This past Sunday was Armistice Day, marking the end of the First World War in 1918. France celebrates 11 November each year with a series of ceremonies commemorating the dead of La Grande Guerre, as the First World War is often known. This commemoration is arguably much more important in France than it has ever been in the United States, where it is now celebrated as Veteran’s Day, since France suffered many more deaths, in addition to the occupation of parts of northern France and the devastation of the Western Front.
This year’s celebration of 11 November is different, however. Last year, the Nicolas Sarkozy government decided to expand the celebrations « en hommage à tous les morts pour la France ». So, the ceremonies will now commemorate all French veterans killed in any wars, not just the fallen of La Grand Guerre. The new François Hollande government has chosen to continue with this new model and celebrated 11 November with the expanded symbolic format more similar to the American Veteran’s Day.
Libération and Le Monde report on the 11 November ceremonies. Some commentators and politicians have criticized the new ceremonies as obscuring the importance of the First World War and its horrifying legacy of trench combat and attrition warfare.
In addition to the controversy surrounding this year’s ceremonies, questions have been raised about amnesties for French soldiers who were executed during the war, especially during the army mutinies of 1917. Some individual soldiers’ cases have been reviewed, leading to rehabilitations, but some want a general amnesty for all French soldiers. Le Monde reports on one of the soldiers.
The French Armistice Day commemoration reminds us how important it is for historians of war and society to look beyond the history of American involvement in warfare. European and global perspectives often offer strikingly different understandings of the experience of war.
Armistice Day also highlights an important scholarly debate over the historical memory of the First World War has been raging for over a decade, since the publication of Jay Winter’s Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). The current controversies over 11 November in France will certainly add to this expanding debate, which has been dominated by historians using cultural methods. Historians of war and society could be more active in contributing to our understanding of the historical memory of the First World War and other past wars that continue to be commemorated.
This essay was cross-posted on the SMH Blog.