French President Francois Hollande and his German counterpart Joachim Gauck paid emotional tributes on Sunday to the millions of soldiers who died during World War I, exactly 100 years after Germany declared hostilities against France.
Published: 4 August 2014 07:57 CEST
Hollande and Gauck on Sunday. Photo: DPA
The two leaders gathered at Hartmannswillerkopf where 30,000 soldiers lost their lives in fierce battles around the mountain peak known as the "man-eater" in France's Alsace region near the border between the two countries.
In a speech lauding as "an example for the world" the friendship between two countries that were once fierce enemies, Hollande remembered conflicts still raging around the world, including the confrontation between Israel and Hamas in Gaza that has claimed over 1,800 lives.
"France and Germany, beyond their suffering and bereavements, had the courage to make up – it was the best way to honour the dead and provide a guarantee of peace to the living," he said.
Their friendship is "an example for the world, a strength and an invitation, wherever peace is threatened, wherever human rights are violated, wherever the principles of international law are flouted.
"All efforts must be made to impose, today more than ever, a ceasefire in Gaza and end the suffering of civilian populations," he added in a speech that also touched on the Ukrainian crisis and the plight of Christians in Iraq where jihadists hold swathes of territory.
'Absurdity and horror'
Standing near the bucolic peak of Hartmannswillerkopf, Gauck reminded onlookers that the site "symbolizes the absurdity and horror of those years".
"We commemorate the dead, the missing, the injured on both sides, and we honour their memory. They are not forgotten," he said.
The symbolism of the event was all the stronger as August 3, 1914 "opened a period of 30 years of conflicts, bitterness, massacres and barbarity between France and Germany," the French presidency said in a statement.
It testifies "to the strength of the friendship between the two countries which allows them to look together at their common history, including at what has been the most dramatic."
This is not the first time that Hollande and Gauck have joined forces to denounce the horrors of conflicts that once made enemies of the two countries.
Last year, the two heads of state walked hand in hand in the central French village of Oradour-sur-Glane where SS troops massacred 642 people on June 10, 1944 during World War II, the worst Nazi atrocity in occupied France.
In Hartmannswillerkopf, Hollande and Gauck also signed a joint declaration on Franco-German friendship as the foundation stone for the first World War I museum jointly conceived by historians from both countries was laid on the ground.
They then stood in silence in front of a monument under which are buried the ashes of some 12,000 unknown French and German soldiers.
100 years since Germany tried to break UK’s grip on the seas
100 years ago on Tuesday, the British and German navies met in the biggest sea battle in history off the Danish coast – one which has become as controversial and hard to make sense of as the First World War itself.
Published: 31 May 2016 07:46 CEST
An oil painting of the Battle of Jutland by Claus Bergen, on display in Germany's Naval Memorial in Laboe, Schleswig-Holstein. Photo: DPA
Britain and Germany had spent around 20 years building their navies in anticipation of war in Europe.
It was a time when Britain still truly ruled the waves with its Grand Fleet – which was quickly put to work enforcing a blockade of Imperial Germany's north coast after war broke out in 1914.
With the British prowling the North Sea, Kaiser Wilhelm II's armies and civilian subjects were starved of supplies arriving by ship.
Most of the British fleet was kept in harbour in Rosyth, Cromarty and Scapa Flow, ready to block the German High Seas Fleet from escaping into the Atlantic where it could attack the Allies' own supply convoys.
But the Germans knew that the British fleet would be too powerful for them if the two sides were to fight an open battle using all their forces.
Germany boasted just 16 'dreadnought'-class battleships, compared with the 28 fielded by the British.
Instead, in early summer 1916 they came up with a plan to inflict heavy losses on the Royal Navy by drawing its ships out piecemeal.
A small group of battlecruisers commanded by Vice Admiral Franz von Hipper would move out in advance of the Germans' main force, led by Vice Admiral Reinhard Scheer.
Beatty's plan was to lure the Germans towards the main British fleet, commanded by Admiral Sir John Jellicoe.
But his force suffered severe losses as Hipper was able to sink two of his ships, the Indefatigable and the Queen Mary, within an hour of battle being joined.
When the much larger German main fleet under Admiral Scheer arrived, Jellicoe was still too far away from Beatty to help, and a third British ship, Invincible, was sunk just after 6:30 pm.
When Jellicoe finally arrived, the Germans realised that they were outmatched and decided to retreat northwards – while the British, fearing a trap, decided not to give chase.
Instead the Admiral took his ships to the south so that they could intercept the Germans later when they were heading home to Wilhelmshaven and other ports on the north coast.
When the two fleets clashed again the Germans suffered serious damage to the ships Seydlitz and Derfflinger, and Admiral Hipper's flagship Lutzow had to be scuttled by her own sailors.
So who won?
During the war, the German authorities sought to represent the battle as a victory for their High Seas Fleet.
After all, they had sunk 14 British ships and killed 6,094 enemy sailors – while losing 11 of their own ships and 2,551 men.
“The Imperial Navy was able to win a tactical victory, not only escaping destruction by the much more powerful British fleet, but causing them more losses of ships and men,” Dr Jann Witt of the German Naval Federation (DMB) told The Local.
“German and British historians have been arguing for 100 years over who really won. But strategically it has to be seen as a German defeat,” he went on.
German naval commanders had hoped to decide the war at sea with a single big battle that they had been preparing for around two decades.
But when it came to the crunch, the Germans were unable to land the decisive blow on the British that they needed to break the Royal Navy's command of the seas.
A group of German ships seen from the air in an undated WWI photograph. Photo: DPA
“It was almost the bankruptcy declaration of the German strategy,” said Witt.
“They realized that they had no chance of defeating the British fleet and they made the fatal decision to go on with an indiscriminate U-Boat (submarine) war.”
Anger over German U-Boats' attacks on merchant shipping – and the famous sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania – have long been seen as a factor that drew the USA into the war in 1917, effectively deciding the war against Imperial Germany.
How is Jutland remembered today?
Today, like so many of the great battles of the First World War, the anniversary of the Battle of Jutland (or as the Germans call it, the Skagerrakschlacht) is a time of joint remembrance for former enemies.
Dignitaries including Prince Edward, Duke of Kent – also head of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission – and Germany's Europe Minister Michael Roth will come together on Tuesday to lay wreaths at the German Naval Memorial in Laboe, just north of Kiel.
The Naval Memorial in Laboe, Schleswig-Holstein, where the remembrance service will be held on Tuesday. Photo: DPA
Over two million German servicemen lost their lives in the First World War, of whom just 35,000 were sailors.
“Enormous masses of troops were deployed on the Western Front and lived through these traumatic experiences,” Witt explained. “That became more deeply implanted in the public consciousness.”
While sailors had to contend with poor leadership from their officers, low morale, and shortages of supplies, nothing at sea could quite compare to the horror of the trenches.
What's more, while Britain and France continue to have strong memories of the First World War, for Germans the Second World War became a much deeper trauma – almost overlaying the pain the population went through during the First.
What can we learn from Jutland?
The battle at sea and its counterpart on land were the result of decades of mistrust among the leaders of the European great powers as they pursued their competing ambitions with a wary eye on one another.
“There was no institution like the EU or NATO or OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe], no mechanism to peaceably resolve conflicts,” Witt said.
“It was all stoked by massive nationalism at the time, this national selfishness and a lack of readiness to compromise.
“When we lose the ability to peacefully resolve differences with others through compromise – moving towards the other and taking one's own interests back a step – that's a big danger for Europe”.