2014 is the 100 year anniversary of the start of World War One. The war is long enough ago that it is history for most people and not something that is a personal experience. The last veterans of the war are dead, most of the children of the veterans are dead as well, the first hand stories have faded away. World War One is history now.
I had one grandfather fight in World War One, August von Schulmann. I never met my grandfather because he was shot and dumped in a mass grace 20 years before I was born. He was 28 when the war started and was called up as a Russian cavalry officer. I never had a chance to ask him about his experience. My von Schulmann grandmother died in 1945 in a Soviet labour camp which means she was not around for me to ask what it was like for her.
My mother's parents were both alive for World War One, but my grandfather was only 12 at the start of the war and my grandmother 9. I was only 14 when my grandfather Patrick von Dellingshausen died and never spoke with him about the war. He was also in Germany and I only saw him four times in my life, though for extended periods each time.
My grandmother Maria von Fersen lived in Vancouver and was around all the time. When I was in my late teens I did have a chance to ask her about World War One. She did not really remember anything about the war because it did not directly effect her life. What she did remember very well was the Estonian War of Independence in 1919. She remembered having to hide from the Reds and the utter fear of the time. She also remembered that it was then when they went from being very rich to middle class.
I am talking about World War One through my family because as a youth I asked everyone in my extended family and ethnic community what they did in World War Two. Iwould have asked about World War One but by the time I was asking this in the early 1980s there was no one around any longer to ask about it. For me World War One is on the edge of history. The Western Front and allied experience is history as is the German experience. My small direct connection to World War One is only through what happened to my family.
For my family World War One was a major watershed in our history. The war marked a fundamental change to our 700 years in the Baltics. Our position as part of the aristocracy came to end in 1917. We ended up losing our standing and losing most of our lands. I say "our" because I grew up with the stories of this change, this is the history of World War One that I connect to.
For my family World War One is intimately connected to the Russian Civil War, the two flowed into to each other as one ongoing conflict with the Russian Civil War being the much more traumatic. For my mother the civil war meant that as a child she grew being very much in fear of the Bolsheviks. The fear was enough that her father owned real estate in Germany in the interwar to protect the wealth of the family.
The experience of World War One still showed itself in the 1970s in my family. My grandfather Patrick von Dellingshausen lived in Lübeck for the last years of his life, he feared a Soviet invasion of West Germany and moved some of his money to Canada to protect it.
For my parents generation who did not personally experience World War One and the Russian Civil War the much bigger impact on their lives was World War Two. The worst that happened between 1914-1919 paled in comparison to what happened between 1939 and 1947. My grandparents witnessed the end of the life of privilege, my parents lived through Stunde Null.
For the next four years there will be a lot of talking about events of 100 years ago during World War One. I worry that the personal connection is no longer there and the war will no longer be truly horrific to the world.