While French historians take a common view of WW I, British and German don't

tags: WW I



Sylvie Kauffmann is the editorial director and a former editor in chief of Le Monde.

Hannover CL IIIa, Forest of Argonne, France, 1918

...  This is a very consensual centennial [in France]. We don’t feel like looking beyond our attics and official databanks. While our German and British neighbors have been passionately debating theories about the origins of the war or its utility, all is quiet on the French front.

In Germany, the enormous success of “The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914,” by the Australian historian Christopher Clark, has reopened an old debate about the country’s guilt, which was thought to have been settled with the acceptance of Fritz Fischer’s 1961 book, “Germany’s Aims in the First World War.” While the official narrative since then has pointed to Germany’s responsibility for the outbreak of the war, Mr. Clark’s book has shed a new light on its origins, describing a “shared aggression, paranoia and a reckless game of brinkmanship on all sides, not just in Berlin.” Opinion polls earlier this year showed that the German consensus has shifted, with only 19 percent of Germans saying they believed their country bore chief responsibility for the outbreak of the war.

Britain has witnessed a more classic but lively dispute between left and right over this year’s commemorations, with Conservatives criticizing “revisionist” views of the Great War as a futile, insane loss of life orchestrated by criminal generals. Former Education Secretary Michael Gove even launched his own culture war against leftist historians and TV shows like the BBC’s “Blackadder” series that cast World War I as “a misbegotten shambles.”

In France, the Socialist president, François Hollande, decided to associate the traditional Bastille Day military parade down the Champs-Elysées with the centennial of World War I, inviting soldiers from 70 countries who fought in the war to take part. On matters of defense, the French are generally united; left and right went along with this, as they went along with the creation of the official “Mission Centenaire” (Centennial Committee), set up by former President Nicolas Sarkozy to oversee all of this year’s war-related events. This committee even has its own board of historians, official guardians of the consensus.

Christopher Clark’s thesis has only been discussed in passing. The last controversy about World War I, which raged in 1998 over the mutinies of 1917 and whether the “poilus” (as the “hairy” infantrymen with beards and mustaches were called) were willing or forced to go to war, has been swept under the rug. For the French, the Great War was the “good war,” with the whole nation united, unlike World War II[2], which was tainted by collaboration with the Nazi occupier. In today’s times of uncertainty and division, the “poilu” is our universal hero: Some regiments even came from Africa; he has become untouchable.... 




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