At World War I centenary, leaders say conflict holds lessons for today

Germany invaded Belgium 100 years ago today. In Liege, leaders focused on reconciliation, noting that the alliances of former foes are a 'example for the world.'

Yves Herman/Reuters
Belgium's King Philippe (at rear) hosted a commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I at the Cointe Inter-allied Memorial in Liege Aug. 4. Eighty-three dignitaries – from royals to heads of state – attended.

As royals and heads of state, former allies and foes from 83 states gather to commemorate World War I's centenary, reconciliation has been the dominant theme – one, many say, that can provide lessons for conflicts flaring in Gaza, Iraq, Ukraine, and Libya.

Representatives gathered in the Belgian city of Liege, where the "great war" that ultimately caused 10 million battlefield deaths began after Germany invaded the neutral state. Hosts King Philippe and Queen Mathilde invited the presidents of France and Germany, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and the US Secretary of the Army.

In Britain, which declared war on Germany on the same day, residents across the country will dim their lights at 10 p.m., or leave a candle burning at 11 p.m., to commemorate the famous words of Britain’s then-foreign secretary:  “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” 

The theme of forgiveness was best illustrated by events over the weekend. On Sunday, French President François Hollande invited German President Joachim Gauck to lay a wreath in Alsace to commemorate the day Germany declared war on France

"France and Germany, beyond their suffering and bereavements, had the courage to make up – it was the best way to honor the dead and provide a guarantee of peace to the living," President Hollande said. Their relationship today is "an example for the world, a strength and an invitation, wherever peace is threatened, wherever human rights are violated, wherever the principles of international law are flouted.”

Lessons of healing and recovery, however, have competed with questions about the purpose of World War I, leading to some disputes ahead of events today about how the centenary should be commemorated, particularly in Britain.

One historian said that the sense of “futility” amid the sheer scale of killing, is what is most remembered today in Britain, as The Christian Science Monitor reported in April.

"The immense loss of life remains incomprehensible, all the more so because many British people, today, struggle to understand what the conflict was about," said Catriona Pennell, a historian at the University of Exeter. "In comparison to the Second World War, which was a much simpler conflict to comprehend, with clearly defined enemies and objectives, the First World War seemed confusing and pointless."

And for as much as Europe has changed since 1918, when the war ended, many of the seeds of today’s conflicts were sown 100 years ago. The war not only ravaged communities and countries, leading to the end of three empires and the decline of one, but also gave rise to Nazi Germany and set the United States on the path to global supremacy. Its memory haunts troubled spots of the world today.

As historian Gerard DeGroot wrote for the Monitor in May, the stable world that so many sought after the “war to end all wars” has been anything but:

"The wounds of that conflict – in Africa, the Middle East, and the Balkans – still fester. Pick almost any problem in international relations today and the links to 1914 can easily be traced. The war is best seen as a massive earthquake that permanently altered the social and political landscape of the world. Its aftershocks still rumble."

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