Sunday, 8 May 2016

From 8 May to 23 June: a link which shows what matters

Seventy-one years ago today, something remarkable happened. Remarkable for Europe, or at least the Western bit. Remarkable even for the rest of the world, since it kept getting sucked into European quarrels.

What happened on 8 May 1945? The Second World War in Europe came to an end. That moment marked the end of centuries of conflict, constantly erupting anew, ever since the Roman Empire collapsed.

Field Marshal Keitel signs the military surrender of Germany,
ushering in seven decades of peace in Western Europe
Take the last three centuries. In the 18th, we got the War of Spanish Succession out of the way, only to see the outbreak of the War of Polish Succession twenty or so years later and, blow me down, a decade after that, the War of Austrian Succession.

Tired of this succession of wars of Succession, we next had a go at a war based on the passage of time – the seven-year war. After all, the thirty-year war in the previous century had been such a good lark, and this one packed in almost as much excitement in a much shorter time. It was also the first world war waged by the European powers, with major theatres in India and in North America (where the locals called it the French and Indian war).

We also had some impressive colonial conflicts, most notably between the British and the same Americans, with the French joining in to give their rivals across the Channel a bloody nose (which they successfully did).

Little more than ten years after that, we got stuck into the Napoleonic wars which managed to last nearly a quarter of a century and cover pretty much the whole of Europe, right out to Moscow.

That left people tired for a while, but we still managed some colonial battles within Europe – notably the Austrians in Italy, with the French getting involved. Meanwhile, the Prussians, beginning to exert their new-found power, fought the Austrians, the Saxons, the Danes – basically anyone who seemed in their way.

Which led neatly to the Franco-Prussian war. That meant France losing territory to the German Empire which, to add insult to injury, was proclaimed in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. The bitterness made inevitable the First World War (which was far from the first) forty years later; it didn’t get sorted out, so the Second World War broke out to wrap up the loose ends twenty years after that.

Those two wars were so close together that a great many fought in both. One of my grandfathers was in the artillery in World War One, taking an injury that gave him bother for the rest of his life; in World War Two, he was back in service but in the Fleet Air Arm, though serving on the ground, since he was too old for combat.

My other grandfather spent two years in gaol in the First World War, in company with Bertrand Russell among others, for refusing to fight. In the Second, however, as a Jew he felt he had to do what he could against Hitler, and joined the Air Raid Precaution service.

Through most of my childhood, I fully expected that when I reached adulthood, there’d be another conflict of this kind in which I, like my father and his father, would be called on to take part.

Well, it didn’t happen. Seven decades on from that remarkable day in May 1945, France, Britain, Austria, Italy, Germany have managed to remain at peace. Unheard of. Unprecedented.

Why is it so important for the rest of the world? Well, look at what happened in WW1 and WW2: so many other countries found themselves sucked in. Even those that remained neutral were affected by the disruption the world suffered, many having to impose rationing on foodstuffs and other essentials.

A French friend of mine was four when he saw his father for the last time. The Gestapo called to arrest him in 1940. The family never heard of him again.

He told me that story soon after the Euro was introduced. With tears in his eyes, he said that he would never have believed before that he would use the same currency as them, over there – gesturing towards the Rhine, just a few kilometres from his front door. He said it with a relief so strong that it bordered on joy. The Euro represented to him the latest brick in a wall between our nations and war – a wall built by tearing down the one that had previously separated the nations themselves.

That’s what we tend to lose sight of when we debate European construction in Britain. We talk about trade, or the movement of production and jobs, or immigration. We sadly don’t talk about all the good that has come from the longest period of sustained peace our countries have seen.

Make no mistake. The European Union is merely the expression of the efforts we have made over seven decades to secure that peace. To put an end to that long, dreary, destructive and bloodthirsty succession of wars that have afflicted us.

If on 23 June Britain votes to leave the EU, be under no illusion, it will be turning its back on all that painful work of peaceful construction.

Think of the bombing of Coventry or Dresden, of the extermination camps, of the Battles of Passchendaele or Jutland or Cassino or the Bulge, of the A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and ask yourselves: is that really such a smart move?

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