07/10/2014 03:38 pm ET Updated Sep 09, 2014

World War One Remembrance Offers a Double Vision


A century ago, at the beginning of August 1914, Europe marched into the abyss. Into a war that its leaders hoped would be over quickly but actually lasted more than four years. Into a war that also dragged in much of the world, from America to China, from the Middle East to Japan. Looking back in the 1980s, the American diplomat and historian George F. Kennan judged 1914 to be "the great seminal catastrophe" of the 20th century; German scholars called it the Urkatastrophe.

In the summer of 2014, a hundred years later, Europe is remembering the Great War. But there is no Europe-wide narrative. To quote historians Jay Winter and Antoine Prost: "Every country has its own Great War." What's more, each country is looking back with a kind of complex double vision, because World War One is seen through the prism of World War Two. This is a theme of my recent book The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century (W.W. Norton).

Take France, for instance, where 1914 to 1918 has always been remembered as a tragic but noble sacrifice to drive the German invaders off French soil. Its memory seems all the more lustrous by comparison with the "dark years" of World War Two, when the French Army collapsed in four weeks in 1940, and the puppet Vichy government then collaborated with Nazi Germany in consigning thousands of Jews to death. In 1914 to 1918, 1.3 million Frenchmen had given their lives for la patrie; in 1940, roughly the same number of French soldiers marched off to German prisoner-of-war camps. In French memory, the two wars stand together in tortured proximity.

In Germany, perceptions are very different. Since 1945, several generations of young Germans have been instructed in the crimes of the Third Reich. Acknowledging German guilt for the Hitler-era has become second nature. By comparison, the war of 1914 to 1918 has received little attention in German schools or the media until this centenary year.

Yet Germany and France have both managed to move on from the era of the two world wars, thanks to the European Union. Its foundational Treaty of Rome in 1957 was, in effect, the peace treaty that ended World War Two in Western Europe and, even more, ended the long cycle of wars between France and Germany going back to the days of Bismarck, Napoleon and Louis XIV. In large part thanks to this Franco-German rapprochement, the second half of the twentieth century proved far happier for Western Europe than the first half.

Britain's view of the two world wars is different again. In 1914 to 1918, the country lost 720,000 men -- by far the costliest conflict in its history. National memory of that war is still stuck in the trenches -- a story of mud and blood, of dogged soldiers and bone-headed generals -- "lions led by donkeys" in the now famous cliché. But memories of 1939 to 1945 are totally different, featuring what Churchill called Britain's "finest hour" in 1940 when the country stood alone against the Luftwaffe's bombing and the threat of invasion. In total contrast with France, the second war shines out in British memory while the first lingers in the dark. And, unlike both France and Germany, the British have never seen the European Union as a way of moving on from the past. Britain is, at best, a reluctant European, still semi-detached from the Continent.

What, then, of the larger global story? America's First World War was relatively short -- 18 months from April 1917 to November 1918 -- and the death toll low: some 53,000. The influenza pandemic of 1918 to 1919 was more deadly for Americans than the war itself. President Woodrow Wilson's crusade to make the world "safe for democracy" and create a new League of Nations ended in failure; in the isolationist 1930s, America's Great War was written off as a great mistake. After Pearl Harbor, however, a different perspective developed, with World War Two being depicted as a "second chance" to realize Wilson's vision. So, for Americans, 1917 to 1918 and 1941 to 1945 have now become stages in America's rise to the rank of global superpower.

For Russia, the two world wars stand in similar sequence, but with very different tonality. In 1914 to 1917, the country lost some two million men, yet there were no official war memorials because the new Soviet state wrote off the conflict as an imperialist war, notable only for triggering the Bolshevik revolution. By contrast the "Great Patriotic War" of 1941 to 1945 became the symbolic cornerstone of the post-Stalinist state. The appalling death toll was one reason: perhaps 27 or 28 million, one-seventh of the pre-war population, though the precise figure will never be known. But politics also mattered: the officially sponsored narrative of a whole people's sacrifice in a war of liberation helped divert attention from the appalling crimes of Stalin.

America and Russia therefore privilege World War Two over its predecessor. But Americans are still comfortable with their global role and with the historical narrative that underpins it. For Russians, the mood is darker, more troubled. They feel, with justice, that their massive contribution to the defeat of the Third Reich has never been properly recognized in the West. The Red Army's summer offensive in June 1944 was as important as the Normandy landings in tearing the guts out of Hitler's army. And many Russians fear that the eastward expansion of NATO and the European Union has pulled away the territorial security blanket that Soviet victory created. These fears have been exploited adroitly by Vladimir Putin.

Over the next 12 months, the world will reflect on two sequences of historical anniversaries: a century since the outbreak of World War One and 70 years since the endgame of World War Two. And this reflection will involve refraction -- seeing each war through the lens of the other. June 2014: D-Day + 70. August 2014: Urkastrophe + 100. And so we shall march on in this journey of remembrance to April 2015, the centenary of the Gallipoli landings, and May 2015, the 70th anniversary of victory in Europe.

Through our double vision of the two world wars, we learn something about the 20th-century past. We also learn a lot about our 21st-century present.