Le Pèlerin: Is it important to commemorate the centenary of 1914-1918?
Jean-Pierre Rioux: Yes, I believe we must seize this chance to awaken curiosity about this very unique war. This will be an educational effort for those under 50 who have not known veterans or war wounded. And who did not learn much at school on this subject because the Second World War overshadowed the Great War with its powerful shadow.
Why do you say that this war is unique?
This is the only time when citizen soldiers went en masse to defend the homeland in danger, in the name of the ideal of human rights inherited from the Revolution. The vast majority of them accepted everything, for more than four years, until the ultimate sacrifice of their lives. And in a strong brotherhood and equality, symbolized by the tomb of the unknown soldier. These terms seem grandiose to us today but the centenary can be an opportunity to reflect on them. In any case, these words made sense in a Europe that was still monarchical. These convinced republicans thought that this war would be the last because by expelling William II, they would establish the conditions for a universal peace based on democracy. This sacrifice was made in the name of hope. Commemorating this war will be an opportunity to rehabilitate this meaning and combat the received idea that it was absurd and that the combatants were victims. The rebels were very few in number. Even the pacifist anarchists responded without flinching to the mobilization order.
Do you think the French will feel concerned?
Certainly, in rural communities where the war memorial on the village square still appeals. This will undoubtedly be less true in large cities where the population has been more mixed since 1918. However, I sense that on this occasion many objects, letters, photos… which are still sleeping in the drawers of many families, will resurface. My concern is that our society, which so represses death, pain, discomfort, has difficulty looking at such a terrible story without preconceptions. Historians and media must continue to tell the story of this war from a human perspective, combatants and civilians, in order to make their collective momentum understandable to us.