This Sunday is the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended the First World War. The end of the fighting at the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” became the inspiration for Veterans Day, replacing the name Armistice Day, which honors all who served in the armed forces.
World War I has a relatively minor place in American history. The US only entered the war in 1917 when Europe was nearly exhausted after 3 years of brutal fighting, but the American entry into the war most likely swung the conflict in favor of the Allies.
American involvement may have been decisive, but our memory of the war is overshadowed by World War II, which we also entered late. In that conflict we participated for over three and half bloody years.
While for Americans the defining war of the twentieth century was World War II, for the British and the French it was World War I. They lost whole generations of men to the killing fields of Flanders and northern France. That war totally reshaped those societies by destroying the old order and ushering in the modern age.
My grandfather was a veteran of the First World War who fought on the other side, for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The experience deeply affected him. Although he died when I was a child, years later I interviewed my father about him for a college paper. Here is what he said about the war:
He was drafted into the army to fight in World War I, and he talked about his hatred of war and the waste of war. The great Italian campaign, how they slaughtered farm animals and they were very cruel to the Italians during their crusade through Italy and the Italian battle. And he just had a sour taste in his mouth for war. And he got a bullet in his finger. It messed up his knuckle.
My grandfather’s experience was not unique – many Europeans of his generation were disgusted with war, which is why the appeasement policy toward Germany was so popular in Britain in the 1930s. No one wanted to fight again a War to End all Wars.
It turned out, of course, that militarily the Second World War looked nothing like the first, even if the political conflicts were essentially the same. In fact, many of the players remained as well. Hitler was a lance corporal in the German army while Truman served as a captain in the American army in France.
One figure with a very different reputation in each war, Marshal Philippe Pétain, has become a source of controversy as France commemorates the armistice centennial. The president of France, Emmanuel Macron, intends to honor Pétain for his leadership at the end of World War I. The problem is that Pétain also led the notorious Vichy regime that collaborated with the Nazis and helped send thousands of Jews to their deaths.
How should a nation think about a figure like Pétain, someone who helped save the republic but also participated in its destruction? The reality is that history is complicated, and we continue to live with its consequences.