Having spent some time in England over the festive season, I found myself bombarded (no pun intended) by news relating to the upcoming centenary of the outbreak of World War I. I also read that German politicians are not planning high-profile remembrance services, preferring instead more low-key ways of marking the event – a fact that seemed to disappoint the British journalist who wrote the story. It is interesting to observe how we become accustomed to our national perspective on issues, making it difficult to see another point of view.
But then Britain’s relationship to the Great War is perhaps unique – the issue is still very much alive. The annual National Service of Remembrance plays a pivotal role throughout the country with live coverage from the Cenotaph in Whitehall on the Sunday closest to 11 November (World War I Armistice Day). Also, expressions like feeling shell-shocked (when something far more mundane is the matter), or ‘all quiet on the Western Front’, to say that all is calm and there’s no trouble brewing, are still used widely.
The latter one is interesting. The Western Front, where most British servicemen saw action, ran from the coast of Belgium through France and down to the Swiss border, and was so named quite simply because it was in Western Europe. The source of the expression is more surprising: it is the title of a 1929 novel by the German writer Erich Maria Remarque, an unflinching tale of the mental destruction and eventual annihilation of a group of young German school friends at the front. The book became an American Oscar-winning film in 1930 and was translated into over fifty languages, making it a bestseller. Though a World War I veteran himself – his book was based on personal experience – Remarque’s dim view of armed conflict did not sit well with German ‘politicians’ at the time, and he enjoyed the further distinction of having his book burned by the Nazis.
Germany has come around to Remarque’s point of view, though. A few weeks ago on ’Tagesthemen’ (Review of the day on German national television) there was a report covering the Federal government’s support for the launch of Europeana 1914-1918, an online archive dedicated to telling the usually unheard, personal stories of World War I through film, pictures and artefacts from different sides of the conflict. The act of supporting and publicly promoting this archive – which is partly the work of Oxford University – reflects a more European, less nationalistic perspective on an event that will be occupying the media extensively in 2014.