The notion that history has nothing to teach us is one of the most pervasive beliefs in modern industrial society. It’s also one of the most misguided. Sure, we’ve got all these shiny new technological trinkets, and we love to insist to ourselves that this means we’re constantly breaking new ground and going where no previous society has ever gone before. Clinging to that fond delusion, we keep on making mistakes that were already old when bronze swords were high tech, and flailing helplessly when the usual consequences yet again land on top of us.
The shambolic end of the US occupation of Afghanistan earlier this autumn is a case in point. The self-satisfied gooberocracy that runs the United States these days talked itself into believing that the hard-earned lessons of the Vietnam war didn’t matter any more, and sent American soldiers blundering into a country that earned the name “the graveyard of empires” long before the United States was a twinkle in Ben Franklin’s eye. It wasn’t just Vietnam that the slackjawed warlords of Washington ignored, of course. The Russians had their own messy experiences in Aghanistan, so did the British, so did half a dozen great Asian empires, and so did Alexander the Great. None of that made any difference, because the political class in the US had convinced itself that the past didn’t matter.
Back when the invasion first happened, wags suggested that “Kabul” is how you pronounce “Saigon” in Pashto, and of course they were quite right. Having refused to learn from their history, four US administrations duly repeated it, right down to the humiliating final scenes of helicopters on rooftops and victorious insurgents parading with captured US military hardware. It remains to be seen whether Afghanistan will turn into the graveyard of our empire. A hundred years from now, I suspect, historians will consider the collapse of American power in Afghanistan as the point at which the United States crossed the subtle line that separates “decline” from “fall,” but we’ll see.
To my mind, however, one of the details of the aftermath was particularly revealing. More than one of our European client states threw very public hissy fits in response to America’s headlong flight from Kabul, insisting angrily that the US should have kept on wasting lives and dollars on a war that could not be won. European media outlets such as the BBC spent weeks thereafter splashing around stories about how awful things were going to be in Afghanistan in the wake of US defeat. There was a good robust helping of irony in all this yelling, of course, since none of these countries seemed at all interested in sending their own troops marching into Kabul or pouring large shares of their own national budgets down the nearest available central Asian rathole. As usual, they wanted the US to do the work for them, so we would carry the costs and they would reap the benefits.
Yet learning from the lessons of history is just as unpopular in European capitals as it is in Washington DC. The response to the Afghanistan fiasco is hardly the best example of this. The one that stands out most forcefully in my mind just now is the way that the European Union is busy setting the stage for the next great European war.
Yes, I know that the entire point of the European Union is to make sure that no great European war ever happens again. This is hardly a new sentiment in the history of that bellicose and fractious subcontinent—for of course Europe isn’t actually a continent, it’s a big peninsula that sticks off the western flank of Asia the way that India sticks off the southern flank. Quite often over the last millennium or so, the great powers of Europe have established some sort of complicated treaty mechanism meant to prevent the next round of European wars. The example before the current one, the Concert of Europe, was established at the Congress of Vienna in 1816 after the Napoleonic Wars. Like quite a few of the arrangements that preceded it, the Concert of Europe then turned into one of the primary driving forces behind the next round of European wars.
Equally, it’s quite common in European history for various chunks of the European subcontinent to end up in a political union of one kind or another. The Holy Roman Empire was the archetype of these arrangements. It dated its foundation to the coronation of Charlemagne as Emperor in 800 AD, and it was dissolved in 1806, one of the many casualties of the Napoleonic Wars. Over that millennium of existence its boundaries flowed, stretched, shrank, and wobbled like a drunken amoeba, its capital lurched spastically from place to place, its ruler was an elected monarch whose power ranged from the contested to the wholly theoretical, and it never succeeded in becoming anything like a centralized state, or even a viable federation of states.
Rather, like a certain other European union I could name, it was cobbled together out of a giddy assortment of effectively independent states with widely varying cultures, institutions, and histories, by way of an awkwardly designed constitution that never quite managed to sort out the distribution of political power into any functional arrangement of who-does-what. Under the legal doctrine of “imperial immediacy,” a gallimaufry of kingdoms, principalities, grand and not-so-grand duchies, republics, bishoprics, free cities, and even certain individual persons all counted as sovereign entities under the broad and ill-defined aegis of the Empire. The relations between these oddly assorted entities rarely ran smoothly, and the resulting clashes quite often ended up on the battlefield, driving some of history’s most brutal wars.
