Sam Roggeveen recently pointed to an article by Peter Gumble which asked whether Germany will ever escape its past. Gumble pointed to one of the first rationales for the European project: the formation of the EU as a bulwark against a German-caused conflict in Europe. He argues that this is still used as a justification for the EU, but that it won't be enough for future generations of Europeans.
This line of reasoning ultimately falls short in two important aspects. First, Germany has atoned for the worst ever state-led crime in history, the Holocaust, and continues to do so. Contrary to other countries under the banner of fascism until 1945, there is not even a trace of an official German excuse or justification for its Nazi past. Whether this also applies to the collective memory of the Germans is another question.
The eminent historian and philosopher of the Holocaust, Saul Friedländer, has in a recent publication examined the ebb and flow of the formation of the collective memory surrounding the Holocaust, both in Germany and globally. This collective memory is in part reflected by the tremendous echo generated by Holocaust (NBC TV miniseries, 1977), Shoa (directed by Claude Lanzmann, 1985) and Schindler's List (directed by Steven Spielberg and based on the book by Thomas Kennealy, 1993). Friedländer's conclusion is ultimately pessimistic. He believes that the historically correct memory ('Hitler's willing executioners') will fade when the grandchildren of the Germans seduced by Nazi ideology reach adulthood.
I am not sure whether I can follow him all the way there. My anecdotal experience points to an ongoing no-go zone of Nazism and Hitlerism respected by most Germans, young and old. The exception, in form of a right-wing fringe, continues to be relatively small, and their motives are as much conditioned by 'traditional' xenophobia as by Nazi nostalgia.
Also, prominent and formerly respected German writers such as Martin Walser, Günther Grass and Botho Strauss, connected in some form with Germany's Nazi past, have all suffered serious blows to their reputation.
Thus, it can be said that Die EU als friedensprojekt ('The EU as peace project') continues to resonate with young people in Germany and throughout Europe. More so, as the peace rationale not only covers Europe's 70 year-old past but also includes more recent sorry chapters of the continent's history, such as the violent implosion of the former Yugoslavia.
Second, the peace narrative has been supplemented by two more compelling reasons for the growing relevance of European unity. In the Asian Century, with the Indo-Pacific replacing the North-Atlantic as global fulcrum, only the EU, not individual European countries, will be entitled to take a seat at the global high table. The change from the G-8 to the G-20 is the first step in this direction and will be followed by more reductions of European over-representation in international governance bodies.
The third and often overlooked pillar of growing European unity is the EU as a cooperative platform to tackle the big challenges. Anybody who has worked or traveled within the Schengen area realises the tremendous advantages of this transnational area of free movement. The correlative to free movement within is of course the management of a common European border, highlighted by the wave of illegal immigrants stemming from the south. Nobody in their right mind would suggest that this monumental challenge could be better managed country by country. Mayhem, mistrust and tit-for-tat policies by individual countries would ensue if UKIP and other Le Pens were put in charge and able to apply their misguided isolationist credo. Notwithstanding the recent ballyhoo about one seat in the UK House of Commons (of how many hundreds again?), this is definitely not about to happen.
European unity is here to stay. It will grow in fits and starts, as is to be expected for such an ambitious undertaking. But it will grow, partly because of the uniquely dark European past in the first half of the 20th century (for its Western part) and through to 1990s (for its Eastern part). But more and more, it will grow because it is the only imaginable way for the continent to stay relevant and prosperous in the world at the dawn of the 21st century.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Malik_Braun.