“Do not forget that this happened. No, do not forget: Engrave these words in your heart.” With this phrase the writer and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi subtitles his work If This Is A Man. The 60th anniversary of the end of World War Two and of the extermination of various groups by the Nazis is an occasion to remember the victims of those horrific events. For all the countries who were formerly allies, fascists or collaborators, the act of teaching about and explaining the living nightmare that was the Second World War is an obligation with the aim of ensuring that such events are never again repeated. Yet there are many European countries which did not take part in the Second World War, such as Ireland, Sweden and Portugal.
Nothing to do with Spain
This is also true of Spain, a country which was ‘partially’ neutral yet where there was also a great amount of suffering before, during and after the War. Its dictator, Franco, had won the civil war in 1939 (despite a failed coup d’etat in 1936), a victory owed in part to the assistance of the axis powers, Germany and Italy (for example in the bombardment of Guernica by German air forces in April 1937). As the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig noted in The World of Yesterday, Spain was the last place where democracy was fought for, house by house. That democracy was abandoned by France and Great Britain through their scrupulous respect for the right of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, whilst Germany and Italy supplied the Franquista military machine, and the Soviet Union helped the Republican side in exchange for the gold reserves of the Spanish State. The end of the World War in 1945 brought some hope to the Spanish resistance of ridding the country of Franco’s dictatorship. However, Spain was to be denied “liberation” and condemned to a further 30 years of authoritarian rule on the assurance that the country would not turn communist.
Following the “liberation” by the Americans in 1945, close cooperation between certain European peoples was deemed necessary to avoid armed conflict, as well as to enable aid from the Marshall Plan to be applied more effectively across Europe. The call of a war-weary generation for peace and the subsequent tranquillity of the boom years of 1945-75 allowed for the rebuilding of shattered lives whilst serving an ambitious European project. Yet “peace among peoples” was not the objective of those countries which would later belong to the European Economic Community (EEC). Great Britain, economically weakened following the Second World War, would seek an open market, whilst post-Franco Spain would seek in the 1980s to secure not only a greater well-being, but also peace within its territory and between those groups who abide there.
Rebuild a European consciousness or die
Peace is often used as a raison d’etre for the European Union. It is as if by simply wanting to see peace in Europe one is immediately transformed into a European or a Europhile. Until the 1980s the European project sustained itself on such a material and emotional need for peace. Today, however, there is a need to (re)build a real European collective consciousness in order to move ahead with this project, for which the ‘peace-building’ argument no longer has political value. Nowadays we live in peace and our younger generation has difficulty in relating to the reality of the barbaric acts which characterised the war over 60 years ago. This brings to light a double danger: on the one hand, a lack of positive arguments for strengthening the EU among today’s politicians could endanger the self-same ambitious project. On the other, the passage of time and today’s new realities challenge us in our day-to-day lives not to fall again into the trap of barbarism, especially where it might now appear in different guises. Peace is no longer, therefore, a reason to be given by those who defend Europe, since in reality the average European citizen does not perceive any threat of war and, on the other hand, is being told by politicians about the growing importance of diversity within the European Union.
The recent discourse of national politicians over Europe underlines the cultural diversity that exists thanks to the principle of subsidiarity, whereby EU legislation is only used when a more local solution cannot be found. That is why wilfully seeking a common identity in past events, like the War, appears inadequate, and all the more so when many of the present 25 members of the EU did not bear the brunt of that war.
Denying his responsibility for atrocities committed during the Third Reich, Hermann Goering, Commander in Chief of Nazi Germany’s air force, dismissed allegations against him as Quatsch (rubbish). Yet even today, similar massacres still occur. We have recently witnessed two genocides: one, far away, that of the murder of Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda (1994); the other, close by, involving the death of Muslims during the Bosnian war (1995). Within the EU, the oft repeated message is that of working together for peace, when in reality we have already achieved it inside the member states, whilst beyond our borders we do not even manage to defend it. The pro-European story of ‘perpetual peace’ is not enough to deepen the European Union from within, and seems ineffective as a defence of its principles without. In this way, the EU of the 21st Century will have to commit to clarifying and developing a European collective consciousness as part of a real political project, calling upon European citizens to once again become agents of their own destiny, rather than spectators of a (his)story-telling whose events are now too distant to retain their true resonance.