All over Europe, ceremonies are being held these weeks to commemorate 100 years since the outbreak of World War I. Even Russia, where the war has been largely erased from history, unveiled a monument dedicated to “to the Heroes of WWI”. In a twist of cruel irony, it was no other that President Putin who said at the opening that “the tragedy of WWI reminds us what excessive ambitions, an unwillingness to listen to each other and violations of liberties lead to”. If only he would listen to himself. In an even crueler irony, the web address of the article of Russia Today about the event is http://rt.com/news/177300-putin-world-war-ambitions/!
Nevertheless, WWI was, and still is, a conflict of superlatives – also known as The Great War, and the War to End All Wars. More than any other conflict before or since, World War I reshaped the maps and minds of Europe, unleashing powers no one imagined possible and sending shock waves that ripple through the Old Continent, and the world, ever since.
The impact on Europe of that Great War surpasses the even greater war that followed – World War II. In fact, WWII can be viewed as a sequel to WWI – the participants and alliances were the same and the war was fought on the same battlefields as in 1914-1918. Arguably, the Balkan wars of the 1990’s were a “frozen conflict” left by WWI, that erupted once the political situation “defrosted” it. In a way, even the current events in Ukraine are a distant echo of the fighting of a century ago. The Russian Empire was simply too big to disintegrate at once, and the chunks and pieces of that colossus still rumble as they fall and settle, even 100 years later.
The legacy of WWI is still felt across the continent. Every village in France, Britain and Germany has a memorial listing the dozens of names of fallen soldiers. Unexploded ordnance still occasionally claims lives in Flanders Fields. Families from as far as Australia come over to re-bury their ancestors as their remains are finally identified. Excursions to the battlefields are rated as “excellent” almost unanimously on TripAdvisor.
In sharp contrast, here in the Netherlands, WWI is not part of the collective memory. The Netherlands managed to maintain neutrality, positioning itself as a “social hub” for spies from all the warring parties during the entire war. The commemoration is largely a foreign affair here. There is even no official memorial service. Personally, I find it weird to say the least. Even being officially neutral, the country was involved in the conflict in countless ways, from accommodating refugees and interning thousands of Allied and German soldiers to losing dozens of ships in the limitless submarine warfare. Besides, nowadays the Netherlands is home to hundreds of thousands people originating from countries that did fight in WWI – the Germans, Belgians, Yugoslavs and British residing here all have relatives who have fought and died in those terrible years.
I think the Dutch public could and should learn more about the Great War and its significance and impact. Fortunately, I am not alone in this. The NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies states that in the last months the interest for WWI has been surprisingly high, and has installed a national coordinator for the commemoration of the centennial of WWI. Hopefully, we will all learn something from the commemoration. Or at the very least, remember the Great War of 1914-1918.