First World War was a ‘horrific event’, says President Higgins

Representatives of some 70 countries mark the 100th anniversary of the war in Belgium

President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina (second right) are welcomed by King Philippe of Belgium (2-L) and Queen Mathilde of Belgium (L) as they arrive at the Abbey of St Lawrence to attend the commemoration for the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War in Liege, Belgium,today.  Photograph: Stephanie Lecocq/EPA

President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina (second right) are welcomed by King Philippe of Belgium (2-L) and Queen Mathilde of Belgium (L) as they arrive at the Abbey of St Lawrence to attend the commemoration for the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War in Liege, Belgium,today. Photograph: Stephanie Lecocq/EPA

Mon, Aug 4, 2014, 11:27

The First World War was a horrific event in human history and has to be regarded as such, according to President Michael D Higgins, who is today attending commemorative events in Liege and Mons in Belgium to mark the 100 anniversary of the start of the War.

“I think the significance of the heads of state coming together on the anniversary of World War One is an opportunity to recognise the catastrophe the war was,” the President said in an interview with the Irish Times.

He said the anniversary also provided an opportunity to ask the question how countries could drift into war and how it could expand to the point at which it consumed a generation that had such promise.

“It is worth thinking too of this tragedy that was World War One, not just in terms of all those who died and all those were severely injured and their families, but also the fact that it did not prevent another war within half a century.

“So looking back I think it is important to recognises and respect the dead, the injured and their families; to acknowledge the great generosities towards each other in the trenches. And also then to recognise just the scale of the catastrophe it was.”

Asked how he felt about the loud heckling of his commemorative speech at Glasnevin Cemetery by a small group of protestors last week, President Higgins said that he was a defender of peoples’ right to hold opinions and express them freely in public but he invited them to reflect on what he said during his speech.

“I don’t see how the very best version of republicanism is in the slightest contradicted by the kind of inclusive versions of memory that I hold.

“I go father and I say that there are forms of nationalism and some strains of it that are not necessarily republican. Part of my argument is that a real republicanism has a glowing centre of egalitarianism and how could it be very republican to ignore the deaths, the injuries and the families of the working people of Ireland and Britain who were sucked into a war that was not a war of their making or did not advance their welfare in any significant way.

“So was I upset? No. I understand it. I would ask people to consider what I say and to exercise patience as I try to expand on it during this period.”

President Higgins said that Irish people were in a different place in 2014 than they might have been have been 50 years ago because of the material in the libraries, archives and museums with the letters, the diaries and the recollections of relatives of those who participated in the War.

He said that looking back we could see there was nothing glorious about being forced into trench warfare but it was important to recognise the dead and the survivors with respect and inclusiveness.

“I don’t invest World War One with any heroic tendency in terms of what its purpose was. There isn’t a single serious scholar who suggests that this war was initiated to achieve any great purpose or that it was allowed to continue and escalate for any great purpose.

“I think we should use the opportunity of World War One to recognise the catastrophe that war is as well as how easy it is to become trapped in a bubble of warlike thinking. And to learn from it lessons, and this is consistent with my previous public life, about the importance and the difficulties of building peace.”