The old demons are back
In Paris, the ceremony to mark the centenary of the end of World War I was stately and moving. It featured such grace notes as students reading from letters written a hundred years ago, when the news about the armistice broke through. “My darling parents,” a British soldier wrote. “Today has been perfectly wonderful.” The pealing of the bells of Notre Dame cathedral last Sunday, at the exact time the armistice stilled the guns on Nov. 11, 1918, was perfectly wonderful too, a filling sound that was a joy to hear.
But the ceremony — convened by France, which bore the brunt of the fighting in the four years of the war, and where almost 1.4 million soldiers and 300,000 civilians died — was tempered by a sense of danger, of imminent threat. I thought that the seating arrangement at the Arc de Triomphe, the magnificent arch conceived by Napoleon after the Battle of Austerlitz, was telling: In the center sat the leading representatives of the European project, Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron. Flanking them immediately were the two leaders who actively undermine that project, and the spirit of multilateralism the project represents: Donald Trump of the United States and Vladimir Putin of Russia.
(The Republicans who voted for Trump wanted the opposite of Barack Obama; turns out they also got the opposite of Woodrow Wilson, who electrified a weary world’s imagination at the end of the so-called Great War.)
The reason for the seating arrangement escapes me, unless it has nothing to do with the alphabet or with the role their respective countries performed during the so-called Great War and everything to do with Macron exercising his host’s privilege to make a point, form a visual metaphor. Today’s standard-bearers of democracy are surrounded.
In his 20-minute speech at the ceremony, Macron sounded the alarm: “Old demons are resurfacing. History sometimes threatens to take its tragic course again and compromise our hope of peace. Let us vow to prioritize peace over everything.”
Later in the afternoon, at the launch of his ambitious initiative, the Paris Peace Forum, Macron offered a slightly different metaphor. Referring to the unusual image of dozens of heads of state or government walking down the Champs-Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe earlier in the day, Macron asked: “History will no doubt retain an image of 84 heads of state and government united… but what remains uncertain for the future is the way that will be interpreted, this image. Will it be the brilliant symbol of lasting peace between nations or on the contrary the photograph of a last moment of unity before the world sinks into a new mess?”
As it happens, two leaders did not take part in that walk; both Trump and Putin, asserting security protocols, drove straight up to the Arc de Triomphe. In his speech at the ceremony, officially the International Ceremony for the Centenary of the 1918 Armistice, and at the Paris Peace Forum, and in remarks made in the run-up to these events, Macron attacked the right-wing nationalism that Putin practices and Trump embraces. At the Armistice centenary, Macron, with his eye both on world opinion and domestic politics, gave a pithy definition of the crisis as he saw it: “Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. In saying ‘our interests first, whatever happens to the others,’ you erase the most precious thing a nation can have, that which makes it live, that which causes it to be great and that which is most important: its moral values.”
Earlier, he had told Ouest-France: “In a Europe divided by fears, nationalist assertions and the consequences of the economic crisis, we see in an almost methodical manner the rearticulation of everything that dominated life in Europe from post-World War I to the 1929 crisis.”
Merkel, formally launching a forum teeming with earnest projects and candid talk, spoke also with a sense of foreboding: “The concern I have is that blinkered nationalist views may gain ground once again.”
She denounced the “national vaingloriousness and military arrogance,” including her country’s, that caused so much “senseless bloodshed,” not only in the first but also the second world war. At one point, she made a startling confession. She pointed to the sterling example of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which marks its 70th anniversary next month, and then said: “I ask myself often, imagine we, the international community today, would have to establish such a declaration on human rights. Would we manage that? I fear, not.”
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