The emotional legacies of the Great War are different for different countries:
For France the war, however bloody, was a necessary response to invasion. Preventing the German Army from reaching Paris in the first battle of the Marne spelled the difference between freedom and slavery. The second battle of the Marne, with the help at last of American soldiers, was the beginning of the end for the Germans. This was France’s “good war,” while World War II was an embarrassing collapse, with significant collaboration.
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For Germany, which had invested heavily in the machinery of war, it was an almost incomprehensible defeat, laying the groundwork for revolution, revanchism, fascism and genocide. Oddly enough, says Max Hastings, a war historian, Germany could have dominated Europe in 20 years economically if only it had not gone to war.
“The supreme irony of 1914 is how many of the rulers of Europe grossly overestimated military power and grossly underestimated economic power,” Mr. Hastings said, a point he now emphasizes when speaking with Chinese generals. The Germans, too, are still coming to terms with their past, unsure how much to press their current economic and political strength in Europe.
For Britain, there remains a debate about whether the British even had to fight. But fight they did, with millions of volunteers until the dead were mounded so high that conscription was finally imposed in 1916. The memory of July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme — when 20,000 British soldiers died, 40,000 were wounded and 60 percent of officers were killed — has marked British consciousness and become a byword for mindless slaughter.