The EU is the glue that holds superpowers together and UK’s failure to understand is a tragedy, says BONNIE GREER
In my early days in this country, my television-watching consisted mainly of back-to-back documentaries. Gradually what began to fascinate me was the proliferation of programmes about the Second World War. They seemed to be endless. What became clear was that the star of non-entertainment British TV was Adolf Hitler, a man who was not alive in the lifetimes of most people watching.
He was everywhere, eternally being defeated, eternally resurrected to be taken down again. The programmes were – and still are – a kind of backbone of British documentary television. Most people get what they know about the Second World War and Hitler from these constructions, these modern camp-fire sagas.
I was always afraid, in a sense, to ask why so much emphasis was placed on the conflict. Afraid to ask because deep down inside I knew that I would stir up something primal, probably unspoken and maybe dangerous.
What I felt was the thing that dare-not-speak its name: that the Second World War was not only the foundational myth of what the United Kingdom was to become, but, more importantly, it was the ‘Last Story’. Not that this meant that the UK was coming to an end, but that its mythos was. And that the one that was left had nothing to do with the Britain of old, that is, of empire.
Because what empire did was inflate the UK’s sense of itself in the world. Most people did not know what empire was or what it meant, only that it existed, with its benefits apparent to all.
No one talked about the price of it, for those people faraway in lands that only existed in books. The UK always won; was always the adult in the room that was international affairs, was James Bond straightening his cuffs after surviving an explosion or emerging from water in a wet suit, and stripping off to reveal impeccable evening clothes, created in Savile Row.
Along with its language, which became the lingua franca of business, diplomacy and war, the UK can be said to have existed in a mythos – a tale that it told itself about itself. That tale did not involve the reality of the Second World War itself, that foundational myth underpinning where we are now.
But the rest of Europe could never escape the reality of that catastrophe because the rest of Europe did not exist on an island. The rest of Europe was in the midst of it, of the awful thing that came to be its very definition after the conflict was over. Because it did come to an end. Just not in the UK.
The other story of the Second World War is the one that haunts Europe still, defines it still. That is the story of France and Germany. Sharing a border and a destiny, these two countries had been at war off and on from 1870 until Germany’s defeat in 1945. They upended not only themselves, but the rest of the world. They became symbols of evil to each other.
Bismarck used the vanity of Napoleon III to cause a war in 1870 that helped him unite Germany under what had been Prussia. The head of this new Germany was to be called Kaiser – ‘Caesar’ – the implication being conquest. Never-ending conquest. The devil was to be not only the Jewish people, for this new thing called ‘Germany’, but also France. The France of indolence; of decadence; of too much pleasure and food and wine. The Nazis saw France as a potential pleasure-zone, a place for national r’n’r , after it had been ‘cleansed’.
France had its own legend to live up to: the legend of the Corsican upstart, Napoleon, one of the greatest military strategists in history, a man who proved that the French were much more than wine. His nephew and heir, Napoleon III, took the bait that Bismarck dangled in 1870 and wound up surrendering himself and the French Army to Germany. The nation waited on the outskirts at Versailles while the south of France came to Paris to destroy the capital’s insurrection.
Neither the French nor the Germans forgot the Franco-Prussian War. Both countries carried it with them into the First World War. The fortresses at Verdun, the pride of French ingenuity, were used as the last stand, as the ultimate sacrifice. It did not matter that French troops mutinied; nor did it matter that they walked into German machine-gunner fire making bleating noises like sheep.
The might of Germany created poison gas; and bigger guns; and the two countries killed each other in their thousands. At the armistice signed in 1918 at a spot that Germany had occupied in the Franco-Prussian War, a French general was heard to say that the truce would only last little more than 20 years.
He was correct, almost to the day. The UK suffered, too. It lost men, but it did not lose territory. It did not have to push back against a superior force that wanted to use the country like a road, as Germany had wanted to do to Belgium.
It was only possible to know the First World War in its full horror by living in Europe, by dying in Europe. By being torn apart and rebuilt into a new country, by hoping that some kind of multilateralism would stop the next catastrophe. Because if everyone was in the room talking, no one would be fighting. This was clear.
But the multinational organisation built after that conflict – the League of Nations – could not stand, partly because the United States refused to join. It did not want its own myth destroyed by being a part of something bigger than itself, more important than itself.
Its own mythos was the Wild West, with its Lone Ranger, fighting and being a solitary figure. Europe could not afford this stance and after the catastrophe of the Second World War, it knew it.
Unilateralism was not an option. And so it remains. The image of François Mitterrand, president of France and combatant in the WWII, and Helmut Kohl, chancellor of Germany, holding hands in 1984 at the war memorial at Douaumont, near Verdun, was an image that all Europeans understood. But did the British?
That the current chancellor became the first German leader since the Second World War to come to the forest near Compiègne, in northern France, where the 1918 armistice was signed, was something all of Europe understood. Because this was also the place where Germany took the surrender from France at the beginning of the Second World War. And once again, the chancellor of Germany clasped hands with the French president.
The European Union, for all of its faults and mistakes, is the project, the glue, that holds these two European superpowers together. They cannot destroy it.
That the UK cannot, will not, understand this is a tragedy. That it is still steeped in its own ‘Finest Hour’ mythos is a tragedy, too.