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August 4, 2014 7:08 pm
The lamps went out again over Europe on Monday, patchily and only symbolically, to mark the centenary of the day the first world war engulfed western Europe. No one suggested, as Sir Edward Grey did on August 4 1914, that they would not be lit again in our lifetimes. But even Grey failed to foresee the horrors that would be unleashed before they could be rekindled.
The occasion was commemorated mainly in Belgium, whose invasion by Germany precipitated the conflagration, and Britain, which responded by declaring war on the Germans.
Presidents Gauck of Germany and Hollande of France joined Prince William of Britain and the King of the Belgians in Liège, scene of the war’s first battle. Germany’s representative was obliged to say, not for the first time nor the last, that his country’s actions had been “completely unjustified”. King Philippe noted that “peace is not only the absence of war . . . it has to be based on a shared project.”
Britain’s political leaders gathered in Glasgow, where Scottish voters will next month decide whether they still have a shared project with the rest of the UK. They were due later at Westminster Abbey, where all the candles but one were due to be extinguished by 11pm, when Britain joined in.
Despite all the well-judged words the war itself, now almost gone from living memory, seemed very distant in a way that the 70th anniversary of D-Day in June did not: the uncomplicated certainties of that war give it continued resonance.
It is almost impossible to believe, never mind remember, the strange mood of August 1914: how the war, long predicted, took everyone by surprise; how Britain’s war fears a fortnight earlier had centred on Northern Ireland; how the French, far from worrying about the Germans, had instead been transfixed by the fate of a politician’s wife, Madame Caillaux, on trial for murder; or how the young bucks of London danced with excitement down Pall Mall when they heard the news of war.
They could not imagine what happened next: nearly 10m dead, many of the young bucks included, along with all the certainties of the Victorian era. And nor can we.
Yet war has not gone away. Drone pilots can now sit comfortably in bunkers killing enemies like space invaders and then go home to bed, while men, women and children can set out on innocent journeys by bus, train or plane and be blown to pieces.
Nor can we be certain that we are not picnicking on the same volcano that consumed our forebears. The assassination in Sarajevo, seen as a minor event at the time, was the embodiment of chaos theory: the flutter of a butterfly wing that set off a hurricane.
It could happen again, set off in Gaza, Syria, Ukraine or somewhere that hardly makes the news bulletins. We can only hope that the political leaders were silently conscious of this and utterly determined to ensure it does not.
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