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The Forgotten Lessons of World War I

Will the European Union—like the continent’s old empires—also be swept away?

A World War I reenactor waits for the arrival of French President Emmanuel Macron during a ceremony marking the centennial of the war’s end in Morhange, France, on Nov. 5.

A World War I reenactor waits for the arrival of French President Emmanuel Macron during a ceremony marking the centennial of the war’s end in Morhange, France, on Nov. 5.

Photographer: Francois Mori/AP

In November 1918, Europe’s imperial powers negotiated an end to the global conflict that ravaged the continent and decimated a generation. The map of Europe was subsequently redrawn and independent states born. A century later, the continent’s struggle is over its future as a unified political entity with shared values rooted in the bloody lessons of two world wars.

The European Union is increasingly being called into question by nationalists from Italy in the southwest to Poland in the poorer northeast, while the U.K. already is on its way out. The task of defending the integrationist project, meanwhile, has fallen to the persistent voice of French President Emmanuel Macron. The challenge will be evident in contrasting commemorations on Sunday, Nov. 11: In Paris, Macron will showcase his multilateralism while hosting world leaders to mark the centenary of the World War I armistice; in Warsaw, the celebration of Poland’s hard-won rebirth as a country in 1918 risks being hijacked by the far-right nationalist groups that have been emboldened by the ruling party.