Sunday, November 11, 2007

Armistice Day

Today is Armistice Day, which marks the end of World War I at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. It's a holiday which Europeans still take seriously. Although I didn't go, there were ceremonies this morning on the Champs-Elysee.

In the US, this day has become Veterans Day, something set aside for veterans of all wars. But we also have Memorial Day, which started after the Civil War, so the memory of World War I is somewhat diluted. And November 11 is so close to Thanksgiving that Americans are too busy looking ahead to it that Veterans Day gets lost in the holiday shuffle.

But Europeans still keep the memory of the so-called Great War -- the "war to end all wars" -- alive. As I tell my students when I lecture on World War I, nearly every French village and town has a World War I monument often bearing the names of those lost in the conflict, so that even today when you walk through the town square, you read the names of the men who died. The losses in France were great -- more per capita than any other belligerent during the conflict. So World War I still looms large in their memory.

After World War I, the international pacifist movement gained strength, and governments worked to try and prevent further conflict. They created the League of Nations so that countries could resolve disagreements peacefully. They passed the famous Kellogg-Briand Pact which outlawed war as a means of conflict resolution. The 1920s and 1930s were full of struggle, but the hope for peace was so strong, that they tried every way they could to avoid war again -- even to the point of the now infamous Munich agreement with Hitler.

To us, Munich always looks like foolishness, but that's because we see it in hindsight. To Europeans in the 1930s, their hindsight was the trench warfare of World War I, an experience so grisly and horrible that they would do everything in their power to keep from going back into those trenches. We need that kind of hopefulness for peace again, especially on Armistice Day.

Some food food for thought: "It's Past Time to Bury the Hitler Analogy" at The American Prospect's website:

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