Europe and the Unthinkable

By Cohen, Roger | International New York Times, June 11, 2016 | Go to article overview

Europe and the Unthinkable


Cohen, Roger, International New York Times


The collapse of the European Union is implausible but not impossible. It is time to awaken to the dangers.

The Soviet Union was a giant on the stage of the 20th century. In this city at the heart of the last century's drama its presence lingers -- in the Soviet War Memorial in the Tiergarten (80,000 Soviet soldiers died in the Battle of Berlin); in the vast memorial and military cemetery in Treptower Park; in the graffiti scrawled by Soviet soldiers on the walls of the Reichstag; in the fragments of the Wall that cut off the Soviet imperium's captive masses. Yet, a quarter-century ago, the Soviet Union vanished from the map.

No foreign army conquered it. No massive uprising overran it. No economic implosion swallowed it. One of the world's two superpowers simply ceased to be. The unthinkable occurred. A vast empire put itself out of existence and turned out the lights.

Berlin, as the author Kati Marton put it, is "the capital of the unimaginable." Hitler, the vulgar buffoon, was ridiculed but took the world down with him. Almost nobody foresaw the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

There is no better place to ponder all that cannot possibly happen until it does.

There is no better juncture, either. The foundations of the postwar world born from the rubble of Berlin are trembling. The old is dying, the new too inchoate to decipher. The politics of America mystify the world.

From Germany's "zero hour" in 1945 there emerged in due course two institutions -- NATO and the European Union -- that together ushered Germany from its shame and Europe from its repetitive self- immolation. They cemented the United States as a European power. They fashioned European security and prosperity through unity.

Now NATO and the E.U. are questioned, even ridiculed. Forces of disintegration are on the march.

In less than two weeks, Britain will vote on whether to quit the Union. The referendum is too close to call. I believe that reason will prevail over derangement -- at least one leader of the "Brexit" campaign has contemptibly compared the Union's designs to Hitler's - - and that Britain will remain where it belongs: in Europe. But the scale of the disaster if Britain votes to leave should not be underestimated. It might mark the beginning of the end of the European Union. A political "bank run," in the phrase of the political scientist Ivan Krastev, could ensue.

Conditions seem ripe. Europe is increasingly unloved, its miracle too dull to be appreciated. For President Vladimir Putin of Russia, the disintegration of the European Union would be sweet revenge for the fall of the Soviet Union. …

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