The period 2014-2018 has not exactly been a period of peace. Over the past four years, the world has witnessed the brutal war with ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the genocide against the Rohingya in Myanmar, and the civil war in Ukraine (not to mention continuing conflicts in Afghanistan, Yemen, Nigeria, Darfur, Mexico, and many other parts of the world).

One hundred years ago, the guns of World War One fell silent. Yet the “Great Powers” would be at each others’ throats again in a little over two decades, with the start of World War Two. Today, the threat of open conflict between the USA and powerful rivals such as China seems remote (though certainly not inconceivable). Yet can we really say we’ve learned the lessons of the First World War?

One hundred years after the end of WWI, Debating Europe has launched a series of online discussions dedicated to examining the legacy of the Great War. We’ll be looking at the origins and impact of the First World War, and what lessons can be drawn one hundred years later.

What do our readers think? We had a thoughtful comment sent in from reader Helen, who felt the centenary was a missed opportunity to really learn the lessons of World War One. She had this to say:

Image of a citizenTo me, it feels like we had some solemn parades in 2014 (And we will have some more in November 2018), but apart from that [World War One] has been largely forgotten. A better way to mark the centenary would have been a period of world peace. This, obviously, our leaders have not delivered.

To get a response, we took Helen’s comment to Dan Carlin, host of the podcast Hardcore History. Carlin has previously released a series of episodes looking in-depth at the First World War (and he also hosts a podcast on contemporary American politics called Common Sense). What did he think about the way the world has commemorated the centenary of World War One?

I think it’s on an upswing, and I can’t say why interest is on an upswing. There are a bunch of different theories I have: one is the centennial – we’re still in that window, it’s one hundred years on November 11 of this year since the Armistice. So, I think I’ve actually seen an upswing in interest. If you caught me maybe ten or fifteen years ago, I would say that the amount of knowledge out there was shockingly limited considering the importance of the event. I do think that there’s been an uptick.

Now, if there’s been an uptick from shocking ignorance, I don’t know what that means in terms of where we actually are, but I do think people pay more attention to the second World War than the first; it overshadows the first to some degree. What’s a little sad about the whole thing though is that I don’t know how you understand the second World War without really delving into the first. They’re almost like Part I and Part II of a movie. I don’t understand how you can get the Empire Strikes Back if you didn’t see the original Star Wars. So, I think it’s on uptick from a very low level of interest.

For another perspective, we also put Helen’s comment to Dan Snow, presenter of numerous award-winning history programmes for the BBC, and host of the podcast Dan Snow’s History Hit. How would he respond?

I would agree with Helen, I’m afraid. I think it’s been a period of solemn commemoration, and it’s been nice to see community and school projects, but when it comes to the lessons of the First World War it’s all very well us discussing and talking about it, but the people who need to read those lessons are Vladimir Putin, Trump, the Chinese leadership. And I worry that, just as Kennedy was reading the book about the First World War during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I wish that our current leadership would not just turn up to these state occasions but would actually think about it and ingest some of the lessons of the First World War. And that is that politicians may not feel they are in control of events, they may feel that things are forced upon them. But they always have a choice. Ultimately, they always have a choice. They can always halt the slide towards confrontation.

And also a fundamental lesson which is that nationalism, and this division of the human race into made-up and imaginary political bodies is patently absurd. And whilst it’s great to celebrate where you come from, and in many ways serves a purpose – that people in Kent are happy to subsidise people living in Glasgow because they feel a shared kinship – ultimately the capacity for the nation-state to trigger extraordinary catastrophe is very profound. And it’s sad that these four years have shown a riot of American exceptionalism, Brexit, and interstate conflict.

Have we forgotten the lessons of World War One? Do you think the centenary of the First World War has been marked appropriately? Or was have the last four years been a missed opportunity? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!

