A GERMAN FRIEND OF mine once shared this childhood memory: It was the late spring of 1945, during Nazism’s long, violent endgame; allied infantry had finally broken the backbone of the German army’s resistance while allied aircraft rained death and destruction on the civilian population. In the final months of the war, my friend’s father, a middle-aged businessman, had been drafted into the Wehrmacht as part of the Nazis’ last, desperate effort to delay defeat. He was fortunate enough to be taken prisoner almost at once and even more fortunate to be able to slip away from his captors and make his way home. The morning after his return, as the family gathered for breakfast, he appeared dressed in suit and tie, ready to go back to the office. There was, he announced, obviously a great deal of work to be done. I have often thought of this story as a kind of parable for postwar Germany where, amid the confused devastation of defeat, the survivors set out to rebuild their lives.

The years immediately after 1945 were difficult for the survivors of six years of total war, political repression, and racial murder. In Eastern Europe, the Soviets imposed Communist regimes with ruthless brutality, while in the West millions of frightened, hungry people searched for shelter and sustenance. It has been estimated that in 1945 a quarter of the German population was homeless. Even for the winners, the fruits of victory were dry and bitter. Britain, whose survival had made the Allies’ victory possible, continued to confront shortages for years; rationing of food and fuel did not end until 1954. And yet, when seen from the perspective of the present, what is most remarkable about the postwar era is the speed and depth of Western Europe’s recovery.

This recovery rested on two accomplishments, both enjoying broad popular support and embedded in a network of institutions. First, a new security structure gathered Western European states in a military and political alliance directed against the Soviet Union and guaranteed by the United States. As a result, for the first time in history, the danger of an armed conflict between European powers receded and eventually disappeared. Germany and France, the antagonists in two world wars, opened their borders and shared important sovereign powers. The second set of accomplishments both depended on and reinforced the first: sustained economic growth improved living standards and helped produce an unprecedented amount of cooperation among European states. NATO and the European Union, the two most significant institutional expressions of these trends, turned out to be tough and flexible enough to survive the end of the Cold War in 1989 and to absorb the newly independent states of Eastern Europe. They continue to provide the essential foundation of the European international system. We tend to take these things for granted, but it should be among the historian’s tasks to remind us how, when viewed from the perspective of Europe’s violent past, truly remarkable they are, how long they have lasted, and how much they have accomplished.


IN MANY WAYS, the problems Europeans face in 2015 came from pushing the accomplishments of the postwar era too far. As part of the renewed impetus for greater European integration in the 1990s, a common European currency was introduced, but without a firm institutional foundation. At the same time, NATO expanded to include the former members of the Soviet bloc without taking into account Russian security interests and perceptions. Both of these policies seemed like good ideas at the time. The Euro, born during a period of economic dynamism and post–Cold War euphoria, was seen as an effective way to bind the newly unified Germany to the European project. As had often happened during the process of European integration, political institutions would, or so the Euro’s advocates hoped, follow in the wake of economic achievements. The eastern expansion of NATO, encouraged by Washington and eagerly sought by the governments of the new post-Communist states, seemed like a way to consolidate democratic regimes in Eastern Europe and avoid the kind of instability that engulfed the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Russia, the advocates of NATO expansion insisted, was sufficiently weakened by its internal troubles and distracted by other problems that it would have no choice but to accept the extension of Western power into what had traditionally been its own sphere of influence.

It is now clear that neither of these optimistic assessments turned out to be true. Beginning in 2008, the Eurozone entered a prolonged crisis from which no clear end is in sight. Greece is the most prominent and pressing but by no means the only site of this crisis, in which governments must try to make international fiscal policy without international fiscal institutions. Much more serious are Vladimir Putin’s efforts to protect Russia’s sphere of influence by supporting the secession of Crimea and supplying pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. This has produced a civil war that reawakened the specter of international violence that Europeans hoped had been banished forever. In some ways, the civil war in Ukraine resembles the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia after 1989, but with a significant difference that is based on both history and geography: in Ukraine a major power is directly involved, which means that this crisis is inexorably enmeshed in a web of other international issues, including the civil war in Syria and attempts to reach a nuclear-arms deal with Iran, all of which involve complex negotiations with Russia. In the end, the Western powers were able to impose a kind of solution—imperfect, in some ways unjust, but clearly better than no solution at all—on the Yugoslav situation. This is much less likely to happen in Ukraine.

The intersection of the Greek and Ukrainian crises is most apparent to the Germans, who have the biggest stakes in both. Germany has the economic resources to help the Greeks recover and, as a major creditor, has the most to lose should the Greeks default. But German voters are reluctant to put their own prosperity at risk to bail out what many of them regard as a corrupt and irresponsible system. The Greeks, on the other hand, suffering under draconian austerity measures, view German demands as self-serving and vindictive, especially in the light of how Nazi Germany behaved in Greece during the Second World War. Berlin also urgently desires a peaceful resolution of the Ukrainian conflict, which is, after all, in Germany’s neighborhood, a part of Europe in which it has deep economic, cultural, and security interests. As in Greece, German policy in Ukraine is shadowed by the complex memories of the Second World War.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has worked tirelessly to craft a solution to these two crises. In a series of complex and exhausting meetings, she has tried to find a formula that will satisfy the newly elected Greek government, which is pledged to end austerity, the European bankers, and her own skeptical countrymen. At the same time, she has searched for a way to support the Ukrainian government, encourage reform in the restive eastern regions, and persuade the Russians to stop enabling communal violence. With remarkable patience and extraordinary stamina, she has asserted German international power and has become, rather reluctantly, Europe’s most important leader.  

