History observes that Europe has more typically been a battleground, and this week begins an endeavor only peace can offer, a commemoration of war, the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I.
What a Canadian magazine identified, at its start in 1914, as "The Great War," was a four-year endurance test of trench warfare, atrocity and the wide-scale introduction of poison gas, tank warfare and aircraft to the lexicon of armament. By the end it obsoleted royalty, invented new countries and changed geopolitics. A 1914 map of Europe shows some names rendered obsolete: the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, French and Spanish Morocco. Poland does not exist on this map. Neither does Finland, the Czech Republic or Slovakia.
Depending on the methodology of the count, some 20 million people were killed.
Peggy Noonan, writing in the Wall Street Journal last week, noted world leaders had their lives altered by the war as thoroughly as the map and the soldiers and the civilians. Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and England's George V became haunted, melancholy men; Czar Nicholas II of Russia lost his life and his throne to the Communist upheaval following the war; U.S. President Woodrow Wilson ultimately had a series of strokes after attempting to police peace conferences that followed the war.
It was a messy, bloody war, and the time has come to memorialize and remember it, although a letter to the editor of the British newspaper The Guardian in 2012 from Diana Francis suggested that "militarism and nationalism combine to make a pretty toxic ideology that our young people would be better off without, as would the rest of us. War is the scourge of humanity and we should be not celebrating but lamenting."
While it took a month of diplomatic maneuvering after the incident, World War I began in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on June 28, 1914, with the gunning down of the relatively obscure Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by a member of a pan-Serbian nationalist group; today we might call them Serbian militants.
Canadian author Margaret MacMillan, writing in The Globe and Mail, observed the assassin, Gavrilo Princip, is regarded in Serbia as an heroic figure, with memorial statues in Belgrade. "In the rest of Bosnia," she wrote, "he is usually described as a terrorist."
History books typically refer to countries "drawn in" to the war, through prior mutual commitments and fears of loss of influence, and after Austro-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914, it was followed by mobilizations, demands unheeded and declarations of war. Nations were drawn in, not like dominoes falling but more like the vortex of water down the drain.
Any nation seeking to commemorate the four-year war that followed must tread lightly on history and acknowledge loyalties have since been reordered. Looking at it as a scorecard, it was France and its colonies, all of the British Empire, Russia until the revolution, Serbia, Montenegro and Italy (and by the end, the United States, Japan, Romania, Belgium, Greece and Portugal) versus Germany, the Ottoman Empire and Austro-Hungary (with later help from Bulgaria and parts of Africa and India).
Saravejo, still pitted with what has become known as the Bosnian War of the 1990s, honored the 100th anniversary of its place in assassination history with a concert by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in its restored City Hall, wrecked by the Bosnian war, and a Carnegie Foundation symposium on the topic of peace.
France turned its annual Bastille Day parade, July 14, into a thank-you note, carefully inviting military representatives from each World War I combatant, regardless of sides. In 2014, that meant soldiers from 76 countries, including those from former French colonies including Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Senegal.
Algeria had 173,000 troops conscripted for World War I, about 23,000 of whom died.
The British Broadcasting Co. will dedicate 2,500 hours of broadcast time to The Great War this year, and the government's Centenary Commission has made it clear it will avoid riling other European countries with nationalism or the pride of victory. Andrew Murrison, British Prime Minister David Cameron's special representative to the commission, has met with his German counterpart, Andreas Meitzner, in efforts to reduce any misinterpretations.
"We will not wave any flags in a militaristic or jingoistic way. At any rate, I don't see a great enthusiasm in Germany to commemorate the war," said Murrison.
On July 3 the German parliament honored the start of the war with a solemn ceremony at the Bundestag and a brief lecture by political scientist Alfred Grosser, who noted the responsibility for the war was not solely Germany's. Guests included former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing and about 100 ambassadors and other foreign representatives.
Germany's national mind, when it comes to war rumination, is more concentrated on the world war that followed The Great War. The commemoration was overshadowed, anyway, by the concurrent World Cup of soccer.
Belgium plans a four-year commemoration so elaborate it has its own website. It formally begins Aug. 4, the date of the "invasion by Germany and the violation of Belgian neutrality," the website reads, and U.S. President Barack Obama has already announced the delegation from the United States. The Battle of Ypres, in Belgium, will be honored in October. European travel agencies have begun organizing excursions to ceremonies, battlefields and cemeteries. Trips such as these give opportunity to spend commemorative World War I Euros, struck for the occasion.
Every country involved in World War I has memorials on its territory, monuments of stone or concrete mostly built in the 1920s and 1930s. France alone has 176,000, and few cities or towns in the United States lack an obelisk or engraved stone noting the eighteen-month U.S. involvement.
It is always the hundredth anniversary of something, and while 2014 will commemorate the start of the so-called "war to end all wars," paraphrasing author H.G. Wells (and not Woodrow Wilson, to whom the catchphrase is often attributed), it will bring attention, week after week, to events that shaped the 20th century and beyond. Collectively, over four years and many countries, the memorial observances will be substantial. It was a very large war.