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11:11, make a wish

November 11, 2009

At eleven a.m. on November 11, 1918, an armistice went into effect. Fighting on the western front of World War I officially ceased. In commemoration of this, the first Armistice Day was celebrated on November 11, 1919.

Armistice Day is one of those rare civic holidays that’s celebrated in many countries, in some form or another. The French and Belgians call it Armistice Day; the Poles call it Polish Independence Day; the Italians celebrate it on November 4. The UK and Commonwealth countries call it Remembrance Day and have expanded it to include all veterans, although special emphasis is still placed on WWI.

In the United States, November 11 was originally called Armistice Day. It became Veteran’s Day in 1954, expanded to include all American veterans, and from 1971 to 1977 it was actually celebrated in October. I would argue (although I could be wrong) that most Americans no longer associate the day with World War I, and the fact that we now call it Veteran’s Day and place only incidental emphasis on the day’s connection to World War I reveals the great discrepancies between how the U.S. and Europe experienced and remember that war.

In the U.S., when we talk about the 20th century and American experiences of war, we tend to focus on two points: the Good War (WWII) and the Polarizing War (Vietnam). These two wars are anchoring points for a significant period in American history, and the generations that participated in them are attached to them in deep and meaningful ways. The stories we tell about them tend to play up the heroic role we played in WWII and the complicated role we played in Vietnam. World War I is barely even on our cultural radar, which is not surprising given that Americans only saw active duty there for about a year.

Now if you take a class on modern Europe, this is not the story of World War I that you will get. 1914 is the great dividing year, between the long 19th century and the short 20th century. It’s a watershed year; World War I was called the “Great War” and the “war to end all wars,” because its scale, its scope, its destructive power, was unlike anything seen in Europe at the time. World War I brought down empires on the continent and overseas and gave birth to a myriad of Eastern European nation states (this is why November 11 is Polish Independence Day). World War I brought on the Russian Revolution and the creation of the USSR. Social and cultural trends that Americans associate with WWII—like increased numbers of women in formerly male-dominated jobs—happened in Europe during WWI. An entire generation of men died in the trenches; whole swaths of France and Belgium were destroyed.

The Europe that emerged in 1918 was not the Europe that went to war in 1914. In the wake of such destruction, Europeans looked to rebuild and to defend. At the same time, there was no reconciliation. There was a great amount of tension and resentment between France and Germany. France was convinced the Germans would invade them and built the Maginot Line, which was supposed to prevent another bout of trench warfare. And the way the war ended, many Germans felt that they’d been betrayed by their government, that they had not in fact surrendered, and that the terms of the Versailles Treaty were far too harshly punitive (they were).

Meanwhile the new nation-states in the east were instituting some of the most liberal constitutional governments in the world at the time, while trying to figure out what to do about their “minority problem.” In this new world, every ethnicity was supposed to have it’s own proper nation, but the legacy of the Russian, German, and Austrian empires was a mixed population throughout Central and Eastern Europe. No matter where the dividing lines were drawn, there would always be Poles in Prussia, Ukrainians in Poland, Germans in Czechoslovakia, Hungarians and Romanians in Transylvania, and Jews and Gypsies everywhere. These tensions, combined with worldwide economic problems, would lead directly to the authoritarian regimes of the 1930s and then to World War II.

In America, World War I is a blip we barely acknowledge and World War II far more of a stand-alone event. After our brief involvement in the Great War, the U.S. pulled back and returned to a more isolationist stance. The next time war came to Europe, it raged for two years before the U.S. got involved. America’s wars lasted from 1917-1918 and 1941-1945; Europe’s lasted from 1914-1918 and 1939-1945. And far more importantly, they happened in Europe. The U.S. came out of the WWII triumphant, economically powerful, and in a position to be the great savior of the modern world. Meanwhile, Europe had weathered two enormously destructive wars. Cities and farms were destroyed, people were displaced, society had to be rebuilt. Post-war Europe was not the same suburban idyll that many of us imagination post-war America was.

I’m not trying to say that it’s bad or wrong that we don’t commemorate World War I the same way that the main combatants do. It wasn’t a very important war for our country, and each society focuses on its own defining moments more than those of others. However, it was globally an important event, and I think that, in addition to thinking of our veterans today, we should also take a moment and think about what this day used to commemorate, and what it still does for many people.

if you want a good read on modern European history that deals with many of these topics, I would suggest Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent.

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