IMAGE CREDITS: Public Domain / UK Government; PORTRAIT CREDITS: Dan Snow / CC IPUP York Image Galleries; Dan Carlin (used with permission)

17 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. avatar
    john G

    What lesson? The war never really ended. You can trace a historical line from those bullets that Princip fired to November 2018. That line would intersect with every major and most minor conflicts. The war is still ongoing… That’s the lesson we need to learn.

  2. avatar
    EU Reform- Proactive

    Yes, the centenary of the First World War has been marked appropriately. But some EU Politicians have no mandate and should abstain lecturing other nations about nationalism & patriotism! EU army- NATO army!

    Both the US & France (and so does everyone else) do the same- to make their country great again! Cut taxes; liberalize legislation to encourage investment to create jobs & prosperity for all. The one is labelled a nationalist the other calls himself a patriot. Confusion galore!

    “This school of thought accepts that “universal” nationalism is simply the desire of a nation to self-determination” It is a cardinal principle in modern international law today.

    Does Macron really believe that the word “Nationalism” only refers and is limited to the disastrous political desires of the periods 1914/18 & 1939/45 resulting in two WW’s?

    Suddenly, any other evolving “political desires” after 1945 in Europe or globally- like the EU’s political concept- is understood as totally harmless, desirable and peaceful- because Brussels say so?

    What are the political & military desires of the EU concept- other than a creation of a new or modern form of “nationalism”- but on a supra scale?

    Self delusion by self exemption & self absolvement from similar dangers is the coming danger.

    Why point to a Trump, Putin & the Chinese while the “pointers” & “lecturers” think they have eaten political wisdom by the truck load?

    Macrons’ skates on thin ice by generalizing “nationalism” without thorough & thoughtful qualifications!

  3. avatar

    Of course wee have , don’t think it will ever change ,but we can always live in hope 😉

  4. avatar

    Well, we learned the lesson that it is not very clever to have the defeated pay for the cost, so hence, the Marshallplan after we screwed up big time with WW II… I reckon that this is about it. So, nothing much learned from 14-18.
    And nothing much from 39-45 either. For which i would like to refer to the Milgram experiments.
    A wiki summary

  5. avatar

    Since war is pointless the lesson learned whouid be for the Lambs to the slaughter put down their Gun and refuse to take part in that ritualised mass murder.

    • avatar

      Christophe very true but a little naive based on human nature and crowd behaviour.

    • avatar

      Gamal Crowd conditioning.. fake media doing what they always do. Is there an organ that is more bloodthirsty than the media? They lied us into war with Iraq Libya and even WWI and WWII truth be known. Bare with me I will post a link 👍

      Read on

  6. avatar

    Not! Still for economical resources we use (not, we, some of us) the war.

    Finally why we don’t stop spending money for armies “

  7. avatar

    I think so! They, the politicians, are hungry for more blood. It’s a good business and they don’t have to do nothing but stay at their offices sending the youth to die for them… they get tremendously rich selling GUNS!

  8. avatar

    If there’s money in ‘peace’, then we’ll have ‘peace’. If there’s money in ‘war’, then, believe me, we will have ‘war’.

  9. avatar

    Sure. We honour them and remember them by continuing to wage war when and wherever there is money to be made .

  10. avatar

    It’s crazy … All the people that survived both world wars tell the same story “NO MORE WARS” … BUT …our politicians are owned by Mr. Montgomery Burns …until him and his ilk are stopped “they” will continue with their policies …

  11. avatar

    I don’t know the lessons of WWI… It was before my time.

  12. avatar

    @Nadya That is a horrendously ignorant statement if you’re being serious. Can you not read, listen or watch? Anyone can find information on WWI and learn from the mistakes of our past.

    • avatar

      That is a horrendously honest statement that answers the question of the debate most precisely… Did you understand the point of the debate before you commented or you’re just here to act smart and mansplain?

  13. avatar

    Perhaps yes…

    Look at China/USA dispute…we should all know where this can lead.

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