Does the Legacy of the Great War Still Haunt Europe?

By | November 10, 2011

As Americans and much of the rest of the world pause to honor the men and women who have served their country, one is reminded of the significance of the date – November 11. 93 years ago the guns of World War I fell silent after more than four years of the most murderous conflict the world had ever known.

More than 300,000 men died in the 10 month battle for Verdun. 20,000 British soldiers died on the first day of the battle of the Somme, another 40,000 were wounded or taken prisoner. More than 10 million died in that war; many more wounded or missing. But the roll call of those who fought is a faded list. No one, who actually did so, remains alive today. The Great War is slowly passing into history, even if the day on which it ended endures as a lasting memorial to all those who have served their country.

However, Worse was yet to come. If there hadn’t been a first world war, there most likely wouldn’t have been a second world war 20 years later. The demise of the empires – Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Turkey – paved the way for even more degenerate tyrants to take power – Hitler and Stalin for openers – who initiated yet another massive slaughter. The two conflicts are irrevocably linked. Eventually history will treat them as one war, the same way it now speaks of the 100 Years War, the 30 Years War and the Napoleonic Wars.

World War II killed so many people – most of them civilians – and destroyed so much infrastructure, that it in effect completed the decimation of Europe that World War I started. The U.S. emerged from the conflict as the preeminent “superpower,” ending Europe’s global dominance, which had begun with the defeat of the Turks at Lepanto in 1571. The remaining empires – British, French, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish – hastened their long retreat, freeing previously colonized people to pursue their own destinies – for better or for worse.

Europe looked at itself and realized that the lasting legacy of World War I was not only the war memorials and the remembrance days, but could also be the beginning of a chastened continent’s efforts to recover, to fight its way back to prominence, not through conflict, but through cooperation.

European governments finally heeded the words of one of their most distinguished elder statesmen, Winston Churchill, who said “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.” Unfortunately Churchill’s admonition came a bit late – in 1954 – after more than 1000 years of almost continuous conflict in Europe.

But, come it did. The European Community, and later the European Union, is a product of the continent’s dedication to the principle that there shall be no more wars on European soil. By and large it has worked – the murderous conflict in the Balkans notwithstanding. Economic cooperation eventually led to political cooperation and even to a common currency – the Euro – for 17 EU nations.

The 27 countries that are currently members of the EU share the world’s largest economy, more than $14 trillion GDP. The EU leads the world in providing social services, including health care, retirement and unemployment protection, for their citizens. Its recovery from the ashes of World War II has also produced the world’s most modern infrastructure as well as, not coincidentally, a thriving insurance industry. Four of the five largest reinsurers are European – Munich Re, Swiss Re, Lloyd’s and Hannover Re. Europe assured itself that it has a voice in and a role to play in global affairs.

How it’s playing that role is the current question. So far the answer has been not very well. The economic crisis that essentially began at the end of 2007, has hit European countries very hard, but perhaps harder than it should have. Instead of taking strong and concerted action to meet the smaller problems – Greece, Portugal and Ireland – when EU leaders became aware of them, Europe dithered – a perfectly precise English word, for which there are no really accurate translations.

While dithering might have been a normal response in most cases, in this one it made the crisis much worse. It was also exacerbated by a particularly nasty habit, common to most politicians in general, and EU politicians in particular, of blaming the messenger for the message. Hence rating agencies were excoriated for doing their job – even as they were being similarly blamed for not doing it – when they started downgrading the ratings of sovereign and bank debt. Short sellers were given pariah status for making money on falling equity prices, which is after all what they do.

It’s almost as if EU governments were trying to prove another one of Churchill’s apocryphal utterances – “Democracy is the worst form of government ever devised, except for all the rest.” The failure to deal with the small fires has led only to bigger fires. Europe faces a time of testing not unlike those its countries faced at the end of the two great wars, a true existential risk.

How Europe’s leaders – one uses the term somewhat advisedly – will deal with the crisis remains uncertain. However, it is certain that their actions will have global consequences.

But one fact remains very clear – it is unthinkable that anyone will go to war over the Euro. That in itself is all the evidence that’s needed that Europe has really and truly put the horrors of World Wars I and II into the history books. Whatever happens, it won’t involve mass mobilizations and mass destruction.

November 11 is a symbol of the worst that man can do to man. Compared to the horrors of World War I, the current economic travails seem almost insignificant. One way or another Europeans will find a way out of the mess – perhaps led by a European, Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, who seems to be one of the few politicians who really understands what’s happening. She, for one, isn’t haunted by World War I; neither are most Europeans.

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