The Thirty Years War is one example out of many. Strains between Protestant and Catholic component states of the Empire reached a flashpoint in 1618 with the Defenestration of Prague, in which three imperial officials were chucked out a window by an ebullient mob. War followed, and just kept on going, drawing in nation after nation. By the time the bloodshed finally stopped and the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 patched a temporary bandage over the remaining quarrels, a third of the population of central Europe was dead.
It was the sheer fecklessness of the Holy Roman Empire, more than any other factor, that kickstarted the long century of struggles between France and England that finally ended on the field of Waterloo in 1815. That fracas began when Louis XIV of France wanted to extend his power into the near-vacuum across the Rhine, and England realized that if it allowed this to happen it would be next on the menu. War after war followed—the War of the Spanish Succession, the War of the Austrian Succession, the Seven Years War, and more—and Europe east of France was the main field of conflict, because the quarrelsome fragments of the Empire weren’t strong enough to withstand French armies on their own.
The cost of all those wars finally brought down the French monarchy in 1792. That didn’t improve the situation any, because it didn’t take long for the ineffectual revolutionary governments of France to be kicked into the dumpster by a talented upstart named Napoleon Buonaparte, who declared himself Emperor Napoleon I and set out to conquer the entire European subcontinent. He didn’t miss it by much. When the smoke finally cleared most of two decades later, Europe had been ravaged from end to end, and the aforementioned Concert of Europe was cobbled together to try to keep that from happening again. It worked, after a fashion, for just under a century.
The Holy Roman Empire came apart for all practical purposes well before Napoleon’s time, and its official abolition in 1806 was merely a formal recognition of that reality. It had a successor, however, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, an equally awkward contraption that dominated the politics of eastern Europe for a little over a hundred years, until it finally went to bits in 1918. The Austro-Hungarian Empire owed its name to the odd fact that the Emperor of Austria was also, by statute, the King of Hungary. Austria and Hungary each had its own laws, traditions, armies, and civil services, which rarely worked well together. Matters got even more complex as the Ottoman Empire was driven out of the Balkans and the Austro-Hungarian Empire absorbed some but not all of the fragments.
The result was a rising spiral of political unrest, terrorist violence, government crackdowns, and white-hot passions, which finally burst into flame on a June day in 1914 when a Bosnian terrorist assassinated the heir to the Austrian throne in Sarajevo. The result was the First World War, as treaties that were supposed to maintain the balance of power in Europe turned into a black hole that sucked nearly every European nation into its event horizon. By the time peace finally came a little over four years later, the nations of Europe had managed the not inconsiderable feat of ravaging their subcontinent even more thoroughly than the Napoleonic Wars had done.
The First World War was sold to the public as “The War to End Wars.” (We all know how well that worked.) Once again, a clumsy mess of international treaties got slapped into place to try to maintain the peace in Europe, and those treaties proceeded to become the main cause of another round of wars. This time around, US president Woodrow Wilson got into the act and had the chance to inject his unique brand of self-important cluelessness into the mix, and that seems to have guaranteed a much shorter lifespan to the peace. Europe accordingly blew up just twenty years later, and achieved a level of suicidal self-immolation that made the First World War look small.
That, of course, was the context in which the European Union was born. It started out very small, as an agreement between France and West Germany governing the steel trade, and metastasized from there into today’s sprawling and sclerotic bureaucratic mess. The resemblances between the EU, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Holy Roman Empire are striking: similar jerry-rigged and cumbersome structures of governance, similar awkward attempts to force a union among nations with wildly different cultures, institutions, and histories, similar rising spirals of conflicts between component entities with irreconcilable interests, none of which ever quite got resolved. All that’s needed now is a spark—EU officials being thrown out a window in Prague, say, or a spray of bullets on the streets of Sarajevo—to send the continent tumbling down a familiar slope toward war.
The reason there has been no European war outside the Balkans since 1945, after all, has nothing to do with the European Union. The reason is that the United States and the Soviet Union enforced peace on the quarrelsome subcontinent at gunpoint, and backed it up by occupying most European nations with their own troops, tanks, and planes. Neither imperial power, however, could maintain its presence indefinitely. The Soviet Union was forced to withdraw its troops from Europe by 1989, as it lurched toward its own collapse two years later. The United States—well, let’s just say that the recent events in Afghanistan demonstrate, for those who are paying attention, that a similar series of events is already well under way here. I don’t think that too many more years will pass before the United States no longer has troops in Europe, or anywhere else outside its own borders—if, that is, it still exists as a nation, which is anyone’s guess at this point.
