‘During my lifetime,” said once Margaret Thatcher, “most of the problems the world has faced have come, in one form or another, from mainland Europe, and the solutions – from outside it.”
The Iron Lady was right, though the trend began before her lifetime, in World War I. Back then, after first turning on itself and then seeing American troops decide its Great War, Europe let America craft the peace treaty that was signed 100 years ago last week, and was expected to build a brave new world.
Known as the Treaty of Versailles, the deal was naive in its rationale, absurd in its mechanics and disastrous in its results.
It was naive to expect a continent of myriad nationalities to reorganize in harmony according to tribe and tongue; it was reckless to bilk and humiliate Germany, as British economist John Maynard Keynes warned already then; and all this was catastrophic because it sowed the seeds of World War II.
A century on, the same European helplessness is once again at play, as the globe’s smallest continent unwittingly returns to threaten world peace.
THE VERSAILLES formula, conceived and imposed by Woodrow Wilson, was deployed because Europe’s leaders lacked their own ideas. They knew how to make war but had no idea how to make peace.
This was not always the case. Europe engineered the reasonable – if reactionary – peace of 1815 that followed the Napoleonic Wars, and the 1648 Peace of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years War, each of which triggered eras of relative peace. By last century, however, this ability had been lost.
In line with Thatcher’s observation, Europe bred one bad idea after another, in the process sowing animosity, harvesting death and destabilizing the entire world.
Europe produced Marxism, communism, Leninism, Stalinism, racism, fascism and, need we say, antisemitism. Even when the Continent imported Britain’s and America’s democracy, it did so with guillotines. After having split between Catholics and Protestants, and while at it killed one fifth of its inhabitants, Europe split between monarchists and liberals, between capitalism and communism, and between its East and West.
This is all besides the horrendous, if forgotten, self-maiming of 1204, when Western Christianity debilitated Eastern Christianity as the Crusaders sacked Constantinople. Without this blow to Byzantium, Islam might never have taken over what now is Turkey, the Ottoman Empire might never have risen, and the Muslim shadow it threw over Europe might never have been cast.
This, in brief, is the historical backdrop against which Europe set out to rebuild itself the morning after its most notorious concoction, World War II. The consequent effort had all the courage and vision that Versailles lacked, and until recently indeed seemed like the success Versailles never became.
Now, alas, the ill spirits of Versailles are back.
EUROPE’S NEW antagonists are the post-nationalists, who are led by Paris, Berlin, and Brussels’s Eurocrats, and the nationalists, who loom in various forms from London to Budapest via Warsaw and Rome.
The post-nationalists are driven by the noble legacy of Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer, who replaced 150 years of animosity with economic fusion and diplomatic trust.
Historians will debate whether the alliance that was launched in 1957 was but another intra-European arrangement, like the treaties of 1648 and 1815, or an experiment whose novelty set it apart from every previous effort to pacify Europe.
Still, three facts will be universally accepted. First, the deal worked. Second, it kept expanding. And third, its expansion made it overextend and crack.
The deal initially worked because it focused on economic union and avoided political fusion. As the free passage of people, goods and credit between Germany, France, Italy and the Low Lands generated prosperity, more countries joined the experiment.
First came a previously skeptical Britain, along with Ireland and Denmark; then the previously dictatorial Greece, Spain and Portugal; then, as the Cold War ended, the previously neutral Sweden, Finland and Austria; and finally, in several phases, a slew of post-Communist lands, as well as Cyprus and Malta, all of which added up to a behemoth of 28 states, 24 languages, and more than 0.5 billion people.
When it grew that big, the European experiment, to avoid the pitfalls of Versailles, needed leaders who would be attentive to tremors under their feet, and deaf to messianic delusions like Wilson’s. Tragically, it was the other way around.
Socially, European leaders failed to feel the movement of tectonic plates, and mentally they cultivated unrealistic dreams.
And so, instead of managing Muslim immigration – horizontally, by slowing its inflow, and vertically, by encouraging the new arrivals’ social climb – Europe flung open its borders’ gates, and at the same time launched a currency that defied economic gravity, sinking its weaker members in massive debt.
While this was happening on both sides of its southern flank, out east Europe repeated the grand mistake its forebears made in Versailles vis-à-vis Germany. Ironically led in this by Germany, Europe now cornered the economy of Russia, absurdly treating its conflict with Ukraine as a clash between good guys and bad guys, which it never was, instead of the family feud which is all it was, and still remains.
Now, after having provoked Russia, lost Britain, unsettled Central Europe and swamped dozens of cities with unwelcome immigrants, Europe is steadily returning to its familiar role of global powder keg.
There were times when such moments of European perplexity resulted in American action. Wilson’s was the tragic case, but before him Teddy Roosevelt did it much more impressively, when he negotiated the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905.
Expecting such impact from the White House’s current tenant is a nonstarter. Europe is on its own now, and, judging by historical precedent, the drama its leaders are concocting has hardly begun.
The writer’s best-selling Mitz’ad Ha’ivelet Hayehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sfarim, 2019), is an interpretation of the Jewish people’s political history.
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