Officially it is a historical memorial. But symbolically it may well represent a universal monument to the possibility of peaceful co-existence between erstwhile foes
Hartmannswillerkopf. I must confess that it did not mean very much to me until 10 Nov 2017 — the eve of Remembrance Day — when I watched a live French TV broadcast of the inauguration of a new World War I (WWI) historical museum at HWK by German President Steinmeier and French President Macron.
The HWK area has been a French national monument to 30k fallen soldiers of WWI (1914-1918) for almost a century. Between 1924-29 a museum and a cemetery were erected at this important remembrance site. Inter alia, was incorporated an 80m-long trench leading to a crypt that houses an ossuary containing the remains of 12k unidentified men.
The foundation stone of the latest addition — inaugurated by Macron/Steinmeier — was laid jointly by France/Germany in 2014 to mark the centenary of Germany’s declaration of war on France. Officially it is a historical memorial that is meant to provide a joint Franco-German interpretation of the War. But symbolically it may well represent a universal monument to the possibility of peaceful co-existence between erstwhile foes.
Located in the Voges mountains in eastern Alsace, HWK is a 1-km high peak that overlooks the Alsace plain, the Rhine Valley and the Black Forest in Germany. Hence it is of great strategic importance. At the height of the battle for this mountain, 150k French soldiers were deployed. Heavy fighting continued unabated for 2-years (1914-1916) with the peak changing hands 8-times.
But by early 1916, the protagonists found that they had reached a stalemate and decided that they must content themselves with the frontlines they had managed to secure so far. Especially as more the troops were needed on the Western Front (WF) — the main theatre of war in WWI. So for the remainder of the war, only enough men were kept at HWK to hold the secured lines; and the rest were redeployed to the WF.
Perhaps we should remind ourselves that a memorial is a permanent artefact of Remembrance. Thus the message is quite clear: No one is expected to forget the past because that would be a gross denial of the sacrifice made by past generations. However rather than wallow in unproductive bitterness, protagonists should ensure that the hostilities of the past are not repeated. Neither should they allow them to act as an impediment to future peaceful co-existence.
The main lesson learnt from WWI is: when antagonisms are allowed to fester they lead to suspicion and further conflict. Thus a mere 21 years after hostilities ended leaving 17m dead, it was followed by WWII (1939-1945) in which an incredible 50-80m were killed.
In a span of just 30-years, the two WWs killed an estimated 67-97m. Enough to convince Europe that war is the most costly and destructive way to resolve differences. That fruitful co-operation is a better alternative to the futility of the use of arms.
Collaboration was not long in coming. Just four years after the end of WWII, NATO was formed in 1949. Headquartered in Brussels, this is an intergovernmental military alliance between North American and European countries in which all members states agree to mutual defence against any external aggression. Currently it has 29-members.
The European Union
Then only 12-years after the end of WWII, France, Germany, Italy and the 3-BENELUX countries signed the Treaty of Rome 1957 to establish the European Economic Community (EEC), the precursor to the European Union (EU). The UK joined the Club of Rome in 1973, Greece became a member in 1981, Portugal and Spain joined in 1986 followed by other European states. And post-1990 after the collapse of the USSR, a few of the satellite countries became members. Today total membership stands at 28 with a population of 511m.
As far back as 1969 a decision was taken to create a single currency for the EEC, but its realization needed a lot of groundwork to be completed first. 32-years later the Euro was born in Jan-2002 to become the national currency of 19 of the 28 member states of the EU. The ECB (European Central Bank) is the central bank of the euro zone and it is responsible for its monetary policy.
The economic fall-outs have been nothing but spectacular. In the 1950s the individual European states with relatively small populations were no match for the giants like the USA and the USSR with massive quantities of natural resources and large internal markets. The EEC was formed with this scenario as a backdrop. Today with only 7% of world population, the EU accounts for 22% (USD 17th) of global GDP; and per capita income is USD 33k. Furthermore it is the net owner of an impressive 30 pc of the global wealth of USD 223-trillion.
If the economic achievements have been impressive, no less impressive — if not more so! — has been the realization of “Peace in our Time” that a certain generation of Europeans dreamt about last century. Indeed in 2002 the EU venture was recompensed by being awarded the Nobel Peace prize. In its citations the Nobel Committee applauded it for “the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.”
And elsewhere! I am tempted to add. Quite an achievement by erstwhile enemies in just 70 years from the cessation of hostilities of WWII in 1945.
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Asian Union: The Possible Dream
After watching the ceremony at HWK I asked my friend Keshraj if he thought the European experience can be replicated in other parts of the world. “Why not?” was his simple reply. Why not indeed! But like the brave Rome-6 which included erstwhile enemies France and Germany who had fought two bitter wars in the 1900s, a similar number of countries would need to take a quantum leap forward. And let bygones be bygones, forget the past and reconcile for the future.
Our imagined Club of Colombo-6 would comprise warring neighbours India (pop 1.324bn) and Pakistan (193m), Bangladesh (163m), Sri Lanka (21m), Nepal (29m) and Bhutan (1m). Together these countries represent 23% (1.73bn) of the world population of 7.6bn.
Whilst the other four live in relative peace, India and Pakistan are in constant, fruitless friction mainly over Kashmir. Their armies of 1.3m and 0.6m respectively are on resource-hungry, battle-ready mode for much of the time. They have starved their peoples (in 2017 India has a International Food Policy Research Institute -Global Hunger Index of 31.4 and Pakistan 32.6 — both indicative of Serious Hunger) to endow themselves with destructive nuclear WMDs.
Worst, after 70 years of tensions and enmity with countless skirmishes and four wars, the impasse and stalemate continue. Short of going all out nuclear, many a military analyst agrees that there is no solution to the Indo/Pak problem. On the other hand, mutual annihilation cannot be an option.
So much the better, therefore, to go for peaceful co-existence. I must confess that my choice of the Colombo-6 is deliberate. In spite of different religions, they all have the same/similar cultures which seem to be the common denominator that has helped unite Europe. Thus a common culture should make it relatively easy for the founding six members to work towards the setting up of a AEC (Asian Economic Community).
And once the infrastructures have been laid and the AEC functional, other neighbouring countries can be invited to join — perhaps starting with Myanmar to the east and Afghanistan to the west. Gradually Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam could integrate. The icing on the cake would be the day when China decides to become a member.
It took the trail-blazing Europeans 60 years to take the EU to its present heights. Since there is no need to re-invent the wheel, the realization of the Asian dream should not take anywhere as long. Using the EU model as a template, it may be possible for the AEC — representing half of humanity!– to metamorphose into the AU (Asian Union) in less than 50-years.
The EU is living proof that, even in the wake of bloody war, peaceful co-existence is possible. That friendship and peace lead to the path of enlightenment and socio-economic, cultural and moral advancement; whereas animosity and war lead to nowhere and condemn nations to stagnation. The cost of antagonism is backwardness; the prize for co-operation is progress.
So let Asia pick up the gauntlet and set its progress on the march!
* Published in print edition on 1 December 2017