Almost a century after the end of ‘the war to end all wars’, Europe is in danger of forgetting lessons from the 20th century

In Britain, 11 November is known as Armistice Day, but in Poland the same anniversary of the end of the first world war is remembered as Independence Day. In the west it is a memory of futile victory, but in the east it commemorates a moment of triumph, although one that would be followed by still more crushing defeat. The bright ideals of 1918 were built around a romantic conception of nationalism. Eastern Europe was to be freed from the multinational empires that had ruled it from Vienna and St Petersburg, and in their place would rise a host of little nations from Finland to Yugoslavia, to live in brotherhood and prosperity under the aegis of the League of Nations. It was a patchwork that would within 25 years disintegrate into the most terrible war – and genocide – of European history, followed by ethnic cleansings of the survivors all across eastern Europe as the old nations were reconstituted as homogenous prison camps.

The end of the second world war gave rise in the west to a very different ideal of nationhood. The European Union was built on the hope that national boundaries might become very much less salient, preserved as wrinkles on the gentle face of history rather than its fixed expression; and after the fall of the Berlin Wall it seemed that this pattern must in time spread east, even into the former Yugoslavia. If there was one lesson that every European – and not just Jewish ones – had learned from the first half of the 20th century, it was “never again”.

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