As I write in late March, the outcomes of both the Greek and Ukrainian crises remain open. Efforts are underway in Berlin to patch together a new solution to the Greek problem that can be sold to both the Greek and German electorates. The chances for a European resolution of Greece’s economic difficulties are not good: it seems to me highly likely (if by no means certain) that Greece will have to leave the Eurozone, a painful but in the end unavoidable solution to an intractable political dilemma. How much collateral damage this will create for the European Union will depend on how skillfully European leaders can manage the Greek departure. The European Union will almost certainly survive, shaken but intact.

As the negotiations with Greece drag on, a fragile ceasefire has, at least temporarily, pushed Ukraine off the front pages of Western newspapers. Here too the odds are against a swift and satisfactory solution. In eastern Ukraine, the civil strife will probably continue, waxing and waning as Putin continues a dangerous game that is driven by the imperatives of Russian domestic policies as well as his perception of Russia’s security interests. Nevertheless, while there may well be other outbreaks of violence throughout the shattered zone along Russia’s western and southern periphery, it seems unlikely that this violence will penetrate further west, for example into the Baltic states or Poland. Like the EU, NATO may be shaken by a newly antagonistic Russia, but it will most probably survive.


THE MOST DIFFICULT problem in political analysis is to tell the difference between weather and climate—that is, to distinguish between the inevitable storms that periodically occur, often leaving wreckage in their wake, and those long-term alterations in temperature and precipitation that have less obvious but more lasting consequences. Such changes in the political climate are the result of deeply rooted demographic, economic, and cultural developments, sometimes accelerated by events, more often slowly transforming people’s expectations about how their world does and should work. There is no doubt that Europe has had some bad weather recently. But is the climate beginning to change? Are the relatively temperate decades that followed the Second World War coming to an end? Is, after seventy years, the postwar era over?

There are surely signs that the political landscape has begun to shift, shaking the consensus on which postwar public life was based. People’s initial response to the economic crisis of 2008 was to punish the incumbents, who were driven out of office throughout Europe. Some have recovered, many have not. In most of Europe, democratic Socialist parties have been especially hard hit, in part because of the long-term decline in the political power of organized labor, in part because the left was blamed for mismanaging the economy. But in many countries, all the established political parties seem to be losing ground. Britain, which held a general election on May 7, is a particularly dramatic example of this trend. At the beginning of the postwar era, British politics was dominated by two more or less evenly matched parties, Conservative and Labour: in 1951, they won 97 percent of the vote. In 2010, they got just over 60 percent. Only about one in ten British voters now strongly identifies with one of the major parties; smaller parties—Greens, Liberals, Scottish nationalists, and the United Kingdom Independence Party—have grown in number and vitality. In Germany, the two major parties, the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, govern in a so-called Grand Coalition, largely because neither is strong enough to form a viable majority on its own. Chancellor Merkel remains popular; her party much less so. The most potentially significant example of the erosion of established parties is France, where the principal beneficiary seems to be the National Front, which has tried to jettison its right-wing radical image without losing its appeal as a catchall party for the discontented and disconnected. An electoral victory of the National Front would be a disaster, both for France and for Europe.

Everywhere in Europe, from the advocates of autonomy in Scotland and Catalonia, to the students occupying the administration building at the University of Amsterdam, to the angry crowds in the streets of Athens and Madrid, to the supporters of the National Front in France and of the even more sinister right-wing groups elsewhere, one finds a growing restlessness, a disaffection with the status quo, an urge to express anger and frustration. This mood reflects very real sources of discontent and dislocation, especially the massive unemployment that now seems to be a permanent part of Europe’s weaker economies. But the mood extends beyond economically challenged states like Spain and Greece into the more prosperous and economically vibrant north. And it is everywhere fed by anxieties, often exaggerated and manipulated, about Europe’s growing Muslim minority. There is no doubt that throughout Europe, many people’s political loyalties have become detached from their traditional moorings and are now significantly more volatile and unstable. How many of these people can be captured by the parties that play on popular fears and frustration remains a fundamental question about Europe’s future and the best indication of whether its political climate has in fact permanently changed.

“In political activity,” Michael Oakeshott reminds us, “men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbor for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting place nor appointed destination.” Sometimes the best anyone can do is to stay afloat, try to remain on course, avoid the uncharted whirlpools and reefs that suddenly and inevitably appear. Political problems are rarely solved; sometimes they disappear or are replaced by others, most often they are managed and contained. In managing the problems of the moment, Europeans still have a great many advantages: a number of strong, productive economies, a skilled and disciplined work force, a relatively honest and efficient administrative apparatus. Above all, they have the positive momentum created by seven decades of relative stability, peace, and prosperity. Protecting this legacy is the major challenge facing European governments. To do so they will need patience, flexibility, and luck—that blend of virtú and fortuna about which Machiavelli wrote with such insight and conviction. And, like the citizens of every democracy, including our own, they will need to nourish the capacity to hope, surely the most important of the theological virtues for our public lives. Without hope, the door to the future is closed. 

James J. Sheehan, a frequent contributor, is professor emeritus of history at Stanford University.

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Published in the May 15, 2015 issue: View Contents
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