After Europe’s Civil Wars

Sixty years after the Allied landing at Normandy, Europe’s two great wars are finally receding from the foreground of the living past. All but the youngest living veterans have entered their eighties. History and memory are changing in the process, in some of the same ways as did those of America’s Civil War.

It’s still possible to strike sparks with stories of those days — but barely. Anthony Beevor’s The Fall of Berlin 1945 is a hair-raising account of what happened as the Soviet army advanced on the city. Jšrg Friedrich’s  Der Brand (The Fire) stirred sympathy for victims of the allied bombing campaign against German cities — or at least it did until its author started making speeches. For a more convincing view of the matter (and an electrifying piece of writing), see W. G. Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction

But the brutal reality has long since faded into reconciliation. The decisions of the European Central Bank, shifting patterns of trans-Atlantic trade and differing opinions about Iraq are more interesting today.

After five months of living in Berlin, talking to a steady stream of locals and visitors, what have I got to show for it? Relatively little, in the way of news. Nevertheless, I think that I have learned something I could have learned in no other way. It has to do with how Europe interprets its past, in such a way as to produce its future.

I have stopped thinking of the events of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 as World War I and World War II and begun thinking of them as Europe’s twentieth century Civil Wars.

* * *

Like most things in present-day Berlin, the story begins at the Brandenburg Gate. That great stone portal is the most visible symbol of Prussia’s profoundly mixed response to the French Revolution. Not until 1848 would the forces of democratic revolution gather in any strength in the square — and then only to be quickly suppressed.

First, however, Napoleon rode through it in 1806 to take possession of the city, after smashing the Prussian Army at Jena. Seven years later, after his defeat at Leipzig in the course of his retreat from Moscow, he gave it back to its Prussian rulers. “Germany” was still a loose confederation of kingdoms and principalities in those days.

Fast-forward to 1870. That was the year the Prussian army, fresh from victories over Denmark in 1864 and Austria in 1866, marched off through the gate to Paris. Today, a tall column in the middle of Berlin’s central park commemorates the victory that they won when they held the city to ransom. Bismarck built the German empire — and the Kaiser built Berlin — with the money they received.

In 1914, the Germans were ready to go again, the idea that the battlefield was the ultimate source of civic virtue by now being simply taken for granted. The army expected to be in Paris within a month. They almost made it, before becoming bogged down in trench warfare. Four years, and four million lives, later, the German were forced to surrender — but only after the Americans had joined the war.

Now it was the turn of the French and the British to impose an enormous indemnity. The Americans acquiesced. For the fragile German republic that had been proclaimed after the Kaiser abdicated during the last days of the war, the results were disastrous. First came the great inflation, then the doomed Weimar republic. By 1933, Adolf Hitler was in control.

By now the great central boulevard was called the East-West Axis. After all, it was the road to Warsaw and Moscow as well. In 1939, the German army marched off again, this time in both directions. The results were ultimately catastrophic, culminating in the special insanity of the Holocaust. Berlin today is full of subtle and not-so-subtle war memorials. But none is more touching than Track 17 in suburban GrŸnewald, where the record of each day’s trains departing for the concentration camps is etched on steel plates along the tracks.

In 1945, the United States was strong enough to impose its own peace on Europe — not the plan advocated by Treasury Secretary Henry Morganthau to strip Germany of its industry in order to create a giant farm, but rather Gen. George Marshall’s plan to build a democracy with a strong export-oriented economy. At which point the European Civil Wars ended, to be superseded by the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. Sixty years of European knitting together had begun.

* * *

No book about the ways in which we think about the wars we have fought has been more striking to me in recent years than David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Blight taught high school four seven years in his native Flint, Michigan, before getting his PhD in history from the University of Wisconsin in 1985. Since then, he has taught at Amherst College before moving to Yale University in 2002. His first book was Frederick Douglass’ Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee.

Blight distinguishes between two streams of historical consciousness that often mix and mingle, history and memory. They are nevertheless quite distinct. History is what historians do. Memory is the property of the public. Historians tend to be critical and skeptical. Possessors of memory are often emotionally driven

“If history is shared and secular,” he writes, “memory is often treated as a sacred set of absolute meanings and stories, possessed as the heritage or identity of a community. Memory is often owned, history interpreted. Memory is passed down through generations; history is revised…. History asserts the authority of academic training and canons of evidence; memory carries the often more immediate authority of community membership and experience.” For a fuller treatment, you can read Blight’s keynote talk at a conference on Yale and slavery.

