The Great War still has lessons for us today

This newspaper has done its best to bring the events of a century ago to life

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The Independent Online

Morning all. As you’ve no doubt read and seen, today marks 100 years since the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Habsburg heir whose death brought down empires and unleashed the totalitarian horror of the 20th century.

Across the world, and especially in Europe, political leaders have come together to mark the occasion. In our own way, for the past few months The Independent has been commemorating the war, with our series “A History of the Great War in 100 Moments”. It has proved exceptionally popular with readers, both in print and on the web, and has two weeks left to run yet.

It feels to me as if, in the past decade or so, public acts of commemoration have become much more frequent. Quite aside from the mention at Prime Minister’s Questions of the deaths of  servicemen, and the elevation of Royal Wootton Bassett to a higher place in our culture, there has been an outbreak of one and two-minute silences, whether at stations or sports stadiums. Terror attacks in America and here have added to their number.

And plenty of people I know think this is a bad thing. They argue, as one writer put it, that “far from being a spontaneous expression of sympathy, the minute’s silence is becoming a coercive grief ritual to which we are expected to submit”.

This argument has some merit, but fails, I think, to grasp why commemoration matters. It forgets what we owe the dead. 

Commemoration has at least three virtues. It allows us to give thanks, for huge sacrifices without which our own lives would be unimaginably poorer. It allows us to remember together, to recognise that we have an inheritance that has shaped us. All cultures are expressions of collective memory; the very act of joint remembrance is like a social glue, binding communities. And finally, it allows us to learn. The past is a great teacher.

As T S Eliot put it in “Little Gidding”:

“And what the dead had no speech for, when living,

They can tell you, being dead: the communication

Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.”

This newspaper has devoted much time and ink to the Great War, bringing it to life as best we can, and reflecting on how it has shaped our world. In the coming weeks there will be plenty more. I hope you have enjoyed what you’ve seen so far, and that you share our view that, now more than ever, we can best shape our future by learning from the follies of the past.