Ambitious plans to remember WWI could strain a troubled European Union

Things are far from quiet on the Western Front

Michael Preston/Demotix/Corbis

Next December, a team of Britons and a team of Germans will play soccer on a historic field in Flanders. The game will mark 100 years since the First World War’s “Christmas truce,” in which British and German soldiers, squaring off on the Western Front, declared a temporary ceasefire: shuffling out of their trenches to sing holiday carols, retrieve and bury the dead, exchange cigarettes, and kick around some soccer balls.

By Christmas 2014, the Great War’s centenary celebrations will be well under way. Indeed, the war that was supposed to end all wars will be tough to avoid. In many countries, tens of millions of dollars have been pledged—and four years of wall-to-wall commemorating has been arranged. But exactly how (and how much) should we remember?

It won’t all be as cheery as a soccer game—especially in Europe, where former battlefield enemies are now joined in a rather troubled European Union. In August, relations between Britain and Germany turned sour when it was revealed that Berlin had sent a special envoy to London to discuss the centenary—and reportedly asked Britain to tone down its commemorations. Britain should strike a “less declamatory tone,” urged Norman Walter, of the German embassy in London. “We [in Germany] would prefer not to have any celebrations, having lost. Our feeling is that issues about who was guilty and all that should be left more or less to historians.”

Britain’s centenary plans have been years in the making, and are particularly ambitious. In an October 2012 speech, British Prime Minister David Cameron unveiled a new centenary website and a new centenary logo—and announced that London’s Imperial War Museum, with $60 million of government financing, would lead a network of more than 1,000 centenary-focused organizations. “There is something about the First World War that makes it a fundamental part of our national consciousness,” said Cameron. “I feel it very deeply.” Over the next few months, local groups announced a variety of projects: ship refurbishments, memorial plaques and gardens of poppies. The BBC announced 2,500 hours of related programming. Before long, critics were accusing Cameron’s government of turning the centenary into a “celebration of war.” In a scathing editorial, the Guardian urged the PM not to “wrap himself in the flag.”

At the same time, those on the right have accused Cameron of not celebrating enough. An article in the right-leaning Telegraph quoted historians who say that Cameron’s centenary “focuses on British defeats”: marking carnage-filled campaigns like the Battle of Somme, but ignoring the victories of 1918’s Hundred-Days Offensive. Oxford University professor Hew Strachan, who sits on Britain’s centenary planning committee, has charged the government with striking too subdued a tone. “There are causes for celebration, too,” cautions Strachan. But “we find it very difficult to elevate our gaze from our parochial preoccupations with the mud of the Western Front.”

Much of the conflict can be traced to European Union fissures. With respect to the centenary, Euroskeptical Britain has largely kept to itself—promoting joint Commonwealth events. France, eager to assert its place in the Union, has sought out opportunities for Franco-German collaboration. In Germany, the EU’s most forceful supporter of fiscal union, the 2014 lead-up has been more muted. Germans “don’t want to appear, given the political situation in Europe, to be beating their chests and saying ‘Oh, what a glorious past we had!’ ” historian Margaret MacMillan recently told Maclean’s.

Other countries will have their own centenary complications. In Belgium, Flemish nationalists will use the centenary to draw attention to their independence claims. In 2015, Turkey will face the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, which it still denies ever happened. Italy is reportedly fretting that its wartime sacrifices will be overlooked. Russian MPs would like the centenary to “raise patriotism in young people.” And Australian critics will continue to charge that their government’s $135-million centenary expenditure is grossly excessive. (Canada has budgeted $5 million to build a visitor centre at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France.)

Belgium—where so much of the First World War’s fighting took place—is preparing for a deluge of tourists. The Flanders Fields Museum has been renovated. A new building has been constructed at the Passchendaele memorial. Broken headstones at the Tyne Cot war cemetery are being replaced. And Flanders’ tourism chiefs are trying to create accommodation space for some half a million commemorators. One hundred years later, things are far from quiet on the Western Front.