Most of the world goes to war about geography. Europe goes to war about history. And while the war that broke out late last week in Europe wasn't a shooting war, it was a classic European dispute about the past — one that, like all of these European historical controversies, has implications for the future.
This latest war over history isn't, like some European controversies, about ancient and half-forgotten resentments. Its subject is thoroughly modern, within the memory of most of the readers of this column. And its contents are astonishing, given what we have learned in the past two decades.
The principals in this war are the usual combatants, the British, the French and the Germans. Together they fought two world wars, and that shared history is what forms the backdrop for the current imbroglio, which emerged from the archives Friday. (I am not unmindful of the American participation in those wars, and by grouping the three together I am not suggesting that the blame for them is shared equally.)
You may think of archives as dusty repositories of diaries and documents, but they remain fertile fields of conflict. In this case, secret British government documents set out the deep wells of concern that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President Francois Mitterand harbored about a reunited Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
One of the remarkable things is that these two — one the personification of a new Tory ascendancy, the other a socialist — agreed on much of anything. But this was a case of geopolitics where the geo trumped the political. Indeed, Mitterand warned Thatcher that the new Germany emerging after the fall of the wall in 1989 “might make even more ground than had Hitler.”
There were many worries about the changing face of Europe in 1989, which we might group with 1789, 1848, 1870, 1914, 1917, 1933 and 1939 among the most fevered years in European history's long and oftentimes tragic parade. The documents released by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are remarkable not for the sentiments they display — the two leaders' concerns were well-known at the time — but for the depth of them.
The Financial Times, in an editorial Thursday, remarked darkly on how the records displayed Downing Street and the Elysee slipping “back into 19th-century attitudes.”
These attitudes may have been rooted in the nationalism of the 19th century, but the fears were derived directly from the two world wars of the 20th century, both of which combined Britain and France as allies against Germany. The two wars increasingly are viewed not as separate conflicts but as a long struggle for dominance in Europe that began perhaps as early as 1898, spiked in 1914 and 1939 and ended in 1945 —unless, of course, you believe it started with the Franco-Prussian War three decades earlier. Let's leave that argument for another morning.
One of the more intriguing notions to emerge from these documents is Mitterand's speculation that a unified Germany might end up throwing Russia into an alliance with its old World War II (and, before the Russian Revolution, its old World War I) partners, Britain and France. For anything else you might say about Mitterand, one of the most colorful figures of the 20th century, do not mark him down for a failure of the imagination.
The dispute about 1989 comes against the backdrop of Europe's first war over history this past summer, the new tensions generated by the anniversary of the beginning of World War II 70 years ago. This earlier fight involved the question of whether Hitler and Stalin were moral equivalents and whether Stalin was prudent or predatory in aligning himself with Hitler in August 1939 on the eve of the invasion and division of Poland.
This was not even much of an academic dispute until the Russians began to insist that Stalin, knowing that the Soviet Union was destined to fight Germany eventually in the 1940s, shrewdly played for time by siding with Hitler. The Russian argument sets forth yet another question of moral equivalency that found few adherents or even sympathizers in the West: Was the Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty signed in Moscow on the eve of the war much different from the policy of appeasement that the Allies pursued in the run-up to the war?
There have been many revisionist looks at World War II, and even revisions to the revisionists. But this summer has been a virtual festival of revisionism.
There was the view, offered by the Kremlin in a remarkable television broadcast, suggesting that it was the Poles, not the Russians, whose conspiracies with the Nazis triggered World War II. There was the suggestion, by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, that the Russians had no responsibility for the outbreak of the war. And then there was the mystifying assertion, in Warsaw, by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a onetime KGB official who is nobody's idea of a clear-eyed historian, actually condemning Molotov-Ribbentrop, with asterisks of course.
All this may suggest that in the period that was supposed to represent the end of history there was ample reason to believe that history itself was a growth industry, particularly since the Russians now argue that their dismemberment of Poland actually saved Polish lives. The latter may be proof that there may indeed be something new under the sun.
This is not all in the deep, dark past. The annual poll of European and American public opinion conducted for the German Marshall Fund shows deep divisions over how to respond to Russia, particularly on the question of NATO expansion and Europe's growing reliance on energy from Russia. The divisions of the present reflect divisions from the past. We're not done with them yet.
But if the 70th anniversary of the beginning of World War II and the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall have brought forth controversies this robust, we can imagine even more combat in 2014. That will be the 75th anniversary of World War II, the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall — and, lest we forget, the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. Who says there isn't a mathematics to history?