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Playing the Verdun Card

Fearmongering in Brussels.

May 26, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 35 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
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The passing of time and the reemergence of German economic power have eroded some of the Bundesrepublik’s willingness to follow the demeaning postwar script, but by less than might be expected. Introducing the euro over the objections of most Germans made a mockery of their democracy. Preserving the single currency has stretched the country’s much-prized constitutional order and now threatens to become a permanent drain on its coffers, but the conservative, gently Euroskeptic (anti-euro, but pro-EU) Alternative für Deutschland is only likely to score 6-7 percent in the upcoming election, and no small portion of that support will owe more to the AfD’s mildly restrictive immigration policy than to its opposition to the single currency. Most of the rest of Germany’s political class remains in thrall to the tired myth that to retreat from ever closer union would be to advance into danger and, quite possibly, war.

But a myth it is. What kept the peace in Europe was, yes, in part, memories of Auschwitz and Verdun, but it was also, much more so, the product of the savage ethnic cleansing of Eastern Europe’s awkward German minorities, and, above all, the discipline imposed by the Cold War—by Soviet hegemony over half of the continent and American leadership of the other. The evolution of the EU was the consequence of this new, rather chilly peace, not the creator of it. Brussels subsequently performed an invaluable role in shepherding Moscow’s former European colonies back to the West after the Soviet collapse, but on foundations built by the Atlantic alliance.

Those who used and abused this myth to drive the EU forward were in many cases not so much Machiavellis as priests who had faith in a tale they themselves spun. And it proved to be a highly convenient myth. The insistence that nationalism is inherently dangerous is an extrapolation from a totally defeated, especially toxic, and specifically German form of nationalism. But it gave those in charge of the European project an ever-expanding license to remove more and more of anything that marked out the distinctiveness of a nation from the regular democratic process: The voters, poor creatures, so susceptible to “populists,” you see, could not be trusted to do the right thing.

Slice by slice, sovereignty has been transferred from democratic nation-states to a largely unaccountable supranational technocratic elite which in turn has become dangerously disconnected from the reality that encounters with the electorate might have brought, and dangerously emboldened as a result. And so the euro was put together with little regard for its own rule book, common sense, or anything resembling informed popular consent. Once launched, the currency union was run in a way that was, if anything, worse. After hubris, nemesis, and with it, old demons began to stir.

The long economic crisis has shattered the never completely convincing illusion of a continent that was leaving nationality behind. Northern Europeans resent being compelled to bail out nations of a eurozone periphery for which they feel little affinity and less respect. The eurozone’s laggards detest what they see as harsh rule by foreign diktat. Vintage stereotypes are dusted off. Greeks are thieves. Chancellor Merkel is a Nazi. Trapped in the jaws of a dysfunctional currency union, and lacking the democratic legitimacy to fix it and either the imagination or the courage to try something else, the establishment parties have little to offer but more of the same. And so the hard times grind on.

And as hard times tend to do, they are persuading increasing numbers of voters to turn to alternatives they once would never have considered. While the effect may be magnified by low turnout (which fell—the sixth consecutive drop—to 43 percent in 2009), this month’s European election is likely to see something that looks a lot like a Euroskeptic wave. Some 25 percent
of the vote could go to Euroskeptics  of one description or another, up from 15 percent or so (it’s difficult to be precise) in the current parliament. As waves go it will be choppy: This is a ragtag group, drawing from left and right and ranging from the benign (such as Britain’s UKIP) to the sinister (Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, given its big break by the failures of an EU that once claimed it had consigned black shirts to history). It will be neither numerous nor cohesive enough to change very much in the short term. But what these parties do have in common is a determination to wrest back control of their countries’ destinies from what is rightly seen as remote, micromanaging, and alien bureaucratic control.

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