DOMINIC SANDBROOK argues why the delicate balance of power in Europe could be lost again

Deep in the heart of Compiègne forest, in the northeast of France, there is a beautiful two-storey building. Inside is a simple train carriage, which has apparently been perfectly preserved, the letters that identify it as a dining car that is still sorted out in gold.

This afternoon, in that clearing in Compiegne, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel will tacitly stop to remember what exactly happened a century ago.

It was there, just after five o'clock in the morning of November 11, 1918, that the representatives of France and Germany signed the ceasefire that marked the end of the First World War.

Six hours later, at 11 o'clock, the cannons fell silent and killed more than a million Britons, and perhaps 20 million men, women and children of all nationalities, in what was then the greatest cataclysm in world history.

The British Prime Minister Theresa May and the French President Emmanuel Macron visit the Thiepval cemetery as part of ceremonies on the occasion of the centenary of the 1918 Armistice

The British Prime Minister Theresa May and the French President Emmanuel Macron visit the Thiepval cemetery as part of ceremonies on the occasion of the centenary of the 1918 Armistice

A century later it is difficult to read the stories of the men who fell for more than four years without a lump in your throat.

A hundred years ago, when the horrors were still burning, people sometimes called it "the war to end all wars & # 39; They literally meant it: a declaration of tinkling idealism, a dream of a better world.

Their hope did not last long. Even on the first anniversary of the armistice, in 1919, it was starkly clear that the Great War had not ended all wars.

Because even though the weapons were refused, they did not stay silent for long.

Instead of beginning a new era of peace, the end of the First World War was followed by brutal civil wars in Ireland and Hungary, an endless series of wars in Central and Eastern Europe and the deaths of at least ten million people in the Russian civil war. War.

French President Emmanuel Macron (C) sits next to the French historian Antoine Prost (L) while on 9 November 2018 attends a roundtable discussion with historians on the Great War in Peronne - Macron is currently on a six-day tour to visit most iconic monuments of the First World War (WWI) prior to the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the armistice of 11 November 1918

French President Emmanuel Macron (C) sits next to the French historian Antoine Prost (L) while on 9 November 2018 attends a roundtable discussion with historians on the Great War in Peronne - Macron is currently on a six-day tour to visit most iconic monuments of the First World War (WWI) prior to the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the armistice of 11 November 1918

French President Emmanuel Macron (C) sits next to the French historian Antoine Prost (L) while on 9 November 2018 attends a roundtable discussion with historians on the Great War in Peronne – Macron is currently on a six-day tour to visit most iconic monuments of the First World War (WWI) prior to the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the armistice of 11 November 1918

Even before the British army, the truce was only a comma, not a complete stop. In the next two years, thousands of men saw action in Russia, Afghanistan, Turkey, Kuwait, Ireland and Iraq, battlefields that may have been torn from today's headlines.

From the beginning there was therefore a tragic irony at the commemoration. Even when millions bowed their heads, the world slipped to a second world war that would be even more horrible than the first.

Even today, the end of the First World War is hardly a reason for an uncomplicated celebration. A century later, we still live with aftershocks, especially in the blood-poor areas where the defeated empires of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey gave way to a mosaic of bitterly competitive new nation states.

For example, the civil war in Syria reflects ethnic and religious tensions that go back to the creation of Syria by the Allies after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918.

Similarly, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, which has poisoned world politics for so long, is traced back to the attempt by Britain to win a propaganda victory by promising a Jewish homeland in Ottoman Palestine.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) speaks Russian President Vladimir Putin at a summit in Istanbul last month

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) speaks Russian President Vladimir Putin at a summit in Istanbul last month

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) speaks Russian President Vladimir Putin at a summit in Istanbul last month

And although preaching in Remembrance Day often encourages us to ensure that it never happens again, the fact that it is happening again – now, today, in the devastated cities of eastern Ukraine, the apocalyptic nightmares of Syria and Yemen and the endless massacres of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Indeed, no matter how frightening this may sound, a great continental war will almost certainly happen again, not least because it would be naïve to pretend that the forces that sparked the war in 1914 have vanished forever.

Perhaps the most obvious is the role of Germany. Incidentally, I am not one of those historians who think that the Germans deserve all the blame for the outbreak of the war in 1914.

But if there was one thing that destabilized the balance of power in Europe before 1914, then it was the rise of Germany as a single entity, an economic and military leviathan that was simply too big for its own continent.

Does that sound familiar? It should be. For in many ways the story of Europe in the last decade was the struggle to manage the immense economic and political power of Germany.

