Monday, July 28, 2014
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History versus Europe

PRINCETON – History matters, but in different ways. In some places and for some people, history means eternal clashes that are shaped by profound geopolitical forces: four centuries ago is the same as yesterday. Elsewhere and for other people, history suggests a need to find ways to escape from ancient predicaments and outdated prejudices. It is this cleavage that defines the intellectual battle now taking place in and around Europe.

With this year’s centennial of the outbreak of World War I, dozens of new analyses of “the war to end all wars” have rolled off the presses. And it is tempting to see contemporary parallels in imperial Europe’s complacency, particularly its firm belief that the world was so interconnected and prosperous that any reversal was unthinkable. Today, despite the supposed civilizing effects of global supply chains, tinderboxes like Syria or the South China Sea could blow up the world – just as the Bosnian conflict did in 1914.

Reflecting on the legacy of the Great War has also been an occasion for reviving the era’s mentalities. In the United Kingdom, Education Secretary Michael Gove recently issued a polemic against historians who emphasized the futility of the war, calling it a “just war” directed against the “ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites.” This looks like a thinly veiled allusion to the power struggles of contemporary Europe.

But 1914 is not the only possible or attractive point of comparison in interpreting Britain’s past. Next year is the bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo and the final defeat of Napoleon. The right-wing British politician Enoch Powell used to claim that the European Common Market was the revenge that the Germans and the French imposed for the defeats that Britain inflicted on them.

The celebrations and commemorations will be full of symbolism related to contemporary disputes. Already, British Prime Minister David Cameron has had to shift a summit meeting with French President François Hollande from the proposed site, Blenheim Palace, because French diplomats realized that it had been built to celebrate John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, who crushed Louis XIV’s forces in 1704, near the small Bavarian town that gave the palace its name.

The year 1704 is packed with meaning. The victory over France laid the foundation for the 1707 Act of Union between England and Scotland. That union is the subject of a vital referendum that will be held this year in Scotland.

Evocative historical dates are being used or abused in a similar way on the other edge of the European continent, to conjure up images of enemies that resonate in contemporary political debates. A few years ago, a Russian film simply entitled 1612 evoked the Time of Troubles, when weak leadership caused Russia to be invaded and subverted by insidious Polish aristocrats and capitalists. The film’s director, Vladimir Khotinenko, said that it was important that his audience “didn’t regard it as something that happened in ancient history but as a recent event… that they felt the link between what happened 400 years ago and today.”

As Russia struggles to bring Ukraine back into its orbit, another ancient date looms large: 1709, when Czar Peter the Great crushed the Swedish and Cossack armies at the Battle of Poltava. That battle was also the subject of a recent Russian film, The Sovereign’s Servant. Russian television commentators describe the countries most engaged in supporting a European-oriented Ukraine – Sweden, along with Poland and Lithuania, which had been brought into the Swedish orbit – as seeking revenge for Poltava.

Europe’s western and eastern fringes obsess about dates that recall their struggles with the core: 1914, 1815, 1709, 1707, 1704, and 1612, among others. By contrast, the European core is obsessed with transcending history, with working out institutional mechanisms for overcoming the conflicts that scarred Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. The European integration project is a sort of liberation from the pressures and constraints of the past.

After World War II, Charles de Gaulle evolved a complicated metaphysics to explain his country’s relationship with its problematic past. Every European country had been betrayed. “France suffered more than others because it was more betrayed than the others. That is why it is France that must make the gesture of pardon....It is only I who can reconcile France and Germany, because only I can raise Germany from its decadence.”

Winston Churchill (a direct descendant of the Duke of Marlborough) had a similar postwar vision for overcoming past divisions and nationalistic quarrels. “[T]his noble continent…is the fountain of Christian faith and Christian ethics,” he claimed. “If Europe were once united in the sharing of its common inheritance, there would be no limit to the happiness, to the prosperity and glory which its three or four hundred million people would enjoy.”

