Alexander Watson: A Holiday to End All Wars

Roundup: Talking About History

[Alexander Watson is a research fellow at Cambridge University and the author of “Enduring the Great War.”]

TODAY is the 90th anniversary of the armistice that ended the First World War, and it will be commemorated very differently on each side of the Atlantic and across the borders of Europe. It’s a reminder that not all “victors” experience wars in the same way, and that their citizens can have almost as much difficulty as those of the vanquished states in coping with the collective trauma of conflict.

For Americans, Veterans Day celebrates the survivors of all the nation’s 20th and 21st century wars. In France and Britain, by contrast, the mood is altogether more somber. In these countries, it is the dead who, since 1919, have been the focus of the ceremonies.

Why this difference? After all, for citizens of all three countries the date marks a shared victory. In the jargon of the time, Nov. 11, 1918, was the day of their soldiers’ triumph over “Prussian militarism,” the vindication of a “fight for civilization” and the successful finish of a “war to end all wars.”

In the years after the war, official ceremonies in the United States reflected these victorious ideals and celebrated “world peace” — it was only after World War II that the day was dedicated specifically to veterans. The touchstone of loss and suffering for Americans remained the Civil War, the world’s first industrial conflict, which 50 years before World War I had taken the lives of more than 600,000 soldiers. Memorial Day (or as it was originally known, Decoration Day) was first instituted in May during the late 1860s to commemorate these fallen.

In contrast, it was only in August 1914 that the horrors and shock of modern warfare came to Europe. The Great War, as the conflict is still known in France and Britain, was a prolonged and vicious struggle demanding the commitment of nations’ wealth and manpower on an unprecedented scale....
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