Since January 2014 European nations have been exhorted by the media and their cultural institutions to remember World War I. For some countries with continuous commemorative traditions of 1914/18 such as France, England, Belgium, Australia and New Zealand, this reminder may have seemed superfluous. In Russia, on the other hand, World War I remains a silent event that has been erased from schoolbooks and public memory. However, for other countries like Germany or Austria, where World War I has virtually no presence in collective memory, this prescribed focus of public and political attention was a real wake-up call, stirring public interest, personal empathy and heated intellectual debates.
1. One hundred years: A watershed in the history of memoryWe often hear critical voices questioning the general prescription of a year of commemoration as an artificial construct. It has nothing to do, it is argued, with an inherent psychic inclination, but follows the abstract magic of numbers and is therefore considered to be a problematic external imposition on society. After ten months experience of the current year of commemoration, however, we can say that the stipulation of this artificial memory was very successful; it was widely embraced and attracted an extraordinarily high level of attention and interest. We may say that this lively response has transformed media offerings into real media events. No one could have predicted this "commemorative avalanche" (as Jay Winter has called it) and the enormous public resonance with which it was met across many European borders.
I would like to add that the time span of a hundred years does not only have an arbitrary numerical value but also marks an important biological, social and cultural caesura. After 80-100 years, events sink back into the depth of history as the living ties of embodied and embedded memories are gradually dissolved. To use the suggestive language of Pierre Nora we may say that after three generations, the milieu of a memory is about to be dissolved – if it is not re-inscribed into the lieux (i.e. sites and symbols) of a more stable cultural memory. This means that with respect to World War I, we have arrived at a temporal watershed, where the event will recede into the past. Thereafter, either it will be of interest only to historians, or it will have to be actively reconstructed and supported along new lines.
After 100 years, in other words, we are not only looking back at the history of the events, but we are also looking into the future of their memory, considering the possibility of their reconstruction and perpetuation. This future-oriented aspect of memory is more than the mere preservation and continuation of what has been transmitted. It involves a new interpretation of historic events together with new social emotions and political commitment in the present. Moving from short-term communicative memory to long-term cultural memory urges states and nations to rethink practices, to re-establish standards and to construct new foundations for the future. This is exactly what is happening in the commemoration year: we are witnessing a temporal watershed at which memories of World War I are recycled, restaged, probed, reconstructed and transformed for the future.
2. The temporal and spatial extension of European memoryWithin the memory frame of the European Union, the new focus and emphasis on World War I effected an important prolongation of the horizon of the common European past. The shots in Sarajevo triggered what is commonly referred to as the "great seminal catastrophe" (or Urkatastrophe) of the twentieth century (George Kennan). It started a traumatic concatenation of cataclysmic events unleashing unprecedented violence involving the Russian Revolution, another World War and the Holocaust. A new discourse about Europe started only after World War II... read more:
Bridge on the River Kwai