The First World War left no stone unturned in Europe. During four very long years, sixty million young men had to fight, and close to ten million never returned from the trenches. Machine-guns, shrapnel, tanks and gas added horror to heroism. A hundred years ago today, the old world was gone, die Welt von gestern, as Stefan Zweig would later describe it.
Not only for the young soldiers was it an old world which they had left behind in the summer of 1914. That old world had also framed the minds of the peace makers. After the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires had collapsed, these old men attempted to re-establish order and peace based on parameters from previous centuries. Only ten years later, it had become obvious that they had failed.
While the old world was gone, the new world was neither understood nor mastered by most of those in power. Only some far-sighted artists, writers and intellectuals were able to describe the horror through their words and paintings. In fact, after the truce of the 11th of November, nothing was quiet on the Western front, or on any other. What followed was street fighting in Germany, terror in Russia, autocracies in Central Europe, Black Shirts in Italy, Babylon Berlin, and later the Great Depression all over the Western world. The rest is silence.
In Sir Edward Grey’s famous words, the lamps had gone out all over Europe in 1914. It would take 75 years, until 1989, for all of them to be lit again. 75 years of anomaly, insecurity, suffering and resentment, 75 years with another World War, and without real peace thereafter. It took an enormous joint effort for us Europeans, greatly helped by our American cousins, to turn the page on two insane ideologies carried by two evil dictators, to leave behind a second nightmare, even more devastating than the first, and much aggravated by genocide, bombardments, and mass expulsion.
1945 changed everything for our parents. A year later, in his Zurich speech, Churchill asked for European unity. Schuman, Adenauer, de Gasperi and Spaak then took the courage to create it. They were men of a new world, conscious of the errors of 1919. In the shadow of the Cold War, Europe set out for its second renaissance. “Never again” became our founding myth. Our parents asked for forgiveness, and were ready to forgive. Foes of yesteryear became friends. My own children are French and German. As thousands of others of their generation, they enjoy the privilege of a double heritage.
Your three hosts today did not hesitate a second to jointly invite you to this moment of commemoration. Respect and friendship have long diluted the dichotomy of victory and defeat. We have all learned from the past 100 years.
My fellow Germans and I grew up with the clear understanding that a large part of the responsibility for Europe’s darkest period was on our shoulders. This was hard to bear at times, but we did accept it. We developed our attitudes accordingly, in the middle of a continent that gradually won back its soul. We travelled, we studied, we discovered, we listened, we laughed among young Europeans. Do we not owe this to the sacrifice of our grandfathers who were never given these opportunities?
Western Europe made immense progress over four decades. We formed a strong union, a center of gravity attracting ever more nations to join the adventure. But Europe as a whole remained incomplete until 1989. On the streets of Poland, across the fence between Hungary and Austria, and above the rubble of the Berlin Wall, a window suddenly opened. Our fellow Europeans tore down the Iron Curtain, to be free, and to join us. Finally, all borders were accepted as they stood, and by all. Woodrow Wilson had belatedly won his battle for self-determination. For my generation, 1989 was nothing short of a miracle.
A word of caution at the end. Thirty years after Europe’s unification, we are very much aware that there is no such thing as the end of history. Our center of gravity is showing signs of weakness. Our new world is far from being secured. Some people want to get rid of European unity altogether. This must not happen. We can certainly do better with our construction project, and correct mistakes. But we should not let it be destroyed. We owe this to the gallant soldiers who have fallen in the two wars. Through their sacrifice they have, most of them unconsciously, opened the door to a new Europe, the Europe of “Never again”. That door must remain open. Nobody should dare to close it.
We will remember them.