PARIS — When he hosts world leaders for the centennial anniversary of the end of World War I next month, French President Emmanuel Macron will not be putting on the kind of military spectacle that so delighted President Trump on his last visit to Paris. No tanks or missiles in the streets this time, and — pointedly — no celebration of national triumph.
But Macron’s plans for Armistice Day have also drawn criticism in France, where some on the right resent his refusal to emphasize what they see as a national victory, albeit a Pyrrhic one.
The Macron administration defended its choice. “The point of the commemoration is to honor the memory of the poilus, the French soldiers, and all the soldiers who fought in World War I,” an Élysée official told The Washington Post, noting that the event would not be staged as a celebration of any kind. Paris will also host a Peace Forum that week, aimed at renewing international commitments to preventing war.
To valorize one side over the other could additionally risk alienating Germany, today one of France’s closet allies in a relationship whose bottom line, since the aftermath of World War II, has been to ensure that war never returns to the continent.
Most prominent historians of World War I agree with this approach.
“The word ‘celebration’ has the taste of ashes attached to it, because of the bloodbath of the First World War,” said Jay Winter, a Yale University historian. “Of course you don’t celebrate. You commemorate.”
With roughly 40 million military and civilian casualties, World War I ranks among the deadliest conflicts in human history.
But when Macron’s plans began circulating in the French media late last week, a number of conservatives decried what they saw an act of betrayal — dishonoring French fighters in the interest of not offending Germany.
Chief among the critics was Michel Goya, a former infantry colonel and amateur historian. “On July 14, 2017, the President of the Republic insults the soldiers of 2017,” he wrote Twitter, referencing a controversial moment early in Macron’s tenure, when, in the midst of a dispute over military budget cuts, the young president told an audience of soldiers the following: “I am your boss. I need no pressure and no commentary.”
For Goya, Macron’s antipathy to the military has only continued. “On November 11, 2018,” he said in the same tweet, “the President of the Republic insults the soldiers of 1918.”
“For the past 30 years,” Goya said in an interview, “the dominant trend in the historiography has been to remove the war from its primary military and political objectives. It’s become anthropology, stories about the conditions of the soldiers and their deaths, but it’s lost sight of why they were fighting, and what they were fighting for.”
“I think that those who reproach Macron for this are bad historians,” said Annette Becker, a historian of World War I at the University of Paris Nanterre. “It was a world war, the First World War. Of course there was a victorious side — France, Britain and Italy — but to say that France was somehow alone and victorious is patently absurd, because all alone it would not have won.”
“This was a veritable catastrophe, with millions dead, millions wounded, and widows and orphans left behind,” she said. “And you call that a victory?”
Western Europe and France in particular, where much of the fighting took place, were hit hard by the epic conflagration that inaugurated an era of “total war.” Idyllic countryside was carved into trenches, as millions died on either side. These days, much of Macron’s native northeastern France is dotted with military cemeteries: The gravestones often extend as far as the eye can see.
If World War I is a distant memory for many in the United States, in Europe its legacy remains vivid. “What strikes me is the way each family has their history,” Becker said of the French. “There is no village or city that hasn’t done an exposition of some kind. It is very much something enormous.”
For Margaret MacMillan, an Oxford University historian and author of “The War That Ended Peace,” the important lesson about the “victors” of World War I is the fragility of the peace agreement they thought they were creating.
“They thought they had a lot of power and authority (after all they were the winners),” she said in an email, “but they found themselves dealing with forces difficult to control.” These, she noted, included the rise of Bolshevism, the collapse of empires, the breakdown of international political and economic structures and competing nationalisms.
Macron, today, has cast himself as the principal opponent of a host of competing nationalisms that have taken root across Europe, from Rome to Warsaw and from Budapest to London. He has also offered himself as a foil for Trump, who proudly donned the label “nationalist” at a Houston rally this week.
Speaking at the United Nations last month, Macron mentioned the coming anniversary of the Armistice of 1918. “France will be there to ensure the world does not forget that the thunder of nationalism always leads to the abyss,” he said in his remarks.
Macron’s refusal to interpret World War I as a victory for France is in keeping with his attempt to combat nationalist sentiments in his own country. It also underscores his staunch support for the European Union, an institution born in the aftermath of the conflicts World War I initiated.
“He’s trying to Europeanize this commemoration,” said Jörn Leonhard, a historian at the University of Freiburg, “. . . to give it a meaning for the crisis of the European model, to kind of make it a narrative for the European peace project, against Trump, [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.”
This, Leonhard said, risks effacing some of the differences in how World War I was experienced by those from different countries. “You need to balance these two things,” Leonhard added. “You need to be aware of the particular experiences of societies in the catastrophe, and yet at the same time understand that something grew out of this experience.”