Armistice Day is a national holiday in Belgium, and is held annually on 11th November to commemorate the signing of the peace treaty exactly 99 years ago between Germany and the Allied Forces that marked the end of the 1914-1918 War.
Traditionally people stop and maintain a respectful silence at 11am on this day to remember the casualties of war, and there are many ceremonies across Belgium to commemorate the sacrifices made by so many brave men and women throughout this conflict.
This year in Belgium there have been special ceremonies for the one hundredth anniversary of the battle of Passchendale, which was one of the bloodiest and most pointless episodes of the war. Over the weekend different events are held across Europe to enable people to share in the memories and grief that war has inflicted on their communities. Whilst no veterans from the 1914-1918 war are still alive today, the extent of the carnage from those 4 years was so great that most families in Europe still bear the scars today of the sudden loss of a generation, and the Belgian people in particular endured the most horrific experiences.
Belgium has so often over the centuries been the unfortunate battleground chosen by warring nations to seek dominance over their rivals by violence, and Belgium in particular has experienced the inevitable consequences of rampant nationalism from heavyweight neighbours. So it should come as no surprise that we have here a respectful celebration of peace with Armistice Day, and a reflection to quietly remember that the current prosperity that Belgium enjoys today is thanks to the sacrifices made many years ago by our friends and extended family in Europe.
It took a second world war before the political elite succeeded in securing Treaties that would deliver a lasting peace in Europe that has held now for more than 70 years. This has been one of the most important and lasting achievements of the European Union, for all of its other faults and criticisms. But the alarming corollary to this is that our current generation of political leaders has no experience of war, so when we see the resurgence of intolerance and nationalism in today’s society the alarm bells should ring about the ability of our communities to suppress these undesirable tendencies.
Although it is a platitude, I personally believe that we should always study history, and encourage our children to learn from the lessons and errors of the past so that they do not repeat them in the future. The majority of people living in Europe today have never experienced war, and can only imagine the enormity of what it means. But that is no excuse for failing to prepare for the potential resurgence of the worst excesses of human nature; to do that we must always cherish and defend the values and principles on which our democracy is founded, and be prepared to take a courageous stand against extremism in the best interests of protecting future generations.
So this weekend is not just a time to remember and reflect about the benefits of peace and prosperity in Belgium, it is also a time to think deeply about the need to strengthen our political resolve to defend against intolerance and nationalism across the continent. Let us not forget that today we still have a war raging in Ukraine, in the heart of Central Europe, which has been burning already for 4 years with daily casualties. We cannot afford complacency. Yes we enjoy the fruits of peace here in Belgium today, and we should remember and be grateful for the sacrifices over many decades to achieve this, but we also have a moral responsibility to help our friends and extended European family in Ukraine to achieve a peaceful resolution to their regional conflict so that they too can enjoy a similar peace dividend.