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 Elsewhere and for other people, history suggests a need to find ways to escape from ancient predicaments and outdated prejudices.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 such as 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.
The celebrations and commemorations will be full of symbolism related to contemporary disputes. Already, British Prime Minister David Cameron has had to shift a summit meeting with French President Francois Hollande from the proposed site, Blenheim Palace, because French diplomats realized it had been built to celebrate John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, who crushed Louis XIV’s forces in 1704 near the small Bavarian town that gave the palace its name.
The year 1704 is packed with meaning. The victory over France laid the foundation for the 1707 Act of Union between England and Scotland. That union is the subject of a referendum that will be held this year in Scotland.
Evocative historical dates are being used or abused in a similar way on the other edge of the European continent, to conjure up images of enemies that resonate in contemporary political debates.
A few years ago, a Russian film simply entitled “1612” evoked the Time of Troubles, when weak leadership caused Russia to be invaded and subverted by insidious Polish aristocrats and capitalists. The film’s director, Vladimir Khotinenko, said that it was important that his audience “didn’t regard it as something that happened in ancient history but as a recent event ... that they felt the link between what happened 400 years ago and today.”
As Russia struggles to bring Ukraine back into its orbit, another ancient date looms large: 1709, when Czar Peter the Great crushed the Swedish and Cossack armies at the Battle of Poltava. That battle was also the subject of a recent Russian film, “The Sovereign’s Servant.” Russian television commentators describe the countries most engaged in supporting a European-oriented Ukraine – Sweden, along with Poland and Lithuania, which had been brought into the Swedish orbit – as seeking revenge for Poltava.
Europe’s western and eastern fringes obsess about dates that recall their struggles with the core: 1914, 1815, 1709, 1707, 1704 and 1612, among others. By contrast, the European core is obsessed with transcending history, with working out institutional mechanisms for overcoming the conflicts that scarred Europe in the first half of the 20th century. The European integration project is a sort of liberation from the pressures and constraints of the past.
After World War II, Charles de Gaulle evolved a complicated metaphysics to explain his country’s relationship with its problematic past. Every European country had been betrayed. “ France suffered more than others because it was more betrayed than the others. That is why it is France that must make the gesture of pardon. ... It is only I who can reconcile France and Germany, because only I can raise Germany from its decadence.”
Winston Churchill (a direct descendant of the Duke of Marlborough) had a similar postwar vision for overcoming past divisions and nationalistic quarrels. “This noble continent ... is the fountain of Christian faith and Christian ethics,” he claimed. “If Europe were once united in the sharing of its common inheritance, there would be no limit to the happiness, to the prosperity and glory which its three or four hundred million people would enjoy.”
Is the European center currently too naive, or too idealistic? Is it really possible to escape from history? Or, on the contrary, is there something odd in the way that the European fringes obsessively resort to historical milestones? In Britain and Russia, this obsession appears to be not just a way of asserting national interests, but also a mechanism for appealing to a population disenchanted with the contemporary realities of decline from the imperial past.
De Gaulle and Churchill knew plenty about war, and they wanted to transcend the blood-soaked legacy of Poltava, Blenheim and Waterloo. They viewed history as offering concrete lessons about the necessity of escaping from the past. Today, Europe’s fringes, by contrast, appear determined to escape into it.
Harold James is a professor of history at Princeton University and a senior fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (www.project-syndicate.org).