Like many other historians in recent years, Blight takes a professional interest in memory. And in his study of popular attitudes, he identified several competing “stories” of why the Civil War had happened and what it meant. To reduce a complicated book to its broadest outlines, one of these stories was about slavery and emancipation. The other was about states’ rights, the “Lost Cause” of the South, and the terrible gallantry of the war itself.

By adding a mountain of new evidence — the evolution of memorial holidays, monuments, veterans’ reunions, press accounts, books and theater — to more conventional sources in the highbrow press, Blight shows how the “reconciliationists” quickly got the upper hand once the war had ended. By 1875, Frederick Douglass was warning that “peace among the whites” was permitting the South to rewrite the history of the war.

Sure enough, as the focus shifted to the experiences of “Johnny Reb” and “Billy Yank,” slavery gradually dropped out of the account. The book ends with a description of the great celebration by veterans at Gettysburg fifty years after the battle there. “The only role for blacks was distributing blankets,” Blight wrote.

The nation had tacked the easiest part of the great bloodletting first. Dealing with the legacy of slavery would be postponed for another fifty years. And even today in Washington, D.C., there is still no museum, comparable to the Holocaust Museum there, dedicated to the history of the evil that was slavery. Some people seriously argue that the statute of limitations has expired.

Thus it was that, while listening to all the commemoration of D-Day this week, I was reminded of Race and Reunion. The German chancellor and the Russian president would be joining the American president, the English queen and the French president at Normandy for the first time. The process of reconciliation is now pretty much complete.

But what uncomfortable truth about the aims of Europe’s Civil Wars was being concealed, I wondered, by the soothing recollection of “the greatest generation?”

* * *

The problem that Europe deferred in the years after 1945 is not race. Rather it has to do with the role of the state. In the course of the last 100 years, European nations, led initially by Russia, then followed more cautiously by Germany, Italy, France and Great Britain have assigned to government the responsibility for a stunning array of entitlements to be financed by taxes.

The more extreme forms of state capitalism have collapsed — national socialism and communism. The system of rights and responsibilities known in western Europe as the Welfare State is still relatively strong. And though the advent of this generous arrangement undoubtedly helped Europe overcome its sectional disharmony after 1945, it is the Welfare State that is holding Europe back and threatening its future today.

These benefits often have included cradle-to-grave health insurance, automatic access to free public education at all levels, well-funded and long-lasting retirements at early ages, protections from workplace disruptions and from competition stemming from significant numbers of new immigrants.

These benefits would be hard enough to pay for if European economies were surging. They are not. Indeed, thanks to declining birth rates and reluctant attitudes towards immigration, Germany faces a tremendous fiscal overhang. So do France and Italy — worse in each case than the United States, where the baby boom problem is bad enough.

Then, too, many giant German companies are stagnating, even as their competitors in China and India are growing rapidly. And, the university systems of both France and Germany are heavily nationalized, with the result that there is little of the free-wheeling competition that characterizes the United States and keeps its economy competitive.

In other words, Europe needs to re-build a mixed economy. But the drive to create a new pan-European government is hindering each nation’s adjustment process.

In fact this diagnosis is fairly widely shared. Gabor Steingart, Berlin bureau chief of Der Spiegel, lays it out in Germany, Decline of a Superstar. Hans Werner Sinn, the nation’s leading applied economist, does the same in Can Germany be Saved? Nor are the politicians altogether ignoring the fiscal shoals. Gerhard Schroeder’s Social Democrat-led coalition has undertaken pension and health care reforms. There is a would-be Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel of the Christian Democrats, waiting in the wings.

What is Germany’s likely fate? To be like Sweden, if its leaders are successful in making the necessary adjustments. To be like Argentina if they are not. Each of these nations formerly ranked among the richest in the world (In 1930, Argentina was the world’s sixth wealthiest nation.) Sweden has made an orderly adjustment to the sweeping changes realties of the 1980s and today has a strong domestic economy and promising place among exporters in the global market. Argentinans fell to quarreling among themselves today their national economy is ranked among the Third World instead of the First.

There are worse things than having to come to grips with diminished expectations. A nervous joke making the rounds here here recently has Germany in the 21st century becoming the Majorca of the Chinese — that is, a charming rural vacation destination for the very rich. But by collapsing the distance between the one and the other, the analogy completely misses the point.

The German home market is enormous. Its infrastructure is superb. Its business leaders’ capacity for doing business abroad still is very great, even if confidence in them is considerably diminished at the moment. German culture, from its lofty themes of citizenship and common language and careful stewardship of the land to the pianissimo virtues of its friendships, is a miracle of social evolution, destined to appreciate in value over time, not decline. In fact, Germany is a kind of pocket China.

What remains is learning to live with that.