What do we learn from World War One?

August 7, 2014

A couple of years ago David Cameron announced that he intended to mark the centenary of the beginning of WW1 in style. There were sceptics at the time as to how and why these commemorations. I was and remain one of them.

Coming from the country of the ‘former enemy’ I have to choose my words carefully.  For good reasons Germans don’t like to remember any wars. My generation grew up looking at wars as nothing but terror, tragedy, tears and destruction. Hand in hand went a deep cynicism for the idea of the Nation State, ‘the Fatherland’.  Singing the National Anthem was cringy. Our energy was focused on preventing wars and to look at the idea of borders and Nation States as one of the main drivers of wars within Europe; so it was and is about bringing those borders down.

WW2 was without a doubt the brave British defence against the brutal aggression of a mad dictator and the misguided people he took with him.

But WW1?

Historians are still debating the detail of the ‘blame’; but the overall conclusion remains that it was a terrible waste of millions of lives.  It was mostly about the old monarchies defending their privileges and their way of life; cynically sending ordinary people to the slaughter houses of the trenches ‘for King and Country’ to deflect (conveniently) from the inevitable social changes that were taking place within. It was about a complete failure of diplomacy, an utter miscalculation of the consequences and the price of war.  And there can’t be any ‘national pride’ for the madness of it in any of the countries who took part.

I fully understand the private commemorations of families who want to remember their loved ones and honour that they died in the course of duty, but the only public and political conclusion from remembering WW1 is to work towards a Europe where the stupidity of a war like WW1 is never contemplated again. Being part of the EU is a good start.

However this is the opposite of David Cameron’s political approach to other European countries. If his idea of Europe is a return to competing nation states, divide and rule, and rival armies, then indeed he has commemorated much but learnt little.



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