This time next week I will be in Northern France visiting the Normandy beaches and museums to learn more about the D-Day landings. Five of us, who all grew up together, discussed this last year after a fine dinner and concluded that it would be a memorable weekend trip.
Since I spent most of my school history lessons staring out of the window rather than paying attention, I have been reading fanatically to fill-in the sizeable gaps in my knowledge and have recently been tackling Ian Kershaw’s book “To Hell and Back.”
He opens by saying “Europe’s 20th century was a century of war. Two world wars followed by over 40 years of “Cold War” – itself the direct product of the Second World War – defined the age. It was an extraordinarily dramatic, tragic and endlessly fascinating period, its history one of huge upheaval and astounding transformation. During the 20th century, Europe went to hell and back. The continent, which for nearly 100 years after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 had prided itself on being the apogee of civilisation, fell between 1914 and 1945 into the pit of barbarism.” In going on to explore the reasons for this he sights, “an explosion of ethnic-racist nationalism,” “acute class conflict,” and “a protracted crisis of capitalism,”
We may or may not describe our continent as the apogee of civilisation today, but the result of the Dutch election this week which saw Mark Rutte’s VVD party triumph over the Geert Wilders PVV (anti-immigration) party marks an important reversal in recent anti-EU thinking. What is interesting in reading the paragraph above is that it takes – very roughly – a generation to pass before the true horrors of war and conflict are brushed aside and the same root-causes (racist nationalism, class conflict and crisis of capitalism) resurface. The Dutch vote against the “wrong sort of populism” shows some sage thinking from a country that saw that pit or barbarism at close quarters.