet at West Point, if Europeans talked about the Great War, they meant World War I. When Americans talked about The War, they meant the U.S. Civil War.

The way the European conflict started, described by Barbara Tuchman in "The Guns of August" as a series of avoidable accidents and blunders, has weighed on American officials, including President Kennedy. He had read the book shortly before the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 and cited quotations and passages from it.

But for Europe, a legacy more intense and direct, as depicted by the British military historian John Keegan in his 1998 book, "The First World War."  He wrote:

"....the consequences of the first clash ended the lives of ten million human beings, tortured the emotional lives of millions more, destroyed the benevolent and optimistic culture of the European continent and left, when the guns at last fell silent four years later, a legacy of political rancor and racial hatred so intense that no explanation of the causes of the Second World War can stand without reference to those roots."

One trans-Atlantic connection from the war is in the poetry, some of the most famous written by men who would not survive the fighting. As Paul Fussell has written in "The Great War and Modern Memory," it was a unique historical period, where the written word was permanent, before radio, the movies and television, when literature had an unmatched influence in the lives of younger people. The often fatalistic lines spoke to subsequent generations, especially those sent off to fight in World War II.  And some of it is still recited in British and Canadian schools:, "The Soldier" by Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owens' "Anthem for Dead Youth", and the Canadian John McCrea's "In Flanders Fields."

And one poem had particular resonance and was the most recited in the United States, according to Fussell. The poet was Alan Seeger. He was a New Yorker and Harvard graduate who joined the French Foreign Legion and was killed in France on July 4, 1916. His poem, published posthumously, was a favorite of President Kennedy's, according to JFK biographer Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Jacqueline Kennedy would recite it aloud to her husband. Its concluding lines:

"But I have a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous"