The lights are still on in Europe. Just. Approximately a century ago they went off in a big fashion and for a few years a mist of death and destruction descended over the continent leaving behind a catastrophe which, having failed to be resolved by the powers that were, reared its ugly head and caused a second wave of carnage a couple of decades later. To allocate intellectual time to discern which one was indeed the deadliest is beside the point: both wars defined European history for the twentieth century and continue to do so.
After a century of peace in Europe and regular [though no less deadlier] conflicts in more exotic parts of the world, we in Europe have become accustomed to the idea that, at least on our continent, the carnage cannot and will not happen again. The wisdom would be that NATO first and the EU later will ensure that Europeans will always resolve differences in a peaceful and civilized way in the future.
Events so far seem to confirm such wisdom. With the exception of the carnage in Bosnia, Europe has been conflict-free, beside, Bosnia wasn’t and still isn’t part of the EU. Tempers though are fraying.
Paralleling history events is not an exact science and never will be. History might have a habit of repeating itself though invariably never in the same way.
For a start there isn’t an Archduke to assassinate or, more accurately, there are probably some Archdukes still around but with no political importance attached. There are though similarities with the wider outlook. Everyone familiar with The Sleepwalkers will know that one of the striking features of the events unfolding before the outbreak of WWI was that no one wanted war. Or so they claimed. Genuine claim or not, it didn’t stop the imperial powers from slowly walking into a deranged slaughter which allegedly no one wanted.
History is littered with sleepwalking. Perhaps it is because societies in general are quick to coalesce around a cause, a movement, a charismatic or messianic man (and they have always been men), but slow in waking up to the consequences of their folly. Napoleon, Mussolini, Bolshevism and Hitler are only the tips of several icebergs which have eventually sunk too many Titanics. The people who went along with the insanity took a painfully long time to realize the madness and the costs were high.
But the sheer scale of the folly is by no means a guarantee that it won’t happen again. Quite the opposite.
The Napoleonic wars were perhaps the world war of the the nineteenth century. Their Franz Ferdinand moment can be traced back to the French Revolution. It can be argued that without it, the old order, as rotten as it was, would have never allowed an upstart general to proclaim himself emperor after putting a whole continent to the sword. As with Versailles after WWI, the Congress of Vienna put a patch on the aftermath of the Napoleonic Armageddon, a patch that lasted another century. Despite some praise in some quarters, the Victorian century does not strike me as a happy one though. Only quieter on the war front, which is indeed a result.
Is then Europe ready for another war?
Like the beginnings of the previous two centuries, the calm can be deceptive and the storm may be brewing.
We no longer have deranged monarchs in charge eager to satisfy their nationalistic egos with the lives of young men and the population at large. But quite a few of the issues which have blighted Europe for centuries have never gone away.
Ironically the Balkans seem to be focal point once again. This is an unresolved region.
The refugees crisis has once again brought to the surface social and political conflicts which were thought to be on their way to be resolved by allowing Eastern Europeans states and The Balkan group into the EU fold. But things are not quite working out as Brussels thought they would.
When Eastern Europeans were admitted in the Western club, it was widely assumed that after fifty-odd years of drab, passive existence under puppet Soviet regimes, they would embrace Western values with enthusiasm and proceed apace to enter the twenty-first century. It turns out that their motives were more prosaic and their intentions rather different. The main motive, of course, was to shield themselves from the overbearing presence of Russia, either in its old communist outfit or the present, murderous, klepto-mafia gangsters in charge. The second motive was, of course, economic. EU membership has been good for this group and their GDPs have increased substantially since joining. That is one of the reasons why quasi-fascist (though fairly elected) governments are weary of upsetting Brussels too far. They thread carefully as they are well aware where their daily bread comes from.
While perhaps realizing that the quick admission of this group was premature, the EU has been largely tolerant of various semi-sane, colorful politicians elected in some of these states. But the insanity is increasing, and dangerously.
Poland is a case in point. Its rural constituency has returned some peculiar characters to government. It does not look good. This strange array manages to be be simultaneously against Russia, Germany and the EU (mostly its values). Short of a bizarre alliance with the Vatican (which, as the mother of all establishments, has never been keen on over-zealous nutters in all truth) one has to wonder who they want to be friends with. Poland’s rural constituency never saw the EU in terms of a vehicle for social progress. They haven’t even benefited a great deal from membership. While not that nostalgic of the old Soviet order due to their staunch Catholicism, they never subscribed to Western values. Now they have their men in charge who keep stoking the reactionary fire while intent in re-opening old wounds with Germany and antagonizing an increasingly paranoid Putin. So much for diplomacy.
Mr. Orban of Hungary is no fan of conservative Catholicism but he has introduced a brand of government which Trotsky and Lenin would have been proud of. He is proceeding fast to remove any possible human and civil rights [the LGBT ones never quite existed in Hungary anyway] and doing away with that most annoying of things: freedom of expression. The refugees crisis has provided him with a popular weapon to finish the job and firmly establish himself as the great defender of the Hungarian nation. The EU merely looks on and shakes its big head. It will rue the day they decided to let these people have their way.
