Sunday, November 11, 2018 was a normal day. I went to work in the morning, folded laundry and did my homework in the afternoon, and went out to dinner in the evening. I capped it off with watching a movie and went to bed around midnight. Overall, it was entirely average.
This is terrible. On an incredibly momentous day in history, 100 years since the end of the Great War, I went about my life in monotonous fashion, and it was totally acceptable. I was under no obligation to attend the commemoration ceremony in downtown Port Coquitlam, nor was I required to even wear a poppy at work (it would have probably been a dress code violation.) I knew about the significance of Remembrance Day because I am a lover of history, but the only acknowledgement of it was the school assembly and the occasional news coverage of Justin Trudeau in Paris.
The Canadian government did very little to commemorate Armistice. Compared to the United Kingdom, who invested about $170 million for ceremonies, documentaries, school visits to battlefields and important sites, museum refurbishments, and other programs, work that has spanned over a few years. Canada, on the other hand, unloaded the responsibility entirely onto Veteran’s Affairs. Last year’s centennial for the Battle of Vimy Ridge saw a ceremony completely inaccessible to the majority of Canadians as it took place in France, and the hundredth anniversary of Armistice saw sparse ceremonies and a mediocre information campaign.
To be fair, it isn’t Veteran’s Affairs fault that nobody cares about the First World War. After all, it was a hundred years ago, a time period that resides so far back in memory that very few people alive can speak about it. Understanding of history hinges on being able to connect with the events in question and being able to trace their impact to the world today. As we move farther from the War, it becomes easier to distance ourselves from its events: we do not relate to the people from a hundred years ago, and the places – France, Germany, even Canada – are now unrecognisable. It is impossible for us to truly understand the gravity of what happened because we have never experienced it, and as we learn more about the War itself, the more confused we get.
There were no villains in the War that we can clearly identify. The demonization of the Germans is reserved for the Nazis alone, and the Austro-Hungarian empire was obliterated in battle. Besides, the Austrians were victims of the Second World War – how can we in good conscience blame them for anything? We refuse to talk about what happened during WWI in favour of discussing its effects: Germany’s involvement is only relevant so long as we are talking about the Treaty of Versailles, the Ottomans only ever brought up in passing to segue into the source of conflict in the Middle East. Evidently, World War I lives in the shadow of World War II. Of course, it’s understandable. There is a plethora of films, television shows, and books about WWII, simply because it was more entertaining than the first one. Hitler makes for an easy villain – simply throw a Nazi uniform on any tall blond man and you no longer have to worry about making the audience hate your protagonist because history did it for you. This simplicity does not exist in the story of WWI. There is no narrative of “liberators vs conquerors”, no major crimes against humanity, no brilliant cause to fight for and no ideology to destroy. It was a war started by militarism, imperialism, and nationalism. It only ended out of desperation.
In fact, it ended with a gunshot. At 11am, the official beginning of the 36-day armistice that would officially end the Great War, the first peace-gunshot was fired from Fort Mount-Valérien in Paris, France. One hundred years later, seven kilometres away at the Arc de Triomphe, French President Emmanuel Macron delivered a speech, denouncing nationalism and pleading for world leaders to engage in the “spirit of cooperation.” His words come out a time where selfishness plagues nations, growing divisions usher in a new age of global politics, and people are forgetting how terrible nationalism can be. In forgetting the First World War, we are propagating an international climate where it may just happen again. The mentality of the early 20th century is rising again, and it is vital that we look to history to quash it before we engage in a war we may not come back from.
It is essential we recognize the impact of The Great War, particularly in how it influenced the Canada we know today. Armistice was met with little fanfare because we have become accustomed to peace. We have forgotten what it took to achieve it. I can only hope that we will never have to fight for it again.
Photo credit to Fred Charttrand at The Canadian Press.