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Remembrance of the turbulent past is a good vaccine against xenophobic, anti-EU nationalism

The real meaning of centenary commemorations lies in their being occasions for looking back on the events of the past, in order to learn from the mistakes that were made in other times, and keep them in mind to prevent their repetition. The rest of the activities involved — ceremonies of protocol, popular festivals, costumed reenactments — come under the heading of propaganda, false historicism and anachronism, rather than that of history and the useful interpretation thereof with an eye to the future.

The review, on its centenary, of the year 1914, which saw one turbulent period end and another begin, offers us a profusion of events and trends, of which Europeans in particular will do well to draw up a balance, 100 years after the fact.

World War I, which initially was a strictly European conflict, constituted the ultimate, hysterical ecstasy (and the beginning of the questioning) of the nation-state. It brought out into the open the ever-more violent jockeying between various imperialist ambitions, though under Anglo-Saxon hegemony, which was soon to begin its monetary decadence. It was generated amid the shocks of the third industrial revolution and of working-class movements of a modern type; and its outcome opened the way to a world in which Europe was no longer the global epicenter, but instead began to pass the torch to the former colony on the other side of the Atlantic.

All these phenomena were joined by a connecting thread: the enervation of the old nationalisms. While these had first arisen as heralds of national democracies, they now slipped down the inclined plane of selfish rivalry and violent struggle raised into a frenzy of mass destruction which, for the first time in recent history, involved whole populations of civilians.

A hundred years later — and after the repetition of the story in a subsequent world conflagration which was even more cruel and destructive — we are now looking at a very different panorama in general terms, but one in which parallel developments can be identified. The digital revolution may be said to constitute a fourth industrial revolution, and the process of globalization has brought internationalization to a new degree of intensity. And in other areas, the circumstances are dangerously similar. For example, in the xenophobic, populist and ultra-reactionary character of certain nationalist movements within the European Union.

A full century after 1914, the EU is soon to hold decisive continent-wide elections, under conditions which are in some respects difficult, but which the sunniest optimists of that era could never have imagined. With a number of compelling tasks on the agenda — to consolidate peace; dispel the temptation to prefer authoritarian solutions; complete the economic union already under way, with greater democratic control; and recover a fading social and territorial cohesion. Compelling, that is, if we wish to learn from 1914.

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