Is the European center currently too naive, or too idealistic? Is it really possible to escape from history? Or, on the contrary, is there something odd in the way that the European fringes obsessively resort to historical milestones? In Britain and Russia, this obsession appears to be not just a way to assert national interests, but also a mechanism for appealing to a population disenchanted with the contemporary realities of decline from the imperial past.

De Gaulle and Churchill knew plenty about war, and they wanted to transcend the blood-soaked legacy of Poltava, Blenheim, and Waterloo. They viewed history as offering concrete lessons about the necessity of escaping from the past. Today, Europe’s fringes, by contrast, appear determined to escape into it.

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  1. CommentedWalt French

    I'm struck by the examples that seem to be not so much a memory of history but rather a projection of individuals' personal antagonisms as being the rationale for their opponents' actions.

    The propagandistic ploy, although either unconscious or deeply dishonest, enjoys a toll-free trip through the local media. (Another Churchill quote suggests itself.) it has the advantage of being irrefutable—surely the Swedes couldn't have forgotten the ignoble defeat we imposed upon them!

    Each example here seems to be a perversion of the study of history; what is on display seems closer to dysfunctional psychology. Responding to it with some supposedly neutral accounting of scores will be completely useless.

  2. CommentedJoan Miro

    The "civilizing effects of global supply chains..." enter on the erasure of memory and, thus, history. Living in an ever present sense of mostly digitized fulfillment with a smattering of extravagant pleasures like a trip to Wal Mart or the latest Hunger Games flick or a super bowl or World Cup party will assure a seamlessness of experience wherein no troubling thoughts of history or struggle or "meaning" will intrude. I think I haven't ever seen anything as anachronistically jarring on the internet as this article.

  3. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    I agree with the article that we seem to be running around in circles, unable to escape our "fate".
    But is it history that dictates our lives, or history is merely an external expression of something more fundamental?
    I think history is simply the chronicle of how human nature has been driving us through our development.
    And our inherent nature is totally self-centred and egoistic thus as long as we are driven by this nature in an instinctive manner, always obeying what our nature tells us, we have no chance of escaping from the same traps we keep on falling into.
    The only difference is the severity and intensity of the explosions on the path that inevitable ensue after the actual state becomes intolerable, unsolvable.
    Today with the weapons of mass destruction spread all over the world, in our over-populated, globally interconnected and interdependent human system, such an explosion could wipe out the entire human population or the majority of it.
    We have no choice, humanity's only chance of escaping the inevitable, "automatic" descent into destructive, cataclysmic events is to start actively, consciously changing, transforming our nature.
    We have to use our new globally and mutually interdependent conditions to start using our inter-relationships in a previously unprecedented, altruistic, benevolent, mutually complementing way.
    We have to start a completely new, global, integral education program for each and every one of us, changing our whole "operating system", attitude towards each other, our whole lifestyle.
    Our immediate future and survival depends on this.

  4. Portrait of Michael Heller

    CommentedMichael Heller

    Harold, stimulating as always. I only wish you had not used that particular quotation of Churchill to make your point. Because of course it was conflicting Christian faiths and ethics which during various centuries divided Europe. Or at least that is what the nations pretended. The mind set of most was power through territory. I would not be the first to suggest that among the movers and shakers religion was often identity-creating disguise for emerging secular ideologies. In the 17th century for example most English protestants could have amicably lived alongside catholics were it not for the politics. What really got the Englishman hot under the collar was France’s effort to export its political economy model of arbitrary absolutism (‘Mr de Gaulle, it were France what done the betrayals in them days’). Had it not been for wars of religion England (with its distinctive obsession for rules-based procedural governance) might have diverged from the European pattern even sooner than it did. Although England was eventually the model to emulate (note my virtuous disdain for dates and milestones), it only became so after the mask of religion had slipped. The self-inflicted relative decline of ‘catholic’ countries stemmed from models of political economy, not religion. Thenceforth, competition was between models of capitalism. You might agree that WWI had a little bit to do with competing models of capitalism? Certainly I think this underlies what is occurring today in Europe’s fringes and in East Asia, although my personal view is that debates about ‘varieties of capitalism’ resembles religion.

