“In Tallinn, we would be marching in the streets,” an Estonian EU official told me in Pristina in 2009. The official was referring to the roughly one in two Kosovars who can’t find work, the highest unemployment rate in a region of extraordinarily high unemployment. On subsequent trips to the Balkans, I’ve asked many Kosovars and Macedonians and Albanians why, despite ample reason, they’re not in the streets. The answer is usually the same: “We’re tired of conflict.”

The memory of Yugoslavia’s violent breakup, still fresh in the minds of even many young people, helps hold the western Balkans together today. Fear is a powerful force of stability and unity.

I thought of this when reading The Crisis of Europe, historian Timothy Garton Ash’s new piece for Foreign Affairs (a steal at $2.95 for a pdf).

“Historians have identified many factors that contributed to the process of European integration, including the vital economic interests of European nations,” Ash writes. “Yet the single most important driving force across the continent was the memory of war.”

The rare scholar with a journalist’s appreciation for anecdote and on-the-scene reporting, Ash takes readers from the 1943 Nazi destruction of the Warsaw ghetto to the soup kitchen queues of contemporary Athens to explain the roots of the EU and its current woes. Again and again, he returns to the enduring role of conflict, memory, and in particular fear.

Ash suggests that fear of repeating past tragedies, as well as Soviet Moscow, united post-war Europe despite lingering animosity and distrust. The euro emerged in the 1990s from France’s fear that German leaders would bail on the European project after Germany’s reunification, in 1990. Like many observers, Ash frames Europe’s current mess as a “crisis foretold” – a currency union between vastly disparate economies was doomed – contained today only by, you guessed it, fear – in this case, of the unknown but certainly catastrophic consequences of a euro collapse.

“Adapting a famous phrase of U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, one might almost say that today Europe has nothing to put its hope in but fear itself,” Ash writes.

An eyewitness to the 1989 democratic revolutions in communist Europe, Ash famously told Vaclav Havel in a Prague pub that “in Poland it had taken 10 years, in Hungary 10 months, in East Germany 10 weeks; perhaps here it [will] take 10 days.” Not surprisingly, then, The Crisis of Europe brims with insider insights and details.

“Do you realize,” German Chancellor Helmut Kohl asked Ash after reunification, explaining his commitment to united Europe, “that you are sitting opposite the direct successor to Adolf Hitler?”*

Also unsurprisingly, Ash adds historical perspective to the eurozone crisis. For instance, how did leaders think a currency union could survive without a stronger political union to control public spending? Well, Kohl in fact knew better: “Recent history … teaches us that it is absurd to expect in the long run that you can maintain economic and monetary union without political union,” Kohl said at the Bundestag in 1991.

“But,” Ash writes, “France was having none of that. The point was for it to gain some control over Germany’s currency, not for Germany to gain control of France’s budget.”

Ash is also incisive on how the crisis is re-dividing Europe more than two decades after the Cold War.

“There is a new dividing line across Europe, not between east and west but between north and south,” the historian writes. “Now, and probably for years to come, it will be a very different experience to be a young German or a young Spaniard, a young Pole or a young Greek.”

On the ultimate question of whether the euro and the larger European project will survive, Ash returns to fear, which “should not be underestimated as a motivating force in politics.” What else moved the struggling Greeks to vote for parties committed to the eurozone, and thus austerity, in June’s repeat elections?

But Ash’s conclusion again evoked the western Balkans, where memory and fear undergird a sort of stagnant stability. Ash:

The fear of collapse, the Monnet-like logic of necessity, the power of inertia: these may just keep the show on the road, but they will not create a dynamic, outward-looking European Union that enjoys the active support of its citizens. Without some new driving forces, without a positive mobilization among its elites and peoples, the EU, while probably surviving as an origami palace of treaties and institutions, will gradually decline in efficacy and real significance, like the Holy Roman Empire of yore.

*Kohl was the first chancellor of a united Germany since Hitler.

Picture of Warsaw in 1945 from Wikipedia

S. Adam Cardais

S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor. Email: adam.cardais@tol.org.

More Posts