2
Aug

There is war in Europe. No, I’m not using the historic present tense to evoke August, 1914. I’m talking about August, 2014. What is happening in eastern Ukraine is war – “ambiguous war” as a British parliamentary committee calls it, rather than outright, declared war between two sovereign states, but still war. And war rages around the edges of Europe, in Syria, Iraq and Gaza.

I do not say “Europe is at war.” Most European countries are not directly engaged in armed conflict. Still, we should be under no illusions. For decades, we have lived with the comforting notion that “Europe has been at peace since 1945.” This was always an overstatement. In parts of Eastern Europe, low-level armed conflict continued into the early 1950s, followed by the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and of Czechoslovakia in 1968. In the 1990s, the former Yugoslavia was torn apart in a series of wars.

For all the differences, the dirty little wars of 2014 have an important connection to the horrendous “great” one that began in 1914. Many of them involve struggles of definition and control over patchwork territories left behind by the multiethnic empires that clashed 100 years ago, and their successor states. Thus, for example, the battle for eastern Ukraine is about the boundaries of the Russian empire. Some of the Russians, from Russia itself, who are now leading the armed pro-Russian movement in eastern Ukraine, have characterized themselves as “imperial nationalists.”

During the Balkan wars of the 1990s, jigsaw pieces from the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires were fought over, and then reassembled into new, smaller puzzles, such as Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia. Many of the frontiers on today’s map of the Middle East go back to the post-First World War settlement, when Western colonial powers spliced together disparate parts of the former Ottoman Empire into new protectorates – Iraq, Syria, Palestine. The big exception is of course the state of Israel;   but that, too, can  trace a lineage   back to the deadly after-life of European empires. For Nazi Germany,   which attempted to exterminate the Jews, was the last hideous fling of German racial and territorial imperialism.

So what is Europe going to do now about its own long-term consequences? The first thing Europeans must do is simply to wake up to the fact that we live in a dangerous neighbourhood. Being Greater Switzerland is neither a moral nor a practical option: not moral, because Europeans, of all people, should never be silent while war crimes are being committed; not practical, because we cannot insulate ourselves from the effects. Today’s fighters in Syria will be tomorrow’s terrorists in Europe. Today’s dispossessed are tomorrow’s illegal immigrants. Let these little wars burn, and you will be shot down out of the sky on your way from the Netherlands to Malaysia on Flight MH17. No one is safe.

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Published on Augusto 1 in the Globe and Mail by Timothy Garton Ash.

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