At the moment, Europe’s own armed forces are mostly a joke. Britain and France are both nuclear powers, though Britain’s nukes are manufactured and maintained by the United States, as part of the polite fiction by which we pretend that we didn’t invade and occupy Britain in 1942. The rest of the British military is a shadow of its former self, though it’s still rather more robust than most other European militaries. France has its own independent nuclear weapons industry—that’s what all those nuclear power plants are for, you know—and a modestly sized but tolerably effective military, which sees a fair amount of action in France’s don’t-you-dare-call-them-colonies in Africa. Not counting Russia (which is not part of Europe in any way that matters), France has the closest thing to an effective military on the subcontinent, but it’s very small.
Most other European nations have the kind of token militaries that a midsized African nation could defeat without too much trouble. The Bundeswehr, the current German military, is a case in point. On paper, it’s got a fair number of soldiers, tanks, and planes, but the soldiers are poorly trained and have no combat experience to speak of, and the tanks, planes, and other items of military hardware are mostly inoperable due to parts shortages and inadequate maintenance; the entire German submarine fleet, for example, was laid up in drydock recently for quite some time due to technical problems. Few other European militaries are quite so comically inept as Germany’s, but many are even smaller, and none outside of France and Britain are prepared to carry out significant military operations on their own. There is of course a reason for that, which is that the United States wanted European militaries small and dependent on the US military machine. Unfortunately for the future of Europe, nobody there seems to have gotten the memo that the US is going to bits.
That’s a problem because there are two very good ways to make war happen. The first is to be arrogant, blustering, and unwilling to compromise. The second is to be militarily weak. The European Union is both. It does not seem to have occurred to anyone in Brussels that one of these days, when EU officials order one of the nations in its sphere of influence to shut up and do as it’s told, the nation in question might respond in the time-honored way by mobilizing its army and settling the matter by force. Several flashpoints in eastern and southeastern Europe are potentially close to that. The last few times that happened in the Balkans, of course, the United States was available to do the heavy lifting—but those days, again, are over now.
If Serbia, let’s say, decides to adjust its current borders in its own favor the way that Azerbaijan did a little while ago, by force of arms, is the EU prepared to try to counter that on the battlefield? If not, the EU may never recover from the loss of prestige; quite a few people remember what happened in the 1930s when the League of Nations failed to back up its demands with anything stronger than verbiage. (Spoiler: the League of Nations no longer exists.) If the EU does intervene—well, then it’s up to the fortunes of war, and those may not go the way the EU thinks they should. One of the least remembered stories of the First World War is that in 1914, in the opening phases of the war, the Austro-Hungarian Empire launched its armies into Serbia in an attempt to conquer that tough and mountainous little country, and got driven back across the border in utter humiliation after a series of stinging defeats. Just how well the EU would survive a comparable embarrassment is anyone’s guess.
But it’s not just the Balkans that are potential flashpoints in Europe just now. Hungary is roughly half its historic size, and there’s quite a bit of talk in that country about readjusting those borders, too. Poland has similar issues with its post-World War II borders, and is in the midst of a considerable military buildup. France has just signed a mutual-defense pact with Greece, committing each country to come to the other’s aid in war against any other country, whether or not that other country happens to be a member of NATO—and of course France and Britain are getting increasingly bellicose with each other over fishing rights and a flurry of other issues. All this is still being conducted in the language of diplomacy and public relations, but if you know the history of Europe between the two world wars, you know how this movie ends.
It’s not the era between the wars, however, that comes to mind most forcefully just now. It’s the Europe of the Belle Epoque, the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth: the last era when people of good will across the European subcontinent insisted that war was the outdated relic of an older and more barbarous time, that the treaty arrangements that had stayed in place since the last round of cataclysmic European wars would surely prevent anything of the kind from happening again, and that the close economic ties uniting the nations of Europe would stop any general European war in its tracks. They were wrong, and millions of people died because they were wrong. Their equivalents today will turn out to be just as wrong, because they’ve bought into the most pervasive fallacy of our time, the serenely foolhardy conviction that history has no lessons to teach, every shift in social conditions is permanent, and a pendulum can only swing in one direction.
I don’t think the next general European war is imminent, for what it’s worth. If things follow the usual pattern, there will be wars on the periphery first, most likely in the Balkans, while tensions build between the larger nations of the subcontinent. We still probably have some years left before alliances form, positions harden, military spending soars, and nations get locked into a collision course. My readers in Europe, however, might be well advised to look into how their recent ancestors survived the last few rounds of European bloodshed, and keep in mind that they or their children may have to repeat the same exercise. My readers in the United States, to the extent that they can spare the time from the convulsions of an imperial state in extremis, might be equally well advised to keep a wary eye on the other side of the Atlantic, and resist the temptation to get drawn into European quarrels. We’ll have quite enough to deal with over here.