World War I: Who Will Remember?

As I write this it is the one-hundredth anniversary of the start of World War I. It is also the 225th anniversary of Bastille Day, which launched the French Revolution and the end of the French monarchy. Six weeks ago the world held a commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of D-Day in World War II.  

It’s noteworthy that these three world-changing events all took place in France, and their world-focused attention this year is undeniable. It’s no surprise that Bastille Day is an annual national holiday there, not unlike our Fourth of July or Norway’s Constitution Day (May 17, Syttende Mai). Independence, even when achieved at the cost of many lives, merits celebration. Those events and their consequences are commemorated for good reason, and it’s unlikely they will ever be forgotten by historians or in popular culture.

Wars, though, are another matter. The consequences are not always so clear. During the recent D-Day ceremonies in France, it was noted by many that each passing year finds fewer surviving veterans and their families able to attend. One observer wondered aloud if, when the last veterans had passed and family stories faded, World War II would also fade from our collective knowledge as World War I has. 

In a recent blog interview with Margo Tannenbaum, she asked this question:

World War II continues to supply inspiration for movies, television, adult books, and children’s books, with no signs that interest in the war is abating as it becomes part of the more distant past for today’s young people. How would you explain the continued fascination with this conflict?

I replied:

It’s true that WWII has a sustained interest among young readers and their families, too. I would have thought with our many recent years of war that it would not be the case. Despite our war-weary society, World War II seems to hold a unique place in the hearts of even the youngest. Perhaps it’s seen as that one war when, despite graphic horrors and destruction, loss of lives, and even documented atrocities, good really overcame evil. It was also followed by world-unifying efforts, like support for refugees, restoration of cities, and the creation of the United Nations. Even if young people aren’t aware of those aspects, they seem to understand that WWII has an aura of decency and validity that so many other conflicts lack.The unequivocal ruthlessness of Hitler, Japan, and Mussolini versus a world united not only in self-defense but in the name of freedom makes it a sort of “poster child” for what a “good war” would be. Few before or since have had such a clear mission.

Whatever the causes or consequences, each war  (including recent ones) holds meaning to those who sacrificed and suffered as a result. Those sacrifices would be even more extreme if posterity didn’t at least attempt to learn about and from their efforts. 

Last WWI veteran, now passed.

Last WWI veteran, now passed.

The First World War should be understood and remembered. It was the “war to end all wars” and yet it set in motion the forces that generated the Second World War less than a quarter century later. For the sake of all those who lived then, let’s do our part to understand and remember.

Earlier this spring I posted some thoughts about this forgotten war and included notes about Stephanie Golightly Lowden‘s middle grade historical novel, JINGO FEVER, set in Wisconsin during that time. If you missed it, check it out here.


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