WW1: Let us remember - whether enemy or friend

There's no agreement about what the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War is to mark, when events should take place, and whether it is a celebration, or a wake

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The most destructive war the world had seen and the first genuinely world war began exactly 99 years ago. Considerable effort has already been expended by those nations who fought in it on how best to mark that centenary. The British have been anticipating it almost from the moment the war ended in 1918. The Germans are finding it very difficult and would sooner close their eyes and wake up in 2018 (when a far more painful centenary will be even closer), while the Americans have barely begun to think about the war which they only entered in 1917, and which bitterly divided their country.

Britain is also deeply divided over how to mark the centenary. Some historians see the war as a disaster for Britain, while others like Correlli Barnett and Max Hastings are fed up with the focus on the disasters at the Somme and Ypres and point instead to the rapid British advances in the final “100 days”. Some believe the centenary should be primarily a British affair, while others want it to include those nations against whom it fought.

Disagreement extends to the date the war broke out. Was it 28 July 1914, when Austria declared war on Serbia? Or 1 August when Germany declared war on Russia? Or 3 August when Germany declared war on France? Or 4 August when Britain declared war on Germany?

In short, there is no agreement about what the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War is to mark, when any events should take place, and whether it is a celebration, or a wake. With only 52 weeks to go, the time for debate is running out. So I have a proposal – that two minutes silence be held on Monday 4 August 2114 at 11am in the UK. The whole nation should be encouraged to participate in this silence, which should extend to all participating nations in the war.

In France, the silence would be at 12 noon, as it would in Belgium and Germany, Turkey would mark it at 1pm, the Russians at 3pm and the Australians from 7 to 9pm, according to their time zones. New Zealand, whose soldiers fought so bravely at Gallipoli, alongside the Australians, would have their two minutes silence at 11pm.

A memorial event should be held at the Royal Albert Hall, to be broadcast across the world. Young people from every participating nation would make up the audience and the finest musicians from each nation join together to play a suitable piece of music. It could be Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, a powerful celebration of life culminating in the joyful singing of Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”. No conductor would be more apt, because of his work on reconciliation, than Daniel Barenboim.

All nations on earth need to mark the anniversary at the beginning of the centenary, not in the middle, or the end. The lessons from that terrible war have still to be fully learnt.

Anthony Seldon’s ‘Public Schools and The Great War’ is published in November

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