The second half of this post is about a monument in Strasbourg, so feel free to skip there if you are uninterested in a discussion of French and American losses during the world wars.
Today is Veterans Day, spelled without an apostrophe. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day both have apostrophes, making it clear that we are only celebrating our own individual mothers and fathers. I presume Veterans Day is different because someone was not sure if we should celebrate all veterans or just one.
Veterans Day is November 11, the day World War One ended with the signing of the armistice. According to Wikipedia, a shop owner from Kansas began a movement to change the holiday from celebrating veterans of the First World War to celebrating all veterans, something Congress make law in June, 1954.
In France, however, November 11 remains Armistice Day. Everything is closed, so I have not left my apartment all day (it has also been gray and stormy), unlike in the United States. Also unlike the USA, the French holiday still focuses on veterans of World War One.
I am not entirely sure why this is. I suppose it is at least partly due to casualty differences leading to different historical memories. In World War Two, France lost about 567,600 people in total, 1.35 percent of the population, of which just under half were military personnel (and 83,000 Jews lost in the Holocaust, with a role played by Vichy that has still not been completely dealt with). The United States lost 418,500, the vast majority military casualties, and an even smaller 0.32% of the total population. Does not seem that different. The United States proper was never invaded, too. France surrendered, suffering the indignity of having a puppet regime set up run by a hero of the Great War. So why would the USA add veterans of the Second World War to its holiday and France not?
The answer lies in the other world war. In World War One, America lost 117,465, 0.13% of the population, and fought only at the end. The standard narrative of the war is fresh American troops coming and making the difference because they had not already been fighting for four straight years. France lost 1,697,800 soldiers and civilians, making up 4.29% of the population, a much bigger blow. The vast majority of World War One’s Western Front was on French soil. France’s early defeat in World War Two spared it from many of the human losses, in terms of body count, that it suffered in World War One. World War Two was America’s second-bloodiest war after the Civil War. I think France limiting November 11 to the First World War is a sensible decision.
There is one spot where I think France made a mistake in the other direction, though.
In Strasbourg’s Place de la Republic there is a statue, Le monument aux morts. I chose this one instead of one in a darker setting where it looks more anguished because here you can see the years inscribed on the pedestal. (I would have taken a picture on my own today but, as I said, it is cold, gray, and raining).
Inaugurated in 1936 and created by Léon-Ernest Drivier, the statue is of a mother holding her two dead sons. The mother is Strasbourg. One son died fighting for France and the other died fighting for Germany. It is one of the most poignant testimonies to Alsace’s troubled history I have ever seen.
There are, however, four sets of dates on the statue. One is obvious: the dates of World War One. The statue was built for it. If it had been meant to encompass other struggles in which Alsatian battled Alsatian I would have expected the Franco-Prussian War or even the Thirty Years’ War to be included.
The dates for World War Two (1939-1945) are also there. This is perfectly understandable. Germany annexed Alsace after France surrendered and thus Alsatians not only fought against Germany in 1939-1940 but some fought in German units through the end of the war.
The dates 1945-1954 allude to the French or First Indochina War. 1952-1962 was the Algerian War in which Algeria overthrew French rule. I have problems including these dates on this statue.
This is not because I wish to delegitimize the deaths of soldiers because these were imperialist wars. Nations honor their soldiers and their sacrifices. The monument aux morts has a specific goal representing a specific historical context. Alsatians likely fought in the Algerian War but they were probably all on the same side. Practically none from European France fought in the Indochina War at all. It just feels like whoever decided to chisel these two wars onto the sculpture diluted its powerful message.
Regardless of my thoughts, the monument remains. It is a reminder that war rips at the fabric of not only continents, but also nations and even families.
I think I will call my grandfather now. He served in the navy for twenty years and is a veteran of World War Two and the Korean War.
Note: all casualty figures come from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_II_casualties and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_I_casualties