This morning the well-fed leaders of a united Europe gathered in the small Belgian city of Liège, some 30 miles from the German border.
They were there to attend a ceremony marking 100 years to the day when the German troops of Kaiser Wilhelm II laid siege to the 12 defensive forts around the city—the first battle of the First World War.
One cannon shot rang out for each fort and a little Belgian girl in a white dress sent aloft a “peace balloon”.
The taking of the Belgian forts was the first step in Germany’s planned invasion of France and thanks to the Belgians, the battle actually helped sow the seeds of the Germany military’s eventual destruction.
United Europe looks back across the 100-year divide
Belgium’s King Philippe invited 83 countries to take part in his country’s official commemoration of the start of the First World War. The leaders of a united Europe were there. And most notably the presidents of France and Germany—the main combatants of 100 years ago and today the architects and staunch guarantors of the European Union.
The centenary served as much as anything to highlight the fact that Europe believes itself to be three generations removed from the passions, jealousies, and hatreds that helped fuel the war to end all wars.
Speaking at the ceremony, François Hollande, the president of France, honoured Belgium’s blood sacrifice as the little country that stood in the way of Germany’s plans of conquest.
President Hollande reminded his audience that by holding out for 11 days under horrific artillery bombardment, the forts around Liège bought precious time—at a most terrible cost—so that France might better marshal its defences.
The first and most important fact of the war was that Germany’s lightning thrust through Belgium resulted not in the fall of Paris and thus France but instead in stalemate.
That the German offensive stalled outside Paris was as much down to the heroic defence of Belgium as it was the celebrated French taxis and the First Battle of the Marne. Belgium made that miracle possible.
The war Europeans find almost unimaginable today
As reported by the Guardian this morning, the ceremony marking the first battle of the First World War was an opportunity for a united Europe to extol the virtues and necessity of its “shared project” and by extension smugly crow just a little.
The French president made it clear that the terrible events in Europe’s recent past must serve as a lesson for the present and future Europe to remember and learn from.
“The risk now is that we may rediscover those national egotisms, those populisms, those xenophobias. That’s why Europe must keep moving, cannot grow weary, and above all must never become tired of peace.”
For his part, Joachim Gauck, the president of Germany, called the invasion of Belgium “completely unjustified” and he had nothing but scorn for the German militarism of 100 years ago, calling it the “triumph of extreme nationalism over empathy, and of propaganda that knew no bounds”.
The First World War as a commodity
For better or worse the next four years will see the media—newspapers, television, websites, blogs and microblogs—replay, revisit, and rehash the major events and battles of the First World War in chronological order.
It was after all one of the most important events in modern human history but more than that it represents an inexhaustible cornucopia of every kind of story imaginable.
My blog certainly will partake in this chronologizing.
I even started a microblog devoted to the events of 1914 but quickly gave it up as “a bit dull” just as a few hundred other such “Hundred Years Ago Today” blogs and feeds started up.
The First World War claimed well over 10 million lives and disrupted and overturned the fortunes of people, nations, and empires alike.
But what I find particularly striking isn’t how costly the war was but rather how disastrously costly the peace was—and still is.
The peace we're still paying for
Following the end of the First World War in November 1918, the Paris peace conference in 1919 really helped set the stage for the Second World War.
And it gave rise to the Soviet Union, perhaps no better than Tsarist Russia and arguably more dangerous.
The peace of 1919 also redrew the map of the world and gave us the victor’s idea of a “Middle East”.
Gaza, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Libya, Iran—antiquity aside—all these modern borders were invented or reshaped after the war had wiped the slate clean of the Ottoman Empire.
Despite being on the losing side, Turkey, the heart of the disintegrated Ottoman Empire, managed to thwart the ambitions of the Allied victors.
It survived to chart its own course as a nation only by virtue of a new leadership that proved itself more than a match for British and French politicians.
The peace also swept away the Austro-Hungarian Empire (no loss) and gave us a newly reapportioned “Eastern Europe” largely reborn in independence but still every bit the fragmentation grenade it had ever been.
For all those reasons and more I have to wonder if the peace of 1919 wasn’t the most expensive peace in human history.
I was still just a kid when I woke up to a particularly chilling fact about the 20th century: thanks to decisions made long before I was born, dead white guys were still running the world from beyond the grave. (Cue Twilight Zone theme.)
That’s how I think about the peace of the First World War.
So I think it’s worth remembering for no other reason than we should understand what we’re all still paying for and why.