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Gauck and Hollande commemorate 100th anniversary of World War One

On August 3, 1914, the German Empire declared war on France. One-hundred years later, the German and French presidents commemorated the event that irreversibly changed not only their countries, but the entire world.

French President Francois Hollande hosted his German counterpart, Joachim Gauck, on Sunday to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the day Germany declared war on France.

The centenary ceremony began with both leaders laying a wreath in Hartmannswillerkopf, one of only four official national memorials dedicated to the First World War in France.

The two presidents were then to lay the first stone of a World War One museum.

Alsace carries special historical significance as land naturally divided on its eastern border with Germany by a long stretch of the Rhine River, but pulled in both directions over the centuries by war.

Hartmannswillerkopf lies roughly 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the German border and was considered a key strategic site for securing the surrounding area. Over 30,000 soldiers lost their lives on its battlefield, which changed sides eight times during the war.

Hollande: peace is our responsibilty

Both leaders spoke of the challenges facing modern Europe, including difficult economic decisions and heated political debates calling into question the need for the European Union. The threat of a full-scale war in Ukraine has also worried neighboring EU countries.

"We no longer have eyewitnesses to the First World War" French President Hollande said. "It is up to us to recall these barbaric events."

Citing the symbolic importance of modern Franco-German relations compared to the years of mutual enmity that led to heavy losses of life, Hollande said Sunday's event was "a message to the world and an invitation to all those all over the world [wherever confrontations arise.]"

"Peace is the responsibility of every single generation...and to transmit to coming generations the fragility of peace."

Hollande noted that these lessons must help guide European leaders in their diplomacy toward countries at war, including in the Middle East and Africa.

Gauck: once a dream, now reality

Echoing his French counterpart, German President Gauck remarked on the significance of having French and German citizens sit alongside one another in peace.

"It is like a dream, but it is our reality," Gauck said.

Europeans must preserve this peace and not lose perspective on their current difficulties, the German president said.

"The generations before ours would have gladly had the problems we face today...we can overcome these challenges together."

How it began

The First World War left an indelible mark on France and Germany. The events that led to the declaration of the four-year conflict began with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914.

Over the course of the next 37 days, Europe's empires found themselves in diplomatic chaos caused by complicated alliances and forced to choose sides for the impending war.

Germany declared war on France on August 3, 1914. Its military already had a strategy - known as the Schlieffen Plan - to bring Paris to its knees quickly by invading its north via Belgium, but it soon proved a disaster when.

In its military's imagination, Germany had anticipated a two-front war with France and Russia in a scenario where France's army was strong and Russia's army would be slow to mobilize. The opposite was true. Instead, Russia mobilized quickly while France was weaker than expected and Britain – obligated under an 1839 treaty – mobilized to the Western front in defense of Belgium.

A war met with cheers of jubilation in the late summer of 1914 soon became four years of mayhem and destruction. More than 14 million people lost their lives in the fighting, including four million civilian deaths.

The political wasteland left behind by World War One became the fertile ground for the rise of Nazism in Germany in the decades that followed. It also set events in motion that saw the rise of Communism and the fall of colonialism in the 20th century.

kms/tj (AFP, dpa)

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