In August 2018 I visited the First World War cemetery of Anloy-Bruyères, near Paliseul in the Belgian Ardennes. The cemetery contains the remains of some of the approximately 8,000 French and German soldiers who were killed at the Battle of Maissin on 22-23 August 1914, one of the first major battles of the initial war of movement that followed as the German armies invaded through Belgium. A few miles to the south, across the French border, lies Sedan, where the decisive battle of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 took place. A similar distance east takes one to Bastogne, a focal point of the German Ardennes Offensive in 1944. The cemetery sits, in other words, at the centre of a landscape on which the violent events of modern European history repeatedly left their mark.
The access to the past that such cemeteries offer is scarcely direct, at least not in the sense that might immediately be assumed. In the 40 years that followed the end of the First World War the original cemeteries were dissolved by the authorities and rationalized into fewer larger ones; many bodies were repatriated to their lands of origin; permanent memorials were established to replace the initial makeshift ones; and resting grounds were landscaped in accordance with aesthetics that reflected the political and emotional exigencies of the post-Second World War era as much as they did those of the interwar period. The sense of proximity to the original event that the sites call forth is, in other words, something of an illusion.
Moreover, the stories the cemeteries sought to tell at their point of inception are not always those one might read from them now. The heroicising pathos of ‘dying for the fatherland’ that monuments and epitaphs transport works hard, above all, to elide the subjective experiences and sentiments of individual soldiers whose views of the war, its causes and their participation in it may have been very different. The orderliness of the rows of graves, and the implied correlation of each to an intact, individual body beneath carries the fiction of the neat death which belies the dismembering violence that gave rise to the cemetery in the first place. The shared quality of the cemetery imposes a unity in death that, while on one level hard to dispute, on another refuses the cultures of Social Darwinism, nationalism and imperialist rivalry that animated broad sections of European civil society before 1914.
And yet other stories do break through and rupture the surface. The significant numbers of German soldiers buried two, or even four, to a headstone indicates something of the scale of even the initial battles of 1914. Just as likely, however, given that the landscape one sees now was largely crafted in the early 1950s, it may tell something of the unwillingness of local authorities to commit scarce burial materials to marking German soldiers’ graves at a point when their national reputation was at its nadir. After all, reconciliation at a national level in the 1950s sat alongside more persistent cultures of resentment at the grassroots that faded more slowly.
The large number of Germans recorded as ‘an unknown German soldier’ or ‘two unknown German soldiers’ bespeaks the problem – not only administrative, practical, and bureaucratic, but also physical – of identifying the remains of many of the dead. The fact that many of the French are also recorded as ‘Inconnu’ underlines that this was not just a story of bureaucratic indifference or political resentment but above all, one of massive, disfiguring violence. Further evidence of this is provided in the presence of a series of ossuaries in the neighbouring war cemetery of Maissin, where the collected, unidentified, partial remains of around three thousand soldiers are buried alongside further individual graves. And for all the ‘unity in death’ that the shared quality of the cemetery suggests, the differences in political culture are clear. On the one hand, the French graves are marked by a Republican egalitarianism sutured to a robust patriotism. On the other, the German graves’ obstinate insistence on recording every gradation of rank among the individual soldiers testifies to a hierarchical, status-obsessed Wilhelmine culture the legacies of which have not entirely faded.
Perhaps the most compelling narrative of all, however, is that carried by the presence of French, Belgian, German and European flags at the entrances to both. The stories the cemeteries tell are not only those of mass violence, death and the curation of national or republican pathos, but also those of reconciliation and the pursuit of a project of peace. It is easy to idealise this project, and to overstate the universality of its reach. Both the resurgent politics of nationalism and its attendant historical revisionism, and the sense that for younger Europeans the memory of the first half of the century has less emotional purchase than it does for their elders, caution against assuming that it will retain its force indefinitely. Yet for the broad mainstream, and especially for the generation who are negotiating Brexit on behalf of the European Union, the commitment to this project, and the underlying emotional logics that underpin it, remain solidly intact.
For the British visitor, the questions such sites pose are challenging. Why, unlike the citizenry of our European neighbours, has such a large proportion of British society drawn such different conclusions from the horrifying events of the first half of the twentieth century? Why, unlike its European friends and counterparts, has so much of British society concluded that insular nationalism, and a bogus colonial nostalgia fuelled by historical denial, provide the solutions to the challenges of the day? But cemeteries such as these may also provide the explanation of where we now are. For if one cedes the emotional authenticity of those British attitudes, one also needs to acknowledge the force of the opposing ones in most of the rest of Europe. Awareness of the historical events that gave rise to these cemeteries, and not just the pragmatic logic of capitalism, is what provides the deep emotional cement for the commitment of a Jean-Claude Juncker or a Michel Barnier to the integrity of the European Union. Recognising and accepting this might help the broad swathe of British society that is currently in denial to understand that the mess of a disorderly Brexit will be a price Europeans are willing to pay, with however much regret, for the maintenance of the European Union’s basic principles.