Fading memories of war jeopardize basis for EU
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.