By the time the Western Front’s guns fell silent exactly one century ago, 10 million soldiers had died in World War I, 20th century’s first global catastrophe, which nonetheless seeded modern conceptions of a liberal international order after a second global war.
Aerial bombardments, aircraft-mounted machine guns, military tanks, trench warfare and the first large-scale use of chemical weapons such as chlorine, mustard gas, phosgene and tear gas during World War I — mechanized warfare made possible by the Second Industrial Revolution — added to the sense of a dystopian world recoiling from a new depth of human brutality and cruelty.
Precipitated by unrestrained nationalism, the immense tragedy of a four-year global war laid the groundwork for the post-World War II era of relative concordance among nations increasingly pursuing interests through international organizations, security pacts, trading and political treaties.
Dozens of world leaders took part in a weekend of commemorations for this year’s centenary of Armistice Day, marking the 1918 Armistice between the German-led Central Powers and the Allies — Belgium, Britain, France, Italy, Russia, Serbia and the United States. It was signed on November 11 at 5 a.m., exactly six hours before the cessation in fighting — widely noted for its particular occurrence on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the year. In the United States, Armistice Day became a public holiday in 1938, and was renamed Veterans Day in 1954.
In the biggest ceremony marking this year’s centennial, French President Emmanuel Macron led a grand procession down the Champs-Élysées towards the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, showcasing the city’s role as the great prize and spiritual center of the war’s Allied resistance, where bells had rung in the peace while people mobbed the streets in celebration and relief a century ago. U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin skipped the symbolic walk.
By the famous arch honoring those who fought and died for France in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, Macron used the occasion to remind the world of what was, and remains, at stake.
“Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism,” he said in a pointed rebuke of Trump’s ‘America First’ agenda, including the U.S. president’s repudiation of international organizations and treaties and imposition of stiff trade tariffs on both China and staunch U.S. allies. “By putting our own interests first, with no regard for others, we erase the very thing that a nation holds dearest, and the thing that keeps it alive: its moral values.”
Macron denounced “the selfishness of countries that regard only their own interests” as a poker-faced Trump, who arrived separately in his own motorcade, stood apart from the others. “The traces of this war never went away,” said Macron. “Old demons are rising again: New ideologies are manipulating religions, and history is threatening to repeat its tragedies. Let us vow once more as nations to ensure peace is the utmost priority, above all else, because we know what it cost.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, respective symbols of unity in Europe and the world, were Macron’s most important partners for the centenary in Paris, where Macron launched the Paris Peace Forum, a new annual meeting and global platform for governance projects. Trump, notably, avoided the new peace forum.
“Over the past 100 years, the desire to settle conflicts peacefully on the basis of common rules has been converted into a universal system of institutions in the political, economic, social and environmental spheres,” Guterres told the peace forum. “A weakening of the democratic spirit of compromise and an indifference to collective rules are twin poisons for multilateralism.”
Unprecedented peace for 73 years
A day earlier, at the site where the armistice was signed, Merkel and Macron clasped hands and arms, and she briefly rested her head on his neck, underscoring their roles as co-leaders of Europe’s security and peace — and the unfathomable distance their nations have traveled since they were mortal enemies in the first half of the 20th century.
“The will is there — and I say this for Germany with full conviction — to do everything to achieve a more peaceful order in the world even though we know we have very, very much work still ahead of us,” Merkel said.
Not since 1940 had leaders from the two nations met at the historic site. Macron noted how much the continent has changed.
“Our Europe has been at peace for 73 years,” he said. “There is no precedent for it, and it is at peace because we willed it and first and foremost, because Germany and France wanted it.”
Afterwards they both returned to Paris, where Macron hosted a dinner at the Musée d’Orsay attended by Trump and Putin.
Many of the leaders visited national cemeteries in the run-up to the centenary. At a cemetery in Mons, Belgium, British Prime Minister Theresa May laid wreaths at the graves of Pvt. John Parr, who died on August 21, 1914 making him the first British soldier killed in the war, and Pvt. George Ellison, the last British soldier killed — on the war’s last day, November 11, 1918.
