Simon Kuper of the Financial Times (UK) thinks that the fact that memories of World War II are fading is changing the political landscape of Europe....


By Simon Kuper

Financial Times (UK)
May 13, 2005

French schoolchildren have a snowball fight at Auschwitz. Many young Britons do not know that "VE Day" stands for "Victory in Europe." Despite this week's 60th anniversary commemorations, the war is fading from Europe's memory. Horst Köhler, Germany's president, recognized as much when he urged his country's parliament "to keep alive the memories of all the suffering."

The Second World War is becoming like the American Civil War: remembered by history buffs, only vaguely by the public and rarely studied by policymakers. This fading from memory has important consequences. For decades, the memory of war shaped policy in Europe and, to a lesser degree, the U.S. Now that the war is being forgotten, policy will change accordingly.

In many countries, the war changed everything: the landscape itself, the country's borders, its goals, its attitudes to foreigners, the subject matter of its films. And the war helped create our institutions: notably the European Union and the inflation-obsessed European Central Bank. Auschwitz also left most westerners with a horror of racist parties, while the memory of wartime dictatorships made people more protective of their civil liberties. But now that policymakers and the public are forgetting the war, the postwar settlement is being transformed.

The best example of such change is the story of Europe. The creators of the first pan-European institutions, in the 1950s, aimed to avert future wars. For decades, the memory of war helped drive ever closer European union. Even when the Berlin Wall fell, the war was the key memory in policymakers' minds. Not only was the war Europe's biggest catastrophe but policymakers have clung to it longer than most because they are older than most citizens and know more history. Margaret Thatcher, then U.K. prime minister, and François Mitterrand, the French president, thought a unified Germany might become a military threat. Mrs. Thatcher tried to prevent unification. Mitterrand -- both collaborator and resistant in the war -- allowed it but only on condition that Germany tether itself in Europe. A month after the Wall fell, Helmut Kohl, the German chancellor, whose brother was killed in the war, committed to the euro. The currency is largely a war baby.

So is the central bank that governs it. German hyperinflation in the 1920s helped make Hitler. The Bundesbank was created in 1957 to avoid a repetition. So successfully did it pursue monetary stability and a strong currency that its approach survived into the European Central Bank. The ECB has a target inflation rate of 2 per cent and has watched the euro rise despite Europe's high unemployment.

Now, however, as the war fades, the European ideal is becoming obsolete. An earlier generation considered the EU essential to peace and stability. "But I was born in a Europe where all that existed," says Wouter Bos, leader of the Dutch socialist party, explaining why his contemporaries feel more relaxed about saying No to Europe. The fading memory of war helps explain why France and the Netherlands may now vote No in referendums on the European constitution. European policymakers should recognize that the European ideal relied on the memory of the war. With that gone, ambitious schemes for Europe will never again have as much impetus.

Conversely, in the U.K., the fading of the war has weakened europhobia. The most eurosceptical Britons are of Mrs Thatcher's generation. Their formative experience was Britain standing alone with the U.S. against a weak and perfidious Europe in the Second World War. Hence the eurosceptic parties -- the Conservatives and the fringe U.K. Independence Party -- have done best among older voters. Younger Britons are more eurosceptical than most continentals but less so than their parents.

The fading recollection of war has other consequences. Few Europeans any longer feel indebted to the U.S. for having saved them from Nazism. Many Americans -- including some policymakers -- expect that indebtedness. The war is probably the only episode in European history widely known in the U.S. Hence the widespread American anger when some European countries opposed the Iraq war: "Didn't we back them against Hitler?" It was as if nothing had happened in the interval. Europeans, by contrast, are generally better informed about the U.S.: they consume its films and follow its politics. Their view of the U.S. is not shaped primarily by the Second World War.

Another consequence: in the past five years many Europeans have voted for anti-immigrant parties. These people do not think they are voting for another Auschwitz, because many of them do not know what Auschwitz was. Hence attempts to tar anti-immigrant parties as neo-Nazi have failed. Similarly, governments have been able to reduce civil liberties since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks because few westerners can any longer imagine their countries turning into Hitlerian dictatorships.

Sixty years on, the war is finally over, and that changes everything.

--The author is a regular Financial Times contributor based in Paris.