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Europe Remembers War, But Doesn't Necessarily Learn

16/09/2014 14:50 BST | Updated 15/11/2014 10:59 GMT

The first days of August 1914 saw a series of declarations of war between the Great Powers of Europe. One hundred years later, the first days of August 2014 saw a series of commemorations, in which allies and enemies came together to acknowledge the sacrifice and devastation of World War One. The Presidents of France and Germany met at the scene of one of the war's most brutal battles and, arms around each other's shoulders, marked the anniversary of hostilities between their countries. One hundred years to the minute after Britain's entry into the conflict, homes and public buildings across the country turned off their lights in echo of the legendary observation by Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey that 'the lamps are going out across Europe'.

How are you supposed to commemorate so much horror? There were uncomfortable mis-steps in Britain earlier in the year, as public figures tried to recapture the patriotism of the war. Could it still be seen as glorious that so many young men marched off to die? I was in Sarajevo for the centenary of the assassination that sparked the war, and it was a strange mix of foreigners wondering how to mark a murder that led to an apocalypse, and local citizens wondering why all the foreigners were so obsessed by something a hundred years old when the present day has so many challenges.

A sober recognition of the war's vast and futile waste was surely justified. It killed ten million soldiers and nearly as many civilians, and brought two revolutions as well as an influenza epidemic that killed up to one hundred million. Most of the European powers that fought were left exhausted but otherwise where they had started.

A century on, it feels like we should mark how far we've come. Most obviously, the France and Germany that fought three wars in the space of seventy years are now the heart of a European Union that has replaced national rivalry with co-operation in economics, justice and human rights. (At this year's commemoration, German President Joachim Gauck said 'It's true, Europe is a difficult project, but the generations that preceded us... would gladly have faced only our difficulties.') Failed peace initiatives followed World War One, but after World War Two the victorious United States of America drove the establishment of a new diplomatic and financial framework for the globe; for all its weaknesses, the United Nations is a forum for diplomacy and collective feeling revolutionary in comparison with the standards of a century ago.

There's been less acknowledgement of the unresolved side-effects of the war. The fighting in Ukraine, and disputes in places such as Transnistria, reflect unfinished business on Europe's eastern border. Even more dramatically, continued unrest in the Middle East and in particular the rise of ISIS threatens finally to unravel the British and French-led carve-up of the region after World War One. There are still international peace-keeping missions in the Balkans, where the war was ignited in 1914 and where, a century later, Serbs and Albanians and others still find themselves on the wrong side of internationally-imposed borders.

Meanwhile, the world's big powers seem determined to repeat the habits of interference and imprudence that provoked war a century ago. World War One was the product of, amongst other things, the great powers playing out their rivalries in unstable regions - and making them more unstable. In 1914 the British were struggling to defend economic and/or political influence against the US in what would become Israel, against Germany in what would become Iraq, and against Russia in what would become Iran. A century later the players may have shifted round a place or two, but it's the same game.

And everyone had a hand in the Balkans in 1914. The tensions that led to the assassination that led to the war were less the product of differences between the peoples of the region, and much more the product of great power attempts to divide the region for their own interests. The compromises and clumsy impositions of a hundred years ago caused problems at the time, and they remain the fault lines of the region now. Some of the motives of some of the interveners may seem a little more benign these days. But Washington and Moscow and Istanbul and Brussels still see the region through their own prisms (Russian sphere of influence politics and the American counter; Turkish regional dominance; European Union expansion); and they manoeuvre for political and economic influence, whether it's swinging Serbia's voice on the situation in Ukraine or winning a strategic road contract in Kosovo or running a natural gas pipeline through Greece and Albania.

'The First World War is being reinterpreted to suit today's nationalist narratives', Dr Obrad Savić of Belgrade commented on June 28 2014, as the international tourists gathered in Sarajevo to remember the assassination. 'This commemoration has been imposed on us from outside,' Rusmir Mahmutćehajić, Vice President of Bosnia-Herzegovina during the war of the 1990s, complained on the same day. 'We don't like it. Bosnia has been systematically excluded from a European perspective, betrayed.'

The peoples of South-Eastern Europe and the Middle East continue to jostle unhappily over disputed borders, and the world continues to intervene in these places without a clear understanding of their own objectives or of the the environments where they are trying to act.

Robert Wilton is a writer, diplomat, and co-founder of The Ideas Partnership charity. His latest novel, The Spider of Sarajevo, was launched in the city exactly a century after the events it illuminates in the summer of 1914, and is now available on Amazon and elsewhere. He'll be among the writers and guests participating in the UK's new Harrogate History Festival from 23-26 October, with Bernard Cornwell, James Naughtie, Alison Weir, Conn Iggulden and many others; For tickets and full programme visit www.harrogateinternationalfestivals.com/history or call Box Office: 01423 562 303.