Trump had been scheduled to visit the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial in northern France to honor the American and French troops that rebuffed the Germans in 1918. He called it off in the face of rainy weather and sent a delegation of high-level military officers in his place. The White House cited “scheduling and logistical difficulties caused by the weather,” drawing a raft of harsh criticism from politicians, war veterans and other observers around the globe.
“Millions died to protect the free world during WWI, and Trump can’t be bothered to honor their memories. Instead, he’s chosen to sit in a hotel and live-tweet Fox News,” U.S. Congressman Don Beyer, Democrat of Virginia and a former U.S. ambassador to Switzerland in the Obama administration, said on Twitter.
War with a ‘moral’ cause
The armistice negotiated by military authorities made possible the Paris Peace Conference at the Quai d’Orsay that began in January 1919 under French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau’s leadership.
British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Emanuele Orlando made up the rest of the “Big Four” at the conference, which led to the Treaty of Versailles and League of Nations at Geneva, both effective in January 1920.
The United States’ entry into World War I in April 1917 was a result of the Germans’ announcement of unrestricted submarine warfare and the sinking of ships with Americans on board.
Wilson, however, made clear in his January 8, 1918 speech to Congress, known as the “Fourteen Points,” that the war had a moral cause. Its purpose was “to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world as against selfish and autocratic power,” he said.
His speech set conditions for the 1918 Armistice and the creation of the League of Nations and other mechanisms to ensure that those principles would be observed. Another peace conference at Lausanne, Switzerland in 1923 resulted in the Treaty of Lausanne, which took effect in 1924, ending the Ottoman Empire and recognizing the borders of modern Turkey.
In 1918, the singing and dancing, kissing and embracing, celebrations and parades at the end of the war went on for days in the French capital, which the Germans had come within 80 kilometers of overtaking in early 1918 until the Second Battle of the Marne turned the tide.
Turning the tide
War-weary, experienced French and British troops, backed by new, untested American soldiers — the first time the U.S. military had fought in a European war and the start of its extensive involvement in Europe’s security — blunted the last major German advance on the Western Front, then launched a counterattack with hundreds of tanks.
Almost 300,000 soldiers died in the pivotal battle by the Marne River in the French countryside.
Little more than three months later, it was Armistice Day. The signing took place in Allied Commander-in-Chief Marshal Foch’s private railway carriage, on loan from France’s luxury train maker Compagnie des Wagons-Lits, secreted away on a double track used for artillery trains in Compiègne Forest near Rethondes, France.
An armistice on the Eastern Front was already signed on December 15, 1917 between Russia and the Central Powers — Germany plus Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918 formally ended Russia’s involvement.
No more world wars
Germans now regard World War I as “some sort of pre-past” — as if it had been the start of a second Thirty Years’ War that only came to a close with their second defeat at the end of World War II in 1945 — that helps to explain the rise of Adolf Hitler, the failure of the Weimar Republic and the Holocaust, according to Jörn Leonhard, author of “Pandora’s Box: A History of the First World War” and a European history professor at Germany’s University of Freiburg.
“My impression of what Europe really is about is a historically growing management of how to deal with diversity,” Leonhard told a June forum on the commemoration of the World War I centennial that was hosted by the Warsaw-based European Network Remembrance and Solidarity. “And that means that commemoration is not about eliminating the differences, but understanding them.”
Even the relief that accompanied the end of “the war to end all wars” — along with the peace treaties that followed and the birth of the League of Nations, the first international organization created with a mission of maintaining world peace — could not prevent the scourge of more dictators, revolutions and an even costlier global catastrophe little more than 20 years later.
Yet World War I also set the stage for the post-World War II era of prosperity, rooted in a common acceptance of multilateralism via international organizations, security accords and political treaties.
“These have a proven track record in saving lives, generating economic and social progress and avoiding a third descent into world war,” said Guterres, the ninth secretary-general of the United Nations, which came into existence on October 24, 1945 after 50 nations had signed the U.N. Charter. “As we mark the centennial of the First World War, we must draw its lessons, and buttress our practice of multilateralism for the tests and threats of today and tomorrow.”