Why WWI Still Haunts Europe a Century Later
German troops advancing across open ground at Villers-Bretonneux during Germany's last major effort to secure victory on the Western Front. Germany had hoped a quick victory over France would propel it to victory against Russia.
It has now been 100 years since the outbreak of World War I, but the European catastrophe remains relevant today. As the Continent looks back this year, old wounds could once again be rubbed raw.
Joachim Gauck, the 11th president of the Federal Republic of Germany, executes his duties in a palace built for the Hohenzollern dynasty. But almost all memories of Prussian glory have been eliminated from Bellevue Palace in Berlin, where there is no pomp and there are no uniforms and few flags. The second door on the left in the entrance hall leads into a parlor where Gauck receives visitors.
In the so-called official room, there are busts of poet Heinrich von Kleist and Social Democrat Friedrich Ebert, the first German president after Kaiser Wilhelm II fled the country into exile, on a shelf behind the desk. There are two paintings on the wall: an Italian landscape by a German painter, and a view of Dresden by Canaletto, the Italian painter.
Gauck likes the symbolism. Nations and their people often view both the world and the past from different perspectives. The president says that he doesn't find this disconcerting, because he is aware of the reasons. In 2014, the year of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, the eyes of the world will be focused on Germany's head of state. It will be the biggest historical event to date in the 21st century.
And Gauck represents the losers.
The war made little sense even at the time and was primarily the result of large powers attempting to prove their dominance over the Continent. Here, German machine gunners defending a position near the Italian-Slovenian border in 1917.
More than 60 million soldiers from five continents participated in that orgy of violence. Almost one in six men died, and millions returned home with injuries or missing body parts -- noses, jaws, arms. Countries like France, Belgium and the United Kingdom are planning international memorial events, wreath-laying ceremonies, concerts and exhibits, as are faraway nations like New Zealand and Australia, which formed their identities during the war.
Poles, citizens of the Baltic countries, Czechs and Slovaks will also commemorate the years between 1914 and 1918, because they emerged as sovereign nations from the murderous conflict between the Entente and the Central Powers.
Unthinkable in Germany
A group of royals at the end of the 19th century. Many of the leaders of the big European powers on the eve of World War I were related. In this 1894 picture, the Prince of Wales, later to become King Edward VII, can be seen on the back-right. Next to him stands Wilhelm II, the emperor of the German Reich.
In the coming months, World War I will become a mega issue in the public culture of commemoration. The international book market will present about 150 titles in Germany alone, and twice as many in France -- probably a world record for a historic subject. The story of a generation that has long passed on will be retold. New questions will be asked and new debates will unfold. British Prime Minister David Cameron is even making funds available to enable all children attending Britain's government-run schools to visit the battlefields of the Western Front.
World War I was the first fully industrialized conflict. Among its horrors was also one of the first uses of poison gas in warfare. Here, gasmasks for German soldiers and their dogs are being tested.
A response of this nature would be unthinkable in pacifist Germany.
But Western Europeans paid a higher death toll in World War I than in any other war in their history, which is why they call it "The Great War" or "La Grande Guerre." Twice as many Britons, three times as many Belgians and four times as many Frenchmen died on the Maas and the Somme than in all of World War II. That's one of the reasons, says Gauck in his office in the Hohenzollern palace, why he could imagine "a German commemoration of World War I as merely a sign of respect for the suffering of those we were fighting at the time."
A mounted army patrol reconnoiters in the Alsace region in 1915. Much of Europe is marking the centennial of the beginning of World War I this year.
The "Great War" was not only particularly bloody, but it also ushered in a new era of warfare, involving tanks, aircraft and even chemical weapons. Its outcome would shape the course of history for years to come, even for an entire century in some regions.
In the coming weeks, SPIEGEL will describe the consequences of World War I that continue to affect us today: the emergence of the United States as the world's policeman, France's unique view of Germany, the ethnic hostilities in the Balkans and the arbitrary drawing of borders in the Middle East, consequences that continue to burden and impede the peaceful coexistence of nations to this day.
Stretcher bearers carry a wounded soldier in Flanders. The Western Front saw some of the most violent and deadly battles ever seen in the history of warfare.
Several summit meetings are scheduled for the 2014 political calendar, some with and some without Gauck. Queen Elizabeth II will receive the leaders of Commonwealth countries in Glasgow Cathedral. Australia, New Zealand, Poland and Slovenia are also planning meetings of the presidents or prime ministers of all or selected countries involved in World War I.
'A Different Nation Today'
August 3 is at the top of Gauck's list. On that day, he and French President François Hollande will commemorate the war dead at Hartmannswillerkopf, a peak in the Alsace region that was bitterly contested by the Germans and the French in the war. The German president is also among the more than 50 heads of state of all countries involved in World War I who will attend a ceremony at the fortress of Liège hosted by Belgium's King Philippe. Gauck, a former citizen of East Germany, sees himself as "the German who represents a different nation today, and who remembers the various horrors that are associated with the German state."
German and Austrian prisoners of war in 1918. At the time World War I began, war was seen as a legitimate tool of foreign policy.
The 73-year-old president hopes that the series of commemorative events will remind Europeans how far European integration has come since 1945. Gauck notes that the "absolute focus on national interests" à la 1914/1918 did not led to happy times for any of the wartime enemies.
But he knows that the memory of the horrors of a war doesn't just reconcile former enemies but can also tear open wounds that had become scarred over. In this respect, the centenary of World War I comes at an unfavorable time. Many European countries are seeing a surge of nationalist movements and of anti-German sentiment prior to elections to the European Parliament in May 2014.
