European Memory Culture and World War One
The Memory Culture of Europeans reflects how deeply divided Europe was during World War One

In 2014, the entire European continent commemorates the centenary of the Great War. Analysing the national approaches to this anniversary and World War One in general shows great differences between the European states.

‘’Every generation rewrites its history- and its history is the only history it has of the world’’. In this quote, George Mead, a US philosopher of the early XXth century, captures a way of dealing with history and collective memory in our society. In the case of World War One, we can perceive a rapid shift in the national memory culture of the states that suffered it.

For most of the second part of the XXth century, memories of WWI were pushed aside by the overwhelming and horrible experiences of WWII. In Germany in particular, the society needed to come to terms with the recent past and to deal with the atrocities committed in the name of the Third Reich. Commemoration of WWI was therefore not a priority. Moreover, Germany, as the successor of the German Empire after WWI, was said to have been the pushing force in July 1914, when the war started. The peace treaties of Paris labelled Germany as the main aggressor. During the Interwar Period, this verdict was heavily criticised by conservative and nationalist forces in Germany, and the Peace Treaty of Versailles was regarded as a farce. After WWII, the debate about the war guilt started again, when German historian Fritz Fischer denounced the consent of his countrymen. According to him and the protocols of the most important councils of the German Empire, German leaders had had the chance to impede this war in every stage.

Nowadays, the official approach toward the anniversary is still unclear. German president Gauck participated in the commemoration event in Hartmannswillerkopf (France), and chancellor Merkel in the commemoration in Ypern (Belgium). Nevertheless, there will not be an official remembrance event at the federal state level, despite the rise of public interest in the events of WWI.

The situation in Western European states such as the United Kingdom, France or Belgium is completely different. These states actively commemorate their victims and soldiers who died while defending their country. France in particular stresses the importance of WWI for national identity. ‘’La Grande Guerre’’ represents the victory of freedom and progress. From a ‘’romanticised’’ perspective, the war times are also a symbol of national solidarity and unity. One of the reasons for this different approach is certainly the fact that French territories were largely affected and destroyed by the war combats. November 11th, the day of final ceasefire between the German Empire and the Allies is still a public holiday in France, among other countries. The remembrance of WWI is a matter of national and governmental interest, and preparations for the centenary already started in 2011.

However, there is no such thing as a common European memory culture for WWI. Besides the active remembrance in France and the more or less apathy from official Germany, First World War is also related to counter-memory issues. In Hungary, the defeat and the following peace treaty of Trianon still represent a national trauma.According to the national narrative, Hungary lost two thirds of its entire territory after the war. The 4th of June was appointed to the official remembrance as the day of the Treaty of Trianon. Nevertheless, this date is not seen as an opportunity for Hungary to come to terms with war guilt or to examine the past on a scientific basis. In fact, conservative and right wing parties try to mobilise their supporters and stick to a very nationalist perspective of the past. Thereby they keep this counter-memory alive.

These examples show different memory cultures in different European countries. In times of a more strongly integrated Europe, the question arises if there should be a common European memory approach to WWI. In particular, French officials are making efforts to cooperate with other states, at least in terms of having a common remembrance basis with Germany. In Hartmannsweilerkopf, a major war scene in 1915, a bilingual museum was established.

It would not be difficult to create a common European memory culture from the historical background of WWI. The real question is still whether national societies and governments want to establish it. History is always written from a present perspective. Nowadays, the memory culture of WWI is still dominated by national considerations. If societies manage to drift away from their nationalist perspectives in general, there will also exist common ground for a new remembrance approach. 

Edited by: Izabella Lobinska