France 'still feeling' the legacy of WWI 100 years on


As France prepares to mark 100 years since the beginning of the First World War, historian Nicolas Offenstadt, one of the leaders of the country’s official Commemoration Mission, explains why the conflict is still significant.


France on Monday November 11 remembers the Armistice that marked the end of the First World War in 1918 after four years of bloody conflict that cost millions of lives.

France’s staggering casualty list included around 1.4 million killed in a war that has left an indelible imprint on the national consciousness.

The country is now preparing for the centenary commemorations of the First World War, to begin next year (France entered the war in August 1914), organised by the state-sponsored Centenary Mission which is organising hundreds of events to remember and debate the devastating legacy of the global conflict.

French historian Nicolas Offenstadt, a member of the Mission’s council who has published a new book on the French experience of the war to mark the centenary, tells FRANCE 24 why the First World War remains a crucial event in the country's history and that its legacy, still being felt, needs to be tackled head on. 

FRANCE 24: Why is it so important to commemorate a war that took place so long ago?

Nicolas Offenstadt: There is a very real need for this in France. Yes, it is an historical event, but we are still feeling the consequences in almost every aspect of our lives. For ordinary people, memories of the war remain strong, anchored as they are in narratives of millions of French families.

It is also an important time to reflect on France’s experience as a nation. The Great War was a colossal and traumatic event. Millions were killed. It was a demographic, human and economic trauma on a massive scale that had a profound and lasting effect on all those countries that took part.

The questions it raises are as important today as they were then. What is the relationship between the individual citizen and the state? Can citizens still be called on to defend their country? What does it mean to make a collective effort? What is the meaning of national solidarity?

FRANCE 24: What are the challenges for France in dealing with this legacy?

Offenstadt: One of the big challenges is France's colonial history.The Great War included a huge participation of troops from France’s former colonies, a participation that is not nearly as well understood as it should be. The debate will have - and must have - a significant impact on the contentious issue of 21st century immigration while helping France come to terms with the realities of its colonial past.

Getting it right is vitally important. One aspect that is often overlooked is that many of France’s colonial troops were not volunteers - many of them were forced to fight, and there was a great deal of resistance.

This needs to be recognised. We must be faithful to the past, and we must never gloss over difficult issues with bland platitudes that have no basis in reality. Talking about glorious natives of former colonies who volunteered to fight and die for the French motherland is both wrong and utterly counterproductive.

These elements need to be put into the public sphere so that they can be properly debated, and this is one of the things the mission has set out to do. It will allow us to put many of our modern problems into a better perspective and help deal with them with greater honesty.

FRANCE 24: What is the involvement of former allies in next year's commemorations?

Offenstadt: The mission’s objectives are global, and hundreds of forthcoming commemorative events are being organised with our international partners. We have been working on these exchanges for years, while American and British Commonwealth countries’ memorials have been in place in France for decades.

The mission is in touch with ministers from all these countries, including Britain, and also Canada, Australia and New Zealand for whom, like France, the experience of the First World War remains a central part of their national consciousness.

FRANCE 24: What about former enemies, like Germany, which is a close partner of modern France?

Offenstadt: Germany is a big challenge. But this isn’t because of any lasting animosity.

While the First World War did have a huge impact on German 20th century history, it is overshadowed by later, and far more traumatic events - the rise of Nazism, the devastation of the Second World War, national division and eventual reunification.

Meanwhile, the mission has had a difficult time finding partners in Germany for commemorative events, not least because it is a federal republic that has no central culture ministry. Everything has had to be done through the individual states (Länder).

And there is the issue of Germany having lost the war. Of course it is difficult for Germans, who are now France’s closest European partner, to help commemorate a French military victory, a victory that had dramatic and eventually catastrophic consequences for Germany.

And then there is the very difficult question of Turkey [Ottoman Turkey was allied with the central powers]. This is compounded by its refusal to accept the reality of the 1915 Armenian genocide.

Ankara was, and remains, furious with France for passing a law in 2012 that outlawed the denial of this genocide.

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