Fad­ing mem­o­ries of war jeop­ar­dize ba­sis for EU

The Tribune (SLO) (Sunday) - - Nation & World - 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. Win­ston Churchill, Bri­tain’s leg­endary wartime leader, thought of 1914-1945 as one long war.

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.

“We now live in a time in which the eye­wit­nesses of this ter­ri­ble pe­riod of Ger­man his­tory are dy­ing,” she said of World War II. “In this phase, it will be de­cided whether we have re­ally learned from his­tory.”

What might fu­ture his­to­ri­ans write about the Eu­rope of 2018?

Antony Beevor, author of a nu­mer­ous best-sell­ing his­tory books, is pes­simistic. The moral dilem­mas of the fu­ture will undo Euro­pean lib­eral democ­racy, he pre­dicts. The mi­gra­tion cri­sis of 2015 was only a fore­taste of what is to come.

“Euro­pean lead­ers will face the choice of turn­ing back starv­ing refugees or of hand­ing am­mu­ni­tion to the far right and erod­ing the fab­ric in their own so­ci­eties,” he said.

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