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 November1918 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 Culture elites over populism, Euro-skepticism, and Trumpism. It is a continuation of the same self-serving interpretation that already was evident in 2014 in François Hollande’s address at ceremonies commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War when he decried nascent aggressive nationalism and populism.
A more open-ended and unprejudiced look at issues surrounding the First World War yields very different and more troubling findings, though the overarching notion of parallels between then and now remains true. What raised international tensions and threatened war then is indeed the same today. But it was/is not nationalism as such. It was the strivings of the great power of the day, the hegemon of 1914, Great Britain, together with its allies, to maintain the World Order they knew and profited from by preventing the rise of Germany to world power status. Just as today, the United States with its allies is striving with might and main to “contain” resurgent Russia and economic, soon to be military superpower China. The contributing factor then and now is the alliance system itself, the two power blocs. Then they were the Entente and Central Powers, today they are NATO and Russia-China.
Henry Kissinger argued persuasively in his 1994 master work Diplomacy that balance of power and spheres of influence built around national egoism did not bring about WWI, as Wilsonian idealists and their followers in the United States and in Europe today insist. It was the breakdown of balance of power with its freely realigning nation-states, its replacement by the rigidity of the alliances under constraints of the then military technology and logistics requiring mass and irreversible mobilizations that constituted a deus ex machina, a determinism that overrode the intentions, hopes and fears of individual statesmen on all sides.
As for the interwar period, French Marshal Foch who signed the 1918 Armistice noted that the eventual terms of peace ensured not durable peace but only a twenty-year truce. The consequences of the horrific blood-letting in the Great War and of the destruction of French industry in that war made very remote the likelihood of generosity to the vanquished or, alternatively, keeping Germany down indefinitely. It is cheap rhetoric to declare that a multilateral approach based on international institutions could have averted the disaster that developed in the 1930s. The root causes lay in the madness, in the folly of Europe’s ruling classes in 1914.
Macron is promoting “multilateralism” and global governance through the international institutions Washington built ever since the end of the Second World War. This is a World Order characterized by US domination and subservience from all its allies, including the European Union, for which in return European elites have helped themselves to a handsome share in the spoils of power.
The butt of Macron’s address today and of his Peace Forum was Donald Trump with his scorn for international institutions to which the United States contributions have far outweighed those of other members, his dislike for the limitations imposed by international conventions and his rude insistence on “America First” mercantilism.
The front page of yesterday’s leading French daily in Belgium, Le Soir, blasts the news that “Trump Shuns Macron’s Peace Summit.” That sharp rebuke to the American president may sell newspapers but it tells us nothing that common sense would not foresee. Trump was not present at the Joint Session of Congress in April when Emmanuel Macron delivered his address attacking the whole of Trumpism to a rapturous audience. He would have been a fool to be present today when Macron sought to isolate and attack his policies before the thousands attending the Forum. And Donald Trump is no such fool.
The solemn ceremony in Paris was the culmination of week-long commemorative events in the northeast of France, at battlefields visited by Emmanuel Macron and selected guests. The most important surely was at Verdun, where more than one million combatants lost their lives. The most symbolic was at Compiègne, outside Paris, where German forces signed the armistice with Allied commander General Foch. Here Macron’s partner was Angela Merkel and they reconfirmed yet again the eternal friendship between their countries. .
The visits earlier in the week one on one with European leaders including Theresa May, and more particularly the gathering in Paris today were structured in support of Macron’s ambition to assume the mantle of de facto political leader of the European Union, and so become a figure of global importance. He alone delivered an address. And he set conditions for his VIP guests to ensure that the side interests among them would not detract from the sole focus of the event. They were under orders not to speak among themselves. And so we in the television audience saw an unusually glum and bored assembly of national leaders.
Macron’s bid comes in circumstances when the leadership role in Europe has been slipping through the fingers of Angela Merkel. Since her recent renunciation of her position as head of her party which is due to be filled at a gathering in December and by her renunciation of candidacy for re-election as chancellor in 2021, Merkel has been on the skids politically, with an exit from power projected as early as February 2019, depending on who is chosen to succeed her in the party directorship.