In a recent poll, 88 percent of Spanish, 82 percent of Italian and 56 percent of French respondents said that Germany has too much influence in the European Union. Some even likened today's Germany to the realm of the blustering Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Last August, a British journalist emerged from a conversation with the press attaché at the German Embassy in London with the impression that Berlin, in the interest of promoting reconciliation, wanted to take part in commemorative ceremony in neighboring countries. This led to an outcry in the British press, which claimed that the Germans were trying to prevent the British from celebrating their victory in World War I.
Source of Apprehension
Such episodes are a source of apprehension for Gauck. "One can only hope that the voice of the enlightened is stronger today than it was in the period between the two wars."
And if it isn't? "Europe is too peaceful for me to consider the possibility of wartime scenarios once again. Nevertheless, we saw in the Balkans that archaic mechanisms of hate can take hold once again in the middle of a peaceful decade," Gauck warns.
Such "yes, but" scenarios on World War I are often mentioned. In the era of NATO and integrated armed forces, hardly anyone can imagine a war between Europeans. Still, it is possible to sow discord in other ways in the 21st century. Today's equivalent of the mobilization of armed forces in the past could be the threat to send a country like Greece into bankruptcy unless its citizens comply with the demands of European finance ministers. Historians of different stripes note with concern that the course of events in 1914 are not that different from what is happening in Europe today.
Even a century ago, the world was globalized after a fashion. Intercontinental trade was booming, and export quotas were higher than they would be until the era of former Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Germans wore jackets made of Indian cotton and drank coffee from Central America. They worked as barbers in London, bakers in St. Petersburg and maids in Paris, while Poles slaved away in Germany's industrial Ruhr region.
More than 9 million soldiers died as a result of the First World War, a deadly conflict that paved the way for revolutions and major political upheaval in the years ahead.
Images of victory and pride have been circulated widely since the fighting ended in 1918, but lesser known are the pictures which show how troops and civilians lived their everyday lives while the bloodshed unfolded.
On the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War , the Moscow House of Photography has prepared a large-scale international project called 'The War That Ended Peace' that brings together a collaboration of images from the world’s leading museums, alongside public and private archives.
The stunning photographs depict the war through the eyes of those who fought on all sides of the conflict. It includes prisoners of wars staring through the barbed wire fences of German camps, wounded soldiers with limbs amputated walking through Poland, and families attending private funerals of the fallen in France.
The grainy pictures also capture soldiers, wearing their gasmasks, waiting patiently in the trenches, while others are seen running through a cloud of smoke.
Unity: A picture titled 'Prisoners of the British Army', taken in 1918, was taken from a private collection in France. It forms part of 'The War That Ended Peace' project
Care: A picture provided by Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow (MAMM) shows an old photograph showing a nurse of the French Red Cross helping an indigent
Walking wounded: This picture shows troops involved in an exchange of German and Austrian prisoners of war in Sweden
Trapped: This grainy photo shows a prisoner looking through the barbed fire fence at the St Felix German Prisoners camp in Aisne, northern France
Infantry: A group of soldiers wearing H.P gas marks having taken a trench, fire at the retreating enemy
Behind the screen: Troops wearing gas masks and helmets emerge from the smoke created by a gas attack
A Senegalese soldier cleans his rifle in France. At the outbreak of war in 1914, many of the soldiers moved from active duty in Northern Africa to be stationed in Europe
Trail of destruction: This image, taken in 1917, shows debris inside a 'ruined church'. It is believed to have been located in France
March: The Infantry of the 1st Brigade Polish Legions enters Kowel in 1915.The image was donated by the Polish Army Museum in Warsaw
Inside the camp: A guard stands in the shadows at Holzminden prisoner of war camp in Lower Saxony, Germany
Guard: Soldiers stand outside the entrance of the Citadelle de Verdun in Meuse, France.The doorway leads to nearly three miles of tunnels
Armoury: This picture shows shells neatly lined up in a French workshop in 1916. Tanks were developed during the Great War to combat the stalemate of trench warfare
Convenience store: Russian soldiers stand outhside a shop which sells 'spiritueux et liqueurs' (spirits and liquor) on the Place des Marches in Reims, France
The last emperor: Tsar Nicholas II (pictured on the left in the papakha ) inspects Belgian volunteers before sending them onto the Gallicia front line
Nourishment: A soldier on leaves sits down to enjoy a well-deserved meal at the Gare de l'Est military canteen in Paris in 1917
The fallen: An image entitled 'Narwa military burial' shows a group of mourners surrounding a cross in a cemetery
Sitting together: A group of British and Russian officers of the RNAS Armoured Car Squadron in Galicia relax in a field prior to the Russian offensive of July 1917
On the ground: A female worker carefully paints the wing of an SE5A aircraft at the Austin Motor Company factory in Birmingham in 1918
When the war began, Europe's armies had an understanding of warfare that put the use of cavalry in high regard. Soon, however, the deadly terrain that evolved around trench warfare rendered cavalry attacks nearly useless on the Western Front. But the need for constant resupply, movement of new heavy weaponry, and the transport of troops demanded horse power on a massive scale -- automobiles, tractors, and trucks were relatively new inventions and somewhat rare. British and French forces imported horses from colonies and allies around the world, a near-constant flow of hundreds of thousands of animals across the oceans, headed for war. One estimate places the number of horses killed during the four years of warfare at nearly 8 million. Other animals proved their usefulness as well: Dogs became messengers, sentries, rescuers, and small beasts of burden. Pigeons acted as messenger carriers, and even (experimentally) as aerial reconnaissance platforms. Mules and camels were drafted into use in various war theatres, and many soldiers brought along mascots to help boost morale. Only a couple of decades later, at the onset of World War II, most military tasks assigned to animals were done by machines, and warfare would never again rely so heavily on animal power.