Of course Angela Merkel has never embraced the militaristic ambitions of Kaiser Wilhelm II. But at a time when the extreme right-wing AfD are fighting there in double digits and the obvious beneficiaries of an economic downturn, it is difficult not to worry about the future path of Germany. And even if the extreme right never comes to power, the German problem will not disappear. That is the economic hegemony that the governments of Greece, Spain and Portugal have sacrificed to the prosperity of their own people to stay within the German-dominated European project and to sow resentment for the coming decades. But power inevitably generates a response.

You see it not only in the anti-German graffiti in the streets of Athens, but also in the rhetoric of demagogues like the Hungarian Viktor Orban, who is never happier than when he denounces Brussels and Berlin.

US President Donald J. Trump responds to a question from the news media when he goes to Marine One on the southern lawn of the White House before he leaves for Paris for a ceremony commemorating 100 years since the end of the First World War on November 11

US President Donald J. Trump responds to a question from the news media when he goes to Marine One on the southern lawn of the White House before he leaves for Paris for a ceremony commemorating 100 years since the end of the First World War on November 11

US President Donald J. Trump responds to a question from the news media when he goes to Marine One on the southern lawn of the White House before he leaves for Paris for a ceremony commemorating 100 years since the end of the First World War on November 11

It is no coincidence that Mr. Orban in 1914 seeks support for the great rival of Germany, the sweltering, hateful giant of Russia.

In fact, for another example of the continuity between 1910 and 2010, look at the Russian ambitions in Eastern Europe, of the attempts to destabilize pro-Western troops in Montenegro and Macedonia to the cyber-war campaigns in Latvia and Estonia. Because we remain so fixed on the Western Front, we often forget the burning role that the Russians played in the outbreak of the First World War. For they were the ones who ignited the power conflict when they insisted on supporting Serbia after the assassination of the archduke of Austria-Hungary Franz Ferdinand.

Why did the Russians do it? Why support a terrorist state so far from its own borders, even if they knew that this would provoke a global conflagration?

The answer is that they desperately wanted to propagate their interests in the Balkans, were afraid of the advance of their wealthier western rivals and were determined to protect what they considered to be their own sphere of influence. Does that sound familiar?

British Prime Minister Theresa May, judge, and French President Emmanuel Macron left, walking together after laying the wreaths in the Thiepval monument in the world I in Thiepval, France, Friday 9 November 2018. The memorial commemorates more than 72,000 British soldiers and South African troops who died in the Somme

British Prime Minister Theresa May, judge, and French President Emmanuel Macron left, walking together after laying the wreaths in the Thiepval monument in the world I in Thiepval, France, Friday 9 November 2018. The memorial commemorates more than 72,000 British soldiers and South African troops who died in the Somme

British Prime Minister Theresa May, judge, and French President Emmanuel Macron left, walking together after laying the wreaths in the Thiepval monument in the world I in Thiepval, France, Friday 9 November 2018. The memorial commemorates more than 72,000 British soldiers and South African troops who died in the Somme

The biographers of Vladimir Putin even call him the "new tsar", which pursues an open imperialist policy, based on the projection of raw, uncompromising power, which Russia calls for 1914.

We know where that mentality leads: from confrontation to confrontation, ending in the charnel house of the trenches. But Mr Putin is not only an imperialist.

He has tapped the unique ignition of nationalism, which was driven by the increase in literacy in the decades before 1914, and is fueled by social media such as Facebook and Twitter today.

Even a few years ago, commentators were talking about nationalism as something that belonged to history.

National identity must belong to the past, replaced by a new multiculturalism. And the nation state had to be on the way out, superfluous by supranational entities such as the EU. Few people would make such claims today. Far from undermining existing identities, globalization and immigration have driven people back to the tribal loyalties of yesteryear.

The last two weeks alone have yielded two striking examples: first in Brazil, where the extreme right-wing Jair Bolsonaro won the power on a platform that was borrowed from the veteran Benito Mussolini from the First World War; and then in the United States where Donald Trump's irreconcilable nationalist appeal – America First & # 39; – attracted tens of thousands of voters during the midterm elections.

But the most striking examples are precisely the places most affected by the First World War, where for generations a feeling of festering resentment, victimhood and betrayal have been passed on.

