Today French President Emmanuel Macron officiated at a ceremony before the Arc de Triomphe in Paris marking the 100th anniversary of the Armistice which ended the First World War. While dozens of heads of state from around the world were present, the featured guests were the German Chancellor and the presidents of Turkey, Russia and the United States. They were seated on either side of Macron and were picked up repeatedly by the cameramen who projected their images onto large screens and into the television feed of the French broadcasters.
There is fitting logic for the venue and for the honor roll. We recall that four years ago, the commemoration of the start of The Great War took place in Belgium, where the hostilities on the Western Front began in August 1914. The fighting ended in France with the signing of the Armistice on 11 November 1918 in a railway car near Compiègne, not far from Paris, where the German army had staged its last, unsuccessful offensive. Hence the role accorded to France from among all combatant states to lead the solemn events this year.
As for the highest consideration paid not to an ally in the Entente, but to precisely the leader of the once-upon enemy, Angela Merkel, we must recall that German-French reconciliation has underpinned the peace project that we know as the European Union from its inception and the two countries have guided the Union in tandem ever since, even if the French half has limped along this past decade under deeply flawed and unpopular heads of state.
In this essay we will consider several issues surrounding this commemoration of WWI. First, the message of “multilateralism” which figured in Macron’s speech today at the Arc de Triomphe and serves as the leitmotiv of the Forum for Peace which he opened this afternoon to a vast number of participants including the visiting heads of state, NGOs, business interests. Macron’s message was built on a wholly incorrect reading of the “lessons of history” surrounding the Great War. We will consider the question from a very different perspective. Second, we will look at the commemorative events from the standpoint of Emmanuel Macron’s ongoing bid to replace Angela Merkel as the de facto leader of Europe and position himself as a politician of global stature. Finally, we will consider the unprecedented presence of the president of Russia in WWI commemorations in the West and look at how Russian television has been serving up the centenary to the public.
Let us not mince words: the lessons of history which Emmanuel Macron drew for his global audience is that WWI came about from forces of nationalism and that its conclusion, in the Treaty of Versailles, unleashed new waves of national egoism that engendered fascism and led to the tragedy of the Second World War. Per Macron, these same forces of nationalism are rising again in our midst and must be thwarted.
Regrettably, this is willful reading into the past of present concerns of Davos…