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The Dirge of Cyprus

PRINCETON – Europe can choose its own musical accompaniment to its latest crisis. In Berlin, 50 Cent’s “All Things Fall Apart” has just had its premiere, so that soundtrack might be appropriate. Or the continent can reach back to Giuseppe Verdi, born two hundred years ago, whose penultimate, and probably greatest, operatic achievement starts on the coast of Cyprus with a storm of fantastic violence and the opening words of its hero, Otello: Esultate, rejoice! The war has been won; but Otello’s achievement is later destroyed by his jealousy.

Today, Cyprus appears to have been rescued. But the rescue has fueled a growing rift that jeopardizes the future of European integration, partly owing to the way that the upheaval of the early twentieth century – especially the Great Depression – has been reenacted in the debates about the post-2008 financial meltdown and the subsequent euro crisis.

The interwar economic slump became intractable because it was also a crisis of social stability, democracy, and the international political order. Widespread bankruptcy and unemployment increased social tension, ultimately making normal democratic politics impossible. In Germany, the epicenter of democracy’s collapse, radicals on both the right and the left raged against the postwar peace settlement and the Versailles Treaty.

In the last years of the increasingly unstable Weimar Republic, as democracy was fraying, German governments started to use their opponents’ radicalism in an effort to extract security concessions from the Western powers. Domestic political pressure became a source of heightened international tension.