Fate has made the referendum on EU membership, scheduled for 23 June, fall right in the middle of the 100 anniversary of the Great War. Just a coincidence, perhaps, but one that should prompt some re-examination of how the past is taught, given that it is strongly connected to many of the misunderstandings and misconceptions that have poisoned British political life over the last few decades, centred on the very nature of the European Union: free-trade area or budding mega-state?
That this dilemma is still present in the minds of many is testament not only to the human brain’s self-deception abilities, but also to the failure to ask ourselves what the ultimate causes of the Great War were. It is true that this last couple of years we have been witness to myriad publications, exhibitions, and other outreach initiatives, concerning the Great War. In some cases, their focus has been a given battle or campaign, in others barely remembered actors ranging from the Chinese Labour Corps to the British Indian Army. Only a portion of these have touched upon the always sensitive issue of responsibility for the war, and while no major revisionist drive seems in sight, many commentators seem unable to go beyond the years immediately before 1914 and often concentrate on a few figures and the naval race. The roots of the Great War, however, go much deeper, to Prussian expansionism and its key tool, the Zollverein (Customs Union).
Traditional English, and later, British policy used to be preventing any single power from dominating the Continent, regardless of the nature of that power and of the people commanding it. In other words, concentrating on capabilities, not intentions. This explains, for example, British intervention in the War of Spanish Succession and the Napoleonic Wars.
Something changed, however, in the XIX Century, when a dominant power was allowed to emerge in the Continent, without any meaningful challenge from London. Bismarck patiently engaged in a number of short, limited wars, that resulted in the creation of a German Empire under Prussian leadership, incorporating territories formerly independent or under Danish and French sovereignty, and with Austria no longer a dominant player but a junior partner to Berlin. All this, without prompting any British response. For the first time in centuries, a single state was allowed to dominate the Old Continent and develop the economic and military capabilities to pose a threat to the British Empire. The fact that, at the time this development took place, Berlin had no intention to go to war was irrelevant, what mattered was that it could, as would become clear half a century later.
How did Bismarck manage to pull that trick? In addition to carefully restricting the use of force, avoiding any war against two powers at the same time and the prolongation of hostilities, he employed two key weapons: language and culture on the one hand, and trade and the economy on the other. Concerning the former, he convinced everybody that “Germany” was a “nation”, and even to this day textbooks talk about the “unification of Germany” rather than Prussian expansionism. The fact that a “Germany” extending to the different member states of the German Confederation posed an objective threat to the British Empire seems to have gone unnoticed at the time. With regard to the latter, the customs union or “Zollverein” was from day one a political project designed to extend Prussian influence and pave the way for the annexation of neighbouring states.
Does it sound familiar? It should, because this is exactly what the European Union has been trying to achieve over the last few decades, despite extensive public opposition not just in the United Kingdom. On the one hand we have a constant barrage of taxpayer-financed propaganda about “Europe” and a thinly-disguised campaign to label everything worthy “European”, under the unspoken assumption that the nations of the Old Continent are just a thing of the past, sooner or later to be replaced by a European superstate, already a reality in areas like economic policy for euro zone members. On the other hand, the “single market”, that much-touted “achievement”, is but a tool to bring into being that European superstate ever present in the dreams of a few, and the nightmares of many.
It may be argued that the EU, whatever its faults, is a far cry from militaristic Prussia, but although Brussels is yet to resort to force, the two projects are very similar. It is a matter of forging a state, using cultural propaganda and a customs union, and ignoring the will of the people. There used to be referenda in some EU member states to ratify amendments to the founding treaties, but after voters failed to see the light on a number of occasions (France, Ireland …), the European regime decided to dispense with them. In Bismarck’s case, he never asked Bavarians or Hessians whether they wished to become Germans (always dangerous to ask the people, there is a risk they may give you the wrong answer), is this perhaps where Brussels gets its inspiration from?
Fortunately the British tradition of democracy and liberty under Her Majesty the Queen remains strong enough to have finally resulted in an opportunity to decide at the polls. As to the Zollverein, again it provides a template for the EU, whose own “single market” is designed to bring about, just like its Prussian predecessor, political unification. A very far cry from the idea of a vast consumer market, so dear of those fooling themselves while ready to give away British sovereignty and liberty.
What does this have to do with the teaching of history, and in particular of the Great War? The failure to identify Prussia’s successful expansion and the British failure to react on time as the ultimate causes of the Great War, and the acceptance of Bismarckian notions of German nationhood (including his disregard for the consent of the ruled), are at the very least connected to the acceptance by a significant portion of the British public (and an even greater proportion of the country’s elites) of the concepts of Europe as a cultural entity and of the EU’s single market as not necessarily connected to the drive for a European super state.
The time has come to stop fooling ourselves and adopt a realistic attitude towards both the past and the present. The first and foremost British national security imperative remains preventing the emergence of any single dominant power in the European Continent. Whatever its nature, ideology, or leadership. Capacity, not intent, is the key word here. This means, with regard to history, that any examination of the Great War must begin with Bismarck’s years.
Concerning EU membership, it means that the existence itself of the European Union, and not just British membership thereof and regardless of Brussels’ policies and intentions, constitutes a danger to the national security of the United Kingdom. Trying to avoid this danger by joining this budding super state is not the solution, as already made clear over the last few decades. The only solution is, first of all, to leave, and next to make everything possible to promote the breakdown of the EU, including its single currency, the euro.
This does not mean perverting the will of the different peoples of the European Union, on the contrary, it is becoming increasingly clear that majorities in more than a few countries exist against the constant transfer of powers to Brussels. By letting her population decide, and by choosing to leave, the United Kingdom will be delivering a blow to the undemocratic EU. It will then have to be British policy to support those forces in different member states seeking to equally break free, until the European Union ceases to exist as an effective force. Only then will the lessons from the Great War have been learned.