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 Elsewhere and for other people, history suggests a need to find ways to escape from ancient predicaments and outdated prejudices.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.