Word War I

Neo-Nationalism 100 years after Compiègne

WWI armistice painting 1800px public domain
Erzberger (middle) and Marshal Foch, in the carriage. Source: public domain

The armistice took effect “on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month,” 100 years ago on Sunday. Matthias Erzberger, a German anti-war politician, had signed Germany’s surrender a few hours earlier, in a French railway carriage parked in a forest near Compiègne. Erzberger was later murdered for it by German nationalists.

For the French, victory in the Grande Guerre was revenge for their loss against the Germans 47 years earlier. For the Germans, defeat was a humiliation that generated its own genre of fake news, the “stab-in-the-back” myth. Only 22 years later, Adolf Hitler would accept France’s surrender in the same railway car on the same spot. The cycle seemed doomed to go on forever.

But it didn’t. Standing on the rubble of their continent, Europe’s postwar leaders embarked on the grandest peace project in human history. Today it is called the European Union. At its heart is Franco-German friendship. Strasbourg/Straßburg, a city that for centuries didn’t know whether it was French or German, is today the home of the European Parliament. It is also near bases of a Franco-German brigade that could sprout into a European army one day.

So it is a fitting gesture that Emmanuel Macron of France will on Saturday meet Angela Merkel of Germany at Compiègne to commemorate the armistice, before, on the 11th, joining dozens of other leaders in Paris for the centennial.

Macron and Merkel embody the lesson of Europe’s fratricidal past: That nationalism – “My Country First” – leads to disaster; that respectful cooperation – “multilateralism” – is the only enlightened way. But among the leaders present at the Arc de Triomphe will also be Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, who embody an ahistorical contempt for that lesson: a crude Neo-Nationalism that is spreading – from Hungary and Poland to Brazil, the Philippines and beyond.

Even in France and Germany the exhortations of the past are losing their old force. Last year, Macron defeated Marine Le Pen, another Neo-Nationalist; if he and Merkel fail to reform Europe, the outcome may well be different next time. The great postwar peace project is at risk.

Who today remembers Gavrilo Princip? Who even knew him back then? He was an obscure Bosnian Serb who in 1914 shot Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. The rest is history. That’s because Europe’s leaders did not understand that they had unwittingly created a system – based on mobilization tables, Schlieffen plans and train schedules – that contained hidden automaticities of doom once triggered. As Christopher Clark has described, they “sleepwalked” into disaster.

Who and where is Princip today? In Ukraine, the Baltics, the Middle East, the South China Sea? Are we sleepwalking? Wherever you are, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month at the eleventh hour, ponder this.

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