British Prime Minister Theresa May (L), Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel (R) and Liz Sweet, Director of External Relations at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, walk through the St Symphorien military cemetery in Mons, Belgium. Where wreaths were placed near the tombs of John Parr, the first British soldier killed in WWI in 1914, and George Ellison, the last British soldier to be killed before Warristice in 1918

British Prime Minister Theresa May (L), Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel (R) and Liz Sweet, Director of External Relations at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, walk through the St Symphorien military cemetery in Mons, Belgium. Where wreaths were placed near the tombs of John Parr, the first British soldier killed in WWI in 1914, and George Ellison, the last British soldier to be killed before Warristice in 1918

British Prime Minister Theresa May (L), Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel (R) and Liz Sweet, Director of External Relations at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, walk through the St Symphorien military cemetery in Mons, Belgium. Where wreaths were placed near the tombs of John Parr, the first British soldier killed in WWI in 1914, and George Ellison, the last British soldier to be killed before Warristice in 1918

It is no coincidence, I think, that the most aggressive xenophobic leader of the EU, the demagogic Viktor Orban, came to power in Hungary, a country that was occupied and humiliated by its neighbors after 1918 and lost more than two-thirds of its territory. and half of its population in the post-war settlement.

It is also no coincidence that the authoritarian Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power in Turkey, a country that lost an enormous transcontinental empire during the war, was occupied by the Allies and nearly dismembered by the Greeks.

The most disturbing example is perhaps the place where the centennial of the truce is commemorated this afternoon: France.

Despite its rhetorical commitment to European unity, France is a country where the fires of nationalism are still burning brightly.

And while liberals take comfort from Mr Macron's victory in last year's presidential election, it is clear that more than one in three French men and women voted for the extreme right-wing Marine Le Pen.

In a black ironic twist she is especially popular in precisely that northeastern corner of France where the war was fought. Indeed, the two departments she won in 2017, Aisne and Pas-de-Calais, saw some of the bitterest battles of the war, including the battles of Arras, Loos and Vimy Ridge.

This week national opinion polls are actually rallying their national rally for the first time on Mr Macron's party – an amazing and disturbing development.

Perhaps the French president would then have to spend less time commemorating the battles in the past and be more concerned about the battles of the future.

Because if France follows countries such as Italy and Hungary in embracing the politics of nationalism, a conflict in Europe will no longer look so fantastic.

None of this of course means that we can see a repetition of the First World War. History never repeats itself exactly.

Theresa May (C) after wreaths were placed at the tombs of John Parr, the first British soldier killed in WWI in 1914, and George Ellison, the last British soldier to be killed before Warristice in 1918

Theresa May (C) after wreaths were placed at the tombs of John Parr, the first British soldier killed in WWI in 1914, and George Ellison, the last British soldier to be killed before Warristice in 1918

Theresa May (C) after wreaths were placed at the tombs of John Parr, the first British soldier killed in WWI in 1914, and George Ellison, the last British soldier to be killed before Warristice in 1918

The world has gone further and a return to the days of big alliances and superpower blocks seems unlikely.

But we would deceive ourselves to imagine, like so many pacifists and peace activists in the 1920s and 1930s, that we have left the war forever.

No matter how many times the EU elite say they have banished the conflict for good, there will be a new European war.

History does not stop and humanity does not change. It will happen: the only questions are where and when.

In a weekend with sombre reflection, that might seem like a pessimistic idea. But it was not a pessimism that killed 20 million people in the First World War.

It was optimism: the belief that the generals could handle the war quickly and efficiently; the fantasy that the boys would be home at Christmas time; the illusion of politicians that they could destroy Europe's fragile political and social order and, in one way or another, re-assemble the fragments afterwards.

This is, I think, the real lesson of the First World War.

It is easy to stand in silence for a few minutes and brush away a tear in memory of the boys who have skipped the summit.

What is more troubling is recognizing the vulnerability of the world that we know and love.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and French President Emmanuel Macron have managed to hold hands after a conference as part of a summit convened to establish a sustainable political solution for to find the civil war in Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and French President Emmanuel Macron have managed to hold hands after a conference as part of a summit convened to establish a sustainable political solution for to find the civil war in Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and French President Emmanuel Macron have managed to hold hands after a conference as part of a summit convened to establish a sustainable political solution for to find the civil war in Syria

As they learned a century ago, fixed points could be destroyed in the blink of an eye; assumptions wiped out one night; emperors, governments, even entire countries smashed.

But even in 1918, when they knew how low humanity could sink, people still misled themselves that they could banish the demons who were lurking in us all.

After the armistice, the French put the Compiegne car in a museum in Paris.

It became a symbol of their final victory over their German rivals, a totem of peace. And what happened to it?

In 1940, after crushing the French in the rematch, Hitler ordered that it should be brought back to Compiegne for their surrender. Then it was brought to Berlin and shown as a trophy of revenge, and in 1945 the SS destroyed it with dynamite.

That carriage in the museum in Compiegne is a replica. What it symbolizes is not lasting peace, but the return of conflicts.

So much for peace and victory.

And unfortunately, before the war to end all wars.

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