For his part, Macron’s bid for an international audience comes at a time when his own standing at home has been slipping precipitously. This has been due to domestic policies rolled out as “reforms” but amounting to an attack on the privileges and protections of organized labor. In addition, Macron has worked to his own detriment by a series of gaffes and demonstrations of poor judgment. These included inaction when his personal assistant beat up marchers on May Day while wearing a police uniform to which he was not entitled. More recently Macron was filmed engaging in chit-chat with half-naked black youths in the poor outlying districts of Paris while one gave him the finger. This was seen as an inexcusable breach of decorum by the French. And of late his proposed raising of taxes on fuel has angered a broad swathe of the population. The net result is that it is hard to see how the French President can achieve international success in the face of dismal poll results at home.
Be that as it may, news of the past week at the level of Europe-wide parties provides a further proof of Macron’s aspirations. Following rumors of a bid to join forces ahead of the May 2019 elections to the European Parliament, yesterday it was announced that Macron’s République en marche party has formally aligned with the European Liberals, meaning the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), headed by former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt.
ALDE stands for the values of US neo-conservativism, including a heavy dose of anti-Putin venom. In the European Parliament, alongside the German Greens, it has been the most vociferous promoter of sanctions against Russia going back to 2012. In this light, Macron’s courting of the Russians since his accession to power may very well be seen as duplicitous.
It bears mention that Verhofstadt is an old admirer of Margaret Thatcher, with her union-busting free capitalism. This would seem to match very well Macron’s attempts to reign in the French labor force.
By contrast, France’s traditional Center Right party, which under Sarkozy was renamed Les Républicains, forms part of the European-wide Center Right coalition called the European People’s Party. The EPP is the largest political group in the European Parliament and holds a substantial number of porfolios on the Commission. Meanwhile, ALDE has just 10% of the Parliament’s 750 seats. The idea of La République en marche running candidates in coordination with ALDE for the May 2019 elections, with the hope of capturing the number two position in the European Parliament, seems excessively optimistic given Macron’s difficulties with the French public today now that the mystery about him as the “dark horse” candidate of 2017, the man to break with the political establishment, has been dispelled.
As I noted at the beginning, the presence of Vladimir Putin at the WWI commemoration in Paris was a debut for the Russians in such events in the West. If there had been any chance of a similar invitation being issued in 2014, it surely was dashed by the controversy over the Russian annexation of the Crimea that spring and its involvement in the Donbas insurgency.
Under the restraining order given by Macron to his guests, Vladimir Putin looked frustrated and bored during the Arc de Triomphe ceremony. He was able to shake Donald Trump’s hand, but the hoped for mini-summit on the sidelines was not to be.
Nonetheless, Putin’s participation fit nicely with Russia’s own revision of history since 2014 and the belated show of respect for its officers and soldiers who fought in The Great War. This episode in the country’s history had been totally ignored ever since 1917. The war was officially dismissed as an imperialist venture whose only virtue was that it prepared the way for revolution.
In 2014, just ahead of the commemoration of the centenary of the outbreak of war, Vladimir Putin unveiled a monument on Poklonnaya Gora in Moscow dedicated to those who gave their lives in World War I. In his speech at the time, Putin said:
“Today we are restoring the historical truth about World War I and are discovering countless examples of personal courage and military skill, and the true patriotism of Russia’s soldiers and officers and the whole of Russian society. We are discovering the role Russia played in that difficult and epoch-changing time for the world, especially in the pre-war years. And what we see reflects very clearly the defining features of our country and our people.”
Preparations in Russia to mark the centenary of the Armistice have included some special television programming this past week. One particularly interesting program highlighted the circumstances surrounding Russian expeditionary forces sent to France during the War to defend Paris. And today, the channel Rossiya-1 released a quite remarkable documentary film entitled “First World War. The Suicide of Europe “ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=89vZl9PegOk)
Among the more noteworthy moments in this film, which runs slightly more than one hour, are a detailed explanation of the role played by the Russian imperial army at the opening of the war. As the narrator explains, the offensive launched against the German territory of Eastern Prussia by General Samsonov, though ultimately disastrous for his command, forced the Germans to pull troops from their ongoing operation to take Paris swiftly before turning East. It thus changed irremediably the nature of the war from blitzkrieg to the stationary trench warfare that it remained to the end. Another segment details the destruction of 45% of the Austro-Hungarian forces by a Russian offensive in the opening months of the war. This film by Aleksei Denisov, narrated by Fedor Bondarchuk definitely merits translation into English and broad circulation in the West.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2018