Europe will mark two significant anniversaries within a span of just several days. Eighty years ago, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, better known as the Nazi Party, came to power after the 1933 elections. Fifty years ago, French President Charles de Gaulle and West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer signed the Elysee Treaty, ending the enmity between the two nations and laying a solid foundation for European integration. These events are inseparably linked. Their lessons are still relevant today and prompt us to think about the future.
Hitler’s rise to power and World War II represented a logical continuation of the policy European powers had pursued since the early 20th century. The brazen striving for dominance, the rapacious attempts to attain global influence, and the way governments tackled their daunting domestic problems – by resorting to chauvinism and bellicose rhetoric – all ended in disaster in 1914.
As people came to say, the “good old Europe” that spent the 19th century in relative peace (compared to previous centuries) had committed suicide, inviting the nightmares of the 20th century. World War I led to the fall of three empires and the emergence of totalitarian communist ideology.
The victors were vengeful and voracious, and sowed the seeds of revenge. This came in 1939 when radical forces in Germany, driven by the shame of national humiliation, left the UK-French ultimatum over their invasion of Poland unanswered, and so unleashed what was to become another world war. This time victory was at the price of even greater tragedy.
Europe lost its independent strategic role and the two superpowers played out their ideological and political confrontation in the Old World. But the Europeans have learned a few lessons.
The unification of Western Europe in a bid to finally end the confrontation of two major nations, Germany and France, was an entirely new policy. The combination of a clearly articulated political goal, the right economic initiatives, and a beautiful idea transformed Europe.
The most amazing thing about French-German reconciliation in the latter half of the 20th century is its sheer depth. Today it is simply impossible to imagine circumstances that would lead Paris and Berlin to war or even a serious confrontation. Relations between France and Germany are far from ideal. The countries are further apart than at any point since the signing of the Elysee Treaty, but their fundamental alliance is inviolable despite tensions.
Hitler came to power in a democratic system. This shows that democracy is merely a procedure rather than a means of resolving problems or a panacea for social ills. A society without democratic traditions, particularly one riven by strong emotions, is usually incapable of imbuing the idea of democracy with real meaning. This seemingly obvious lesson was forgotten by the end of the 20th century when the victors of the Cold War turned democratization into a kind of secular religion with immutable dogmas. Today the Middle East is a stage for yet another act in the historical drama that threatens to discredit democracy once again.
European integration, of which the Elysee Treaty was a major landmark, is an undemocratic product of the elites. After World War II, the leading European countries’ ruling elites decided to create something that would prevent future cataclysms in Europe. The elite did not ask the people for their opinion. The French were not asked, just a few years after the bloodiest war in human history, whether they would like to build a common future with the Germans.
Politicians and technocrats wisely took small steps. They started with barely noticed measures to form management structures, primarily in industry. The political component only made it onto the agenda many years later. Up to the very end of the 20th century, officials carefully explained every step to ordinary Europeans to legitimize their actions democratically. Citizens were told what they stood to gain.
This mechanism began to malfunction in this new century. The structure has become too big and complicated. Politicians have fallen into a trap. They are guided by the inner logic of the underlying concept, which is increasingly divorced from ordinary people’s needs or interests.
Departing from this logic is tantamount to making a fundamental change, but nobody is prepared to do this because the scale of the challenge is too frightening. To continue under the same rationale, politicians need the voters’ support.
This support is essential, but politicians are afraid to put it to the electorate, because they do not know what they would do if voters make a mistake. Governments do not see any alternative to the policy pursued under this model. Populists scoring points over the crisis promise to reorganize everything but fail to not specify how.
Society is bewildered by the difficulties and unable understand the nature of events. This creates the demand for a simple resolution to these problems, as was seen in Germany in the 1930s. People in many European countries are baffled today. People in southern Europe are facing privations and those that are less affected by the crisis fear that their living standards are at risk and change will inevitably be for the worse.
There are no simple solutions in the economy. Hence, the Europeans, exhausted by difficulties, will look for a scapegoat elsewhere, perhaps to cultural issues associated with flows of migrant workers.
Since the events of 1933 and 1963, Europe has travelled a long road, filled with tragedy and hope, testifying to its ability to learn from the past. Europeans from Vladivostok to Lisbon are not, now, threatened by war.
But the process of rethinking old identities against the background of chaotic development and the relentless globalization that is changing life is fraught with comparable risks.
The main legacy of European philosophy – the ability to take a rational view of the situation and find the right solution – has saved Europe from disasters more than once. The history of the latter half of the 20th century bears this out. But when rationality fails for ideological or emotional reasons, or simply as the result of circumstance, the consequences are inevitably horrible.