Fad­ing mem­o­ries of war jeop­ar­dize ba­sis for EU

The Herald-Sun (Sunday) - - News - BY KA­TRIN BENNHOLD

The Rev. Joseph Musser’s fam­ily has al­ways lived in the re­gion of Al­sace, but not al­ways in the same coun­try.

His grand­fa­ther fought for the Ger­mans in World War I, and his fa­ther for the French in World War II. To­day, no one is fight­ing any­more. His great­niece lives in France but works in Ger­many, cross­ing the bor­der her an­ces­tors died fight­ing over with­out even notic­ing it.

It is this era of peace and bor­der­less pros­per­ity that cham­pi­ons of the Euro­pean Union con­sider the bloc’s sin­gu­lar achieve­ment.

“The foun­da­tion of the Euro­pean Union is the mem­ory of war,” said Musser, 72. “But that mem­ory is fad­ing.”

On Sun­day, as dozens of world lead­ers gather in Paris to mark the centenary of the ar­mistice that ended World War I, the chain of mem­ory that binds Musser’s fam­ily – and all of Europe – is grow­ing brit­tle.

The an­niver­sary comes amid a feel­ing of gloom and in­se­cu­rity as the old de­mons of chau­vin­ism and eth­nic divi­sion are again spread­ing across the Con­ti­nent. And as mem­ory turns into his­tory, one ques­tion looms large: Can we learn from his­tory with­out hav­ing lived it our­selves?

In the af­ter­math of their cat­a­clysmic wars, Euro­peans banded to­gether in shared de­ter­mi­na­tion to sub­due the forces of na­tion­al­ism and eth­nic ha­tred with a vision of a Euro­pean Union. It is no co­in­ci­dence that the bloc placed part of its in­sti­tu­tional head­quar­ters in Al­sace’s cap­i­tal, Stras­bourg.

But to­day, its younger generations have no mem­ory of in­dus­tri­al­ized slaugh­ter. In­stead, their con­scious­ness has been shaped by a decade-long fi­nan­cial cri­sis, an in­flux of mi­grants from Africa and the Mid­dle East, and a sense that the prom­ise of a united Europe is not de­liv­er­ing. To some it feels that Europe’s bloody last cen­tury might as well be the Stone Age.

Yet World War I killed more than 16 mil­lion sol­diers and civil­ians, and its lega­cies con­tinue to shape Europe.

“The war to end all wars” set the scene for an even more devastating con­flict and the bar­barism of geno­cide. Churchill, Bri­tain’s leg­endary wartime leader, thought of 1914-1945 as one long war.

“Those who fail to learn from his­tory are con­demned to re­peat it,” he said in 1948.

Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel of Ger­many, whose de­ci­sion to wel­come more than 1 mil­lion mi­grants to Ger­many in 2015 first be­came a sym­bol of a lib­eral Euro­pean or­der, then a ral­ly­ing cry for a resur­gent far-right, said the jury is still out on whether Europe will heed the lessons of its past.

Politi­cians are apt to use his­tory se­lec­tively when it suits them. But the his­tory in this case is omi­nous.

Now as then, Europe’s po­lit­i­cal cen­ter is weak and the fringes are rad­i­cal­iz­ing. Na­tion­al­ism, laced with eth­nic ha­tred, has been gain­ing mo­men­tum. Pop­ulists sit in sev­eral Euro- pean gov­ern­ments.

In Italy, a found­ing mem­ber of the EU, Mat­teo Salvini, the na­tion­al­ist deputy prime min­is­ter, has turned away mi­grant boats and called for the ex­pul­sion of Roma. Prime Min­is­ter Vik­tor Or­ban of Hun­gary speaks of a “Mus­lim takeover” and un­apolo­get­i­cally flaunts his ver­sion of “il­lib­eral democ­racy.”

On Sun­day, stand­ing next to Merkel and her host, the fiercely pro-Euro­pean French pres­i­dent, Em­manuel Macron, will be a num­ber of na­tion­al­ist lead­ers who would like noth­ing more than to pull the EU apart – among them Pres­i­dent Donald Trump, Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin of Rus­sia and Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan of Turkey.

His­to­ri­ans guard against draw­ing direct par­al­lels be­tween the frag­ile af­ter­math of World War I and the present, point­ing to a num­ber of no­table dif­fer­ences.

Be­fore World War I, a Europe of em­pires had just be­come a Europe of na­tion states; there was no tried and tested tra­di­tion of lib­eral democ­racy. Eco­nomic hardship was on an­other level al­to­gether.

Above all, there is not now the kind of mil­i­taris­tic cul­ture that was ut­terly main­stream in Europe at the time.

“What is be­ing eroded to­day, is be­ing eroded from a much higher level than any­thing we had ever achieved in Europe in the past,” said Timothy Gar­ton Ash, pro­fes­sor of Euro­pean his­tory at the Univer­sity of Ox­ford.

Still, Gar­ton Ash sees 1918 as a warn­ing that democ­racy and peace can never be taken for granted.

“It’s a re­ally sober­ing re­minder that what seems like some sort of eter­nal or­der can very rapidly col­lapse,” he said.

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