The refugees crisis has all the hallmarks of a Franz Ferdinand moment, albeit at a slower pace than a street assassination. At the beginning not many people noticed as Europeans and the world had become accustomed to the camps in Calais and their continental railway stations resembling downtown Mogadishu. Most just shrugged.
Then the trickle turned into a tsunami and a river of human misery started to flow through the Balkans, a region which hardly needs further aggravation. And then Merkel, the most sensible and prudent of all current European and possibly worldwide politicians, made a mistake which she is bound to regret for the rest of her career. Europe will come to regret it too.
The open invitation to immigrants together with the demanding of quotas to be taken in by other countries set a series of events in motion which strongly resemble 1914. Nationalism reared its head, ugly or not. The diktat did not go down well, especially with the Visegrad group and other Balkans and Eastern European states. After scenes of chaos at border crossings, frontiers started to close, walls started to get erected, words started flying and in the end her policy was in tatters together with the Schengen agreement which effectively is no longer in place. The mass of immigrants, economic or asylum- seeking is now stuck in northern Greece and they do not look happy. I do not need to remind anyone what a huge mass of people get up to when they are not happy: history speaks for itself.
The matter lies there unresolved, festering in a region of Europe which needs all its strength to solve its own problems, not wasting all its energies and manpower to stop a flood of human misery.
The EU is now trying to get Turkey to be the solution of the problem by throwing some money at them [Turkey and the problem]. But it is not going to work. Turkey and its Islamist satrap in Ankara are fast becoming part of the problem rather that the solution. Erdogan is a short-tempered gentleman who is losing friends faster than his slightly deranged counterpart at the Kremlin. He has managed to simultaneously crash diplomatic relations with Russia by downing one of their jet fighters, rekindle a conflict with the Kurds which had somehow managed to go into dormant mode, stoke fire in Syria by merely ” disliking” ISIS instead of using its powerful military to obliterate it. One wonders why the Armenians are not having a go at Erdogan since everyone else seems to. The consequences have been nearly three millions refugees on its soil, the Kurds or ISIS or whoever takes a fancy, bombing at will the streets of Ankara and Istanbul and the US not being that happy about the treatment meted out to its Kurdish allies. Job done.
Turkey might be well on its way to become the Franz Ferdinand moment.
Merkel is now experimenting with all the avenues left open [not that many, in all truth] but her in-tray is just too full for comfort and the people filling it are bad news.
Putin is the joker in the pack. His unpredictability, deep resentment, poor judgement and nineteenth century frame of thinking are rather susceptible to a Franz Ferdinand sudden jolt. We simply do not know which grievance he will come up with next since it worryingly depends on his popularity at home and his ability to continue fostering it. WWI allies relied on Nicholas II for support but he lost power at a lightening speed. Russia is a neck of the wood where events have the habit of running out of control pretty fast.
The British PM decided not to be helpful with the current chaotic situation and decided, exclusively for internal party motives, to call a EU membership referendum which might still go the wrong way. Another Franz Ferdinand moment? Not immediately, no. In the long term however, an EU without Britain and possibly bogged down in fractious negotiations which will damage both sides, will be in danger of imploding. A free for all will be nefarious and that might well become the Franz Ferdinand moment.
The wisdom, of course, is that the world at large and European society in particular are a very different place from 1914. This is by all means the truth but that does not mean it could change and rapidly.
It would be more difficult than in 1914 to send millions of teenagers to the slaughter in the name of kings, queens, tsars, emperors and their countries. These anachronisms have thankfully been consigned to the dustbins of history. But some of their replacements are hardly less deranged. Looking at Erdogan, you would be forgiven for hoping the Ottomans were still in charge. And though Nicholas II was indeed an infantile, useless crustacean of a tsar, look at the Corleone-type currently in charge and shudder at the thought of a kleptomaniac mafioso in charge of a nuclear power.
Orban and whoever pulls the strings in Poland are no Wilhem II or Serbia, but unstable they surely are.
The elephant in the European room is the economy.
War is largely prevented by providing the largest possible percentage of the masses with enough financial, social, political and psychological wealth for them not to even remotely contemplate to elect a government or a strong man who will destroy all they possess by entering or causing a conflict. Europe has enjoyed this kind of arrangement for the best part of the last century. This century the game is proving much trickier. There has been a crash which has been swept under the financial mattress but it has not disappeared. Huge debts, high unemployment and general dissatisfaction are stubbornly refusing to go away. The young are restless though not quite at the point of 1914, when many teenagers had come to view signing up as a mean of escape from the utter dreary lives they were subjected to.
Europe is not yet a tinder box and I remain optimist that in the end, sanity will prevail even in the most chaotic and menacing situations. But the matches are there already and the people prepared to strike them are increasing in power and numbers. A close watch on events ought to be kept to prevent them from spiraling out of control. Sleepwalkers sadly tend to wake up when it’s too late.