FOLKESTONE, England — The war that was supposed to end all wars didn’t. But who knew it would still be causing skirmishes nearly a century later?
As Europe prepares this year to mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, clashes have erupted over how best to remember a dreadful conflict that claimed the lives of millions and radically changed the course of human history.
With commemorations set across the continent, some want to recognize it as an important victory for nations such as Britain and France, which won at a heavy price. Yet that risks upsetting current ally Germany, which lost.
Others warn that the real lesson — the madness of war — is in danger of being ditched in a show of militaristic pride; the focus, they say, should be on peace. But then how to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice?
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The arguments, played out in both public and private, illustrate the fascination the Great War continues to hold on this side of the Atlantic and the ongoing debate over its meaning, even though hardly anyone alive now can remember it, much less have fought in it. For many Europeans, the 1914-18 conflict remains the defining event of their modern history, a cataclysm on a scale that no one had seen before and one that sowed the seeds of a second global conflagration.
What began with the assassination of an Austrian archduke by a Serbian nationalist, on June 28, 1914, swiftly bloomed into a wider conflict between alliances of powers alarmed by each other’s territorial ambitions, with Britain, France and Russia on one side and Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire on the other. Trench warfare and gas attacks introduced new horrors to the battlefield. By the time fighting ended four years later, the conflict had pulled in the United States and dozens of other nations.
In Britain, the cash-strapped government is planning four years of “national acts of remembrance,” including films, lectures, museum installations, ceremonial vigils, community history projects and school trips to the fields of Flanders.
French President François Hollande is issuing an unprecedented invitation to leaders of all 72 nations that took part in the war to join him in Paris for its annual military parade in July. France, which lost more than 1 million soldiers, will also recall the strategically vital but exceptionally bloody 1914 Battle of the Marne, the confrontation that left as many as half a million soldiers dead or wounded in about a week and led to years of hideous stalemate in the trenches of the Western Front.
Similar events are to take place in neighboring Belgium. Even Germany, considered the chief aggressor, is putting on exhibitions for the centennial, emphasizing the sense of European Union unity so many decades later.
“Our look is at reconciliation, to have as many former enemies together as possible and to show that we have learned from our mistakes,” said Norman Walter, a spokesman for the German Embassy in London.
But the nature and tone of some events elsewhere have become hotly contested, especially in Britain.
When Prime Minister David Cameron compared the upcoming commemorations to 2012’s Diamond Jubilee for Queen Elizabeth II, many were aghast. They’re concerned that the government’s four-year plan, encompassing 2,000 exhibitions and events, will end up celebrating a war that should never have taken place. A coalition dubbed “No Glory,” which opposes any downplaying of the war’s terrible toll, has drawn the support of high-profile Britons, including actors Jude Law and Alan Rickman.
“Any remembrance of World War I that is run in a sane or humane way has to be about warning against any repetition,” said Chris Nineham of Stop the War, an organization of peace activists. “That’s not a political position. That’s a humanitarian position.”
Critics are leery of patriotic fervor or military pride in the official program; some even detect a political agenda at work, an attempt to reinterpret the past to justify a more hawkish current British foreign policy.
“If you read the literature around the event, there’s an explicit commitment to rehabilitating one of the most terrible slaughters of the 20th century and indeed of world history,” said Nineham, whose group is devising counterprogramming. “The reason why these people are wanting to rewrite history is to free them up to fight more wars in the future. It’s not an academic question.”
Hew Strachan, a professor at Oxford, warns that depicting the war as merely an exercise in futility and carnage is also misguided, because it ignores the fact that many Allied soldiers and leaders believed their cause was just: preserving freedom and preventing German domination of Europe.