Magazine article The Spectator

Our Longest Peace

Magazine article The Spectator

Our Longest Peace

Article excerpt

BOOKS THE STRUGGLE FOR EUROPE: THE HISTORY OF THE CONTINENT SINCE 1945 by William Hitchcock Profile, 25, pp. 513, ISBN 1861972334

Has anybody ever struggled for Europe? They might have struggled for British Ulster or Free France or the village green in Moreton-in-Marsh. But Europe? There are supposed to be some people around who, when they're asked where they're from, trumpet, `I'm European!'; if they really exist, they're doing a good job of keeping themselves to themselves.

Europe is such a bulky ragbag of countries with such wildly different histories, languages and customs, that to say you're European is about as precise as saying you're a world citizen or a sentient being or a member of the mammal family.

And to try to write a history of Europe as an organic whole, throughout most of its existence, is ludicrous - its different bits have been at each other's throats pretty much non-stop. The American don, William Hitchcock, is in a position to make a slightly better fist of the enterprise, writing about Europe from 1945 to the present day - its longest period of peace ever, some little local difficulties notwithstanding.

Even then, with half of the continent behind the Iron Curtain for most of that time, and the other half trying to get over the six years they spent knocking seven bells out of each other, all anyone can really do is write a joint history of the different countries that make up Europe, drawing attention to the odd cross-border overlap. This Hitchcock does, and this he does drily but impressively, piling date on date, politician on politician until his book turns into something like a very upmarket textbook, or a top-of-the-range cribsheet, on European governments, revolutions and economies. You will turn the 513th and final page of this book a very well-informed person; you will, though, be in urgent need of some non-fact-based light entertainment.

Precisely because Europe was so riven with division after the war, there was no shortage of people longing to glue it together. In the 15 years after VE Day, attempts to weld all the smashed-up fragments sprouted up all over the place: NATO in 1949, the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952, and, the big one, the EEC in 1958. The driving force - well, more the compressing, encircling force, really - behind all this was the FrancoGerman axis.

This axis has been even more closely moulded together over the last fortnight, for the extended 40th anniversary of the Elysee Treaty between the two countries: some of the presents swapped at the shared birthday party were proposals to harmonise laws, to share dual citizenship, and even to hold joint cabinet meetings. And the big subject of conversation at the Versailles vernissage was their shared doubts about America's plans for Iraq.

Donald Rumsfeld's reaction to the peace-loving leaders of France and Germany - dismissing them as part of an `old Europe' that's no longer relevant, as Europe's centre of gravity shifts eastwards - fits squarely with Hitchcock's line, which keeps on returning to France and Germany as the twin engines of union just after the war. And the reaction of Western Europe to America's dominance then was much the same as it is now. In Fifties France, the communist paper, L'Humanite, was desperately worried about American commercialisation - `Will we be Coca-colonised?' Simone de Beauvoir thought American control over Europe responsible for the darkest years of her life.

The more France and Germany have been driven apart, the more they fall over each other to make up. …

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