David Cameron invoked it as part of the ongoing scaremongering surrounding the impending EU Referendum; and now a retired NATO General has followed suit in order to plug a book. WAR! Yes, that’s what Europe’s got to look forward to if we a) leave the European Union or b) turn a blind eye to Putin’s military ambitions. But both the PM’s recent Remain ploy and the soothsayer-isms of Sir Alexander Richard Shirreff are issued as warnings that would require key incidents occurring years, even decades, beforehand to come to fruition; and unless these key incidents have indeed happened and won’t become apparent as such till the dust settles, it’s hard to discern them while the mongers are busy scaring.
The two instalments of twentieth century World War – what historian Stephen Ambrose described as ‘a European Civil War with no European victors’ – had roots that stretched back a long way. For me, the roots of the First World War can be traced back to Napoleon’s vicious dismemberment of Prussia a century earlier, whereas the eventual outbreak of the Second World War was a direct consequence of Germanic humiliation in the Treaty of Versailles. Unless Yeltzin’s poorly-thought out rush to dive into a western market economy during the 1990s is cited as the cause of Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, or the 2008 economic meltdown acts as an eventual catalyst for conflict, there isn’t really anything in the modern era that can be viewed as the crucial foundation-laying for war to match those that lit the blue-touch paper in 1914 or 1939.
The official line goes that peace has been maintained in Europe since 1945; if one ignores Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia and a certain barney in the Balkans during the 90s, the line holds true. Not that the EU could – or should – take credit for that. It didn’t exist in its current incarnation in either 1956 or 1968 (the years of the USSR’s brutal intervention in failed, admirable attempts to embrace democratic freedoms), and I don’t recall it doing much to prevent the relentless bombardment of Sarajevo in 1992-96.
Granted, there is no denying that the past seventy years have been relatively peaceful when compared to the turbulent history of Europe, which is the bloodiest of any continent on the planet; but to attribute this rare stability to the existence of the EU is stretching it a bit. For an institution that spent its formative years as a purely economic arrangement between Western European powers to be promoted as some form of benign peace-keeping force in the centre of the continent for seven decades is dishonest, even if the peace angle was pivotal to its initial conception. However, it would undoubtedly be rather mean and churlish to express retrospective cynicism towards the movers and shakers behind both the United Nations and the European Economic Community when none of us were there to absorb the forward-looking determination they shared to see something genuinely positive arise from the ashes of a thirty-year conflict with a decade for dinner in the middle.
The current refugee crisis comprises the greatest mass migration of peoples in Europe since 1945, it is true, though the difference between then and now is one of direction. Today, Europe’s refugees are largely of Middle-Eastern descent and have viewed the continent they risked life and limb to get to as a kind of economic Promised Land; after the war, the refugees were home-grown, wandering from one devastated European nation to another, with the Jewish ones desperate to get out of Europe altogether and head for their own Promised Land…in the Middle East. One also needs to take into account the estimated deaths of around 70 million Europeans during the Second World War if comparisons are to be made with the immediate post-war continent and Europe in the twenty-first century. Europe in 1945 was a landmass that had experienced a population wipe-out on a par with the Black Death; today, it is a landmass experiencing a rapid upsurge in population.
A sudden influx of immigrants can provoke panic in some natives and foster grievances that, at their most paranoid, have a tendency to morph into far-right political parties; whether these have sufficient mass popularity to eventually cultivate a consensus whose natural outcome is war remains to be seen in this case – though Austria’s Freedom Party are poised to make a promising start. Similarly, while Putin has been able to do whatever the hell he pleases in the face of little worldwide opposition bar ineffective sanctions, is the only route available to the West to take him on militarily? Either way, there are so many ifs and buts (not to mention a fair few leaps of the imagination) if the doom ‘n’ gloom forecast is to be fulfilled that it’s hard not to see the motivation behind it as being a cynical ploy on the part of those with a blatant agenda and a degree in the politics of nightmares. The lights are still on in Europe at the moment, and the moment is all we have.
© The Editor