Like just about everything else, anniversaries — even those which are solemn occasions involving commemoration of the dead — are now seen as opportunities for scoring political points. In Britain, there was a debate in the press about whether or not Germans should be invited to the official ceremony of remembrance in London on the 100th anniversary of the end of the war in which they were the enemy. And why not, when the only enemies people care about these days are those who hold different political views from their own? It was no surprise, therefore, when the New York Times took the anniversary of the 1918 Armistice ending World War I as yet another opportunity to get in its digs against President Trump — in this case for endangering, along with others of his kind, all that those long-ago doughboys were presumptively fighting for.
“The anniversary comes amid a feeling of gloom and insecurity as the old demons of chauvinism and ethnic division are again spreading across the Continent” wrote Katrin Bennhold in the Times under the provocative headline: “Can Europe’s Liberal Order Survive as the Memory of War Fades?”
And as memory turns into history, one question looms large: Can we learn from history without having lived it ourselves? In the aftermath of their cataclysmic wars, Europeans banded together in shared determination to subdue the forces of nationalism and ethnic hatred with a vision of a European Union. It is no coincidence that the bloc placed part of its institutional headquarters in Alsace’s capital, Strasbourg.
Ms Bennhold was making her contribution to a Times campaign begun a couple of days earlier by Alissa J. Rubin and Adam Nossiter asking: “Macron Hopes WWI Ceremonies Warn of Nationalism’s Dangers. Is Anyone Listening?” You could bet that if anyone was listening the Times was. Here’s how they began:
All week President Emmanuel Macron toured France’s World War I memory trail. He visited the killing fields of Verdun, the vast ossuary at Douaumont and the monument to heroic African soldiers at Reims. Each stop made the same solemn point: Nationalism kills. It is a message Mr. Macron hopes will not be lost on the dozens of world leaders who will descend on France this weekend to commemorate the 1918 Armistice.
One world leader in particular, needless to say. Therefore, it should have come as no surprise either (though I admit it did to me) when M. Macron took the opportunity of having his American opposite number among the captive audience at the commemoration when he insisted that “patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism; nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism.”
Got that?.Patriotism good, nationalism bad. Well, we have his word for it, but what can he mean by setting up such a patently false antithesis? Only, I think, that he wants to involve himself in the media’s current project to turn “nationalism” into a pejorative without dragging patriotism down into the mud with it. In his view, the words have no denotation, or none that interests him, only connotations, good or bad, which he can help to fix on them and then make use of for his own purposes, as he makes clear in this helpful gloss on his own words: “By saying ‘our interests come first and the interests of others don’t matter’ we erase what a nation has most precious, what enables it to live: its moral values.” So then: “moral values” require no definition either: they’re whatever Monsieur le President believes in — and whatever Donald Trump and other nasty nationalists don’t. And in this case, at least, his moral values included using the honored dead for his own political advantage.