    I’m sure we could find other Churchill quotes to the effect that liberty or freedom under rule of law had (and has) the potential to bind Europe together. Yes, I found it! In the same text you linked to Churchill says: “There is a remedy which, if it were generally and spontaneously adopted, would as if by a miracle transform the whole scene, and would in a few years make all Europe as free and as happy as Switzerland. What is this sovereign remedy? It is to re-create the European Family, or as much of it as we can, and provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom. We must build a kind of United States of Europe.”

    Spontaneous? Sounds almost Hayekian. Churchill knew better than anyone that Germany was intermittently the party spoiler, but, crucially, he acknowledges Germany’s post-religious historical experience of nation building as the model. “The ancient states and principalities of Germany, freely joined together for mutual convenience in a federal system, might each take their individual place among the United States of Europe. I shall not try to make a detailed programme for hundreds of millions of people who want to be happy and free, prosperous and safe, who wish to enjoy the freedoms of which the great President Roosevelt spoke ... If this is their wish, they have only to say so, and means can certainly be found, and machinery erected, to carry that wish into full fruition.”

    Machinery? Hm, that doesn’t sound Hayekian. Joachim Whaley says towards the end of his massive new 2-volume opus on German history (which I’m sure you will have read, but I have not as yet!): “Memories of a universal Christian empire played a small role again at the end of the eighteenth century in the definition of the Germans as a universal and post-national people.” I’m pretty certain Whaley’s stress is on the secular lessons of the past relating to cosmopolitan federal models which are modern and embody post-religious constructivist European concepts of freedom. Bringing religion into the argument could be a backward step into the boggy fields of 17th century wars.

  5. CommentedLeo Arouet

    Por el artículo veo que los nacionalismos están allí ocultos, en situación implícita y silenciosa. Pero estoy seguro de que esas mismas actitudes y recuerdos van provocar las guerras futuras.

  6. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Indeed, Mr. James, "history matters"! We have been taught that without the past, there is no future. We can't afford to ignore history, but whether we learn from it, is another matter. No doubt Europe until World War Two was the scene of many events, that shaped world history. Although the Habsburg empire had ruled large parts of Europe, it was the centuries long bitter rivalry between Britain and France, that still seem to reverberate today.
    While Germany hade been able to bury its troubled past and together with France forge a new European identity, Britain finds itself taken hostage by Nigel Farage's far-right UK Independence Party, one of "Europe's fringes". Farage justifies his anti-European stance by citing Enoch Powell's 1968 speech: "Rivers of Blood", which sparked a huge debate about immigration and its impact on British society. As a result of Britain's membership in the European Economic Community - a forerunner of the EU - since 1973, it is now home to many Europeans. Even if the years 1704 (Blenheim) and 1815 (Waterloo) marked Britain's victories over France, it will not change the minds of many French living in Britain. London is said to be France's sixth biggest city in terms of population.
    Russia, since President Putin's rise to power, has seen the revival of a tsarist empire. The film "1612" was symbolic. Its director Vladimir Khotinenko was in fact sending a message on behalf of Putin. The Russians should not just "regard it as something that happened in ancient history but as a recent event… that they felt the link between what happened 400 years ago and today.” The "Time of Troubles" ended with the expulsion of the Poles from Moscow and marked the rise of a new powerful dynasty, the House of Romanov, which ruled Russia till the Revolution in February 1917. Putin has learnt from history, that "weak leadership" could be harmful to Russia, and this explains the policies he is conducting.

  7. CommentedDov Fowler

    I would like to see a clarification regarding teh claim that in 1612 "weak leadership caused Russia to be invaded and subverted by insidious Polish aristocrats and capitalists".
    As far as my knowledge of history goes, industrial revolution and the rise of capitalists as a class happened a couple of centuries later. Unless the author uses a very broad generalization of the term "capitalist" (synonimous to everything wile and bad?)

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