If we count the Napoleonic Wars, then the First World War was actually the Second. For a century after Napoleon, it was assumed that war is always limited and fighting is followed by negotiations. War was not an existential threat for the states. That came during the WWI, as it did in the Napoleonic Wars before. Napoleon was creating new states; he was reshaping borders and changing dynasties – as if he was redrawing the entire Europe anew. In the WWI, the same thing was happening. The obvious confirmation of that war’s total nature is that it resulted in the collapse of four continental European empires.
On November 7, the Valdai Club hosted an expert discussion dedicated to the First World War and to the 100th anniversary of its end. How this war differed from all the previous ones, how it transformed the normative view of the state and why it is important to remember it today – these were the topics of the valdaiclub.com interview with Alexei Miller, Professor of the European University in St. Petersburg.
The end of the WWI revealed a strong contrast with the end of the Napoleonic Wars. At the Congress of Vienna, France, along with the five winners, decided how to solve the key issues of the European political and security setup. That was an efficient way of doing things, which resulted in a lasting peace in Europe. Another way was tried in Versailles with Germany trampled into the dirt and humiliated. Largely, that predetermined the interwar period to be only a short respite. In fact, the WWII only continued the WWI.
For the first time, the WWI manifested a phenomenon that would also be crucial for the WWII: resilience. The main thing was how long people on both sides could endure. That was a novelty, because when the war broke out, mobilization resources of all warring countries were enough for only six months, but the war unexpectedly lasted for more than three years. That required an ability to mobilize and endure, to stand firm. In a sense, Russia learned the lesson and used this ability during the WWII (a war of resilience), which was won by patience and self-sacrifice, despite the fact that it had more chances to be among the winners in the WWI.
In the 19th century, there were only a few nations, especially if we understand the term as the nation state, like when we are talking about the UN. The collapse of continental empires had a colossal aftermath. Not only did many new states appear, but this began to be seen as a normal state of affairs. It was a novelty. In the 20th and the 21st centuries, we tend to believe that the nation state was the norm for the 19th century’s people, but this is completely wrong. It was the empire that was the norm. The WWI put an end to this, in spite of the fact that the British empire, along with the French and the nascent American ones still remained the most important political actors.
As for the memory of the WWI, a lot has been done in this sphere in Russia recently, and some special structures working on this have emerged. This war is worth remembering because it defined the future of Russia for the next 100 years. It is hard to say if there would have been a revolution without the WWI, but it is certain that it would have been different, with consequences not so devastating.
On the other hand, Moscow has not a single cemetery of the WWI warriors, because all of them were ruined. That is rather shameful. Many people died, and they deserve to be remembered. In many countries, the tradition to commemorate those who fell on the battlefield fighting for the Fatherland goes back to the WWI. Hence, the soldiers who died during the WWII only joined their pantheon. That is what we have never had.
Now, the memory of this war is being restored, and one of the most interesting phenomena here is the ribbon of Saint George. Although it does not refer to the WWI, it at least created a symbolic space, to which the WWI is not alien. It replaced the red colour with black and orange.
The entire problem is very complex. If we assume that our historical memory should be deep and continuous, it should include various events, both sad and joyful, ones that we can be proud or ashamed of. Then ignoring the WWI would be bizarre.