“Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright,
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Alphen, Netherlands. 30 January. “I was a small man in big events”. It was late afternoon when I arrived at Hamburg Hauptbahnhof on a train from somewhere, nowhere in the early 1970s. Like many English teenagers I was ‘doing’ Inter-rail. And, after nearly three weeks travelling, eating, and often sleeping on trains, I was by then the very caricature of a vintage 70s English yob. And yet, on that cold German station, I was shown kindness by an old Hamburg gentleman whom I have never forgotten. We just got talking. He had fought in World War One, the trenches of that struggle marking the front-lines of his aged face. However, it was his story of one night in July 1943 that left such an indelible impression upon me, and which in some ways drove me to where I am today.
On that clear night standing with his family on the outskirts of the great hanseatic city he had seen Hamburg burn as Operation Gomorrah was unleashed by the Allies. Transfixed in horror he watched as above him wave after wave of some 800 uncontested RAF heavy bombers had turned in unison, lined-up, and then began their bombing runs before systematically dropping cascade after cascade of death upon Hamburg, accelerating and then wheeling away in a crescendo of full-powered Merlin-engined defiance to the north and west of the city. That night was just the beginning of the Hamburg hell, part of a re-ordering of European power that also destroyed much of Europe.
Europe has been re-ordered many times throughout its long history. Such change has normally been triggered when one power has sought to dominate Europe. Today is no different. It is simply that European leaders refuse to look squarely at the causes of change, just like they refuse to look at so many dangers Europeans face, face on. Political correctness is the cancer of analysis.
What change? Europe today has a problem with all three of its major peripheral powers – Britain, Russia, and Turkey? On the face of it these are three very different countries with different leaders facing very different problems. In fact not. All three have a problem again with German power. Now, before many of you throw a PC fit and accuse me of Germanophobia let me set my record straight. The problem is not Germany, but power.
The problem with power in Europe is threefold. First, no state can hide from power, even its own. Second, power has its own narrative. In Europe ‘power’ and ‘history’ are two sides of a Roman coin, and have been ever since Gaius Julius Caesar defeated the Gallic hero Vercingetorix at the Battle of Alesia in 52 BC. Third, Europe has an automatic re-balancing mechanism that prevents the emergence of new Caesars. However, it is a mechanism which in history has often been as deadly as the power it seeks to re-balance.
The EU is itself one of those mechanisms. Since its inception in 1950 the European Union has basically been about Germany. Monnet’s 1943 ‘idea’ of Europe was essentially a French attempt to both embed and embrace German power in representative pan-European institutions. For many years not only did the European institutions help achieve and maintain an essential balance within Europe, ‘Europe’ also acted as a magnet for its peripheral powers, even in time Russia. However, the Eurozone crisis, the neo-pacifist German concept of soft power, and now Brexit, allied to the re-emergence of hard power as a currency of influence in Europe, is beginning yet again the age-old re-ordering of Europe.
The paradox and tragedy of contemporary Germany is that the more it seeks to safeguard the new European liberal order it now dominates, the more the old German ‘order’ somehow re-appears. Berlin now faces a dilemma that is quite possibly impossible for it to resolve. For the European Project to survive the ‘thousand natural shocks’ that Europe is naturally heir to Berlin has tried to impose order and discipline through the European institutions. Visit any major EU institution and you will more likely than not find Germans in key positions of power. However, as Brussels has failed the EU has become to look less like a Union and more like an Empire, and thus the flame that has always re-ordered Europe has re-ignited.
What to do? The re-ordering of Europe cannot be stopped, but it can be shaped. Much will depend on the future relationship between Europe’s now and future strongest powers, Britain and Germany. Prime Minister May’s trip last week to Washington was about far more than Britain’s vital ‘special relationship’ with the Americans. It was also about strengthening her negotiating hand with Germany prior to the March triggering of Article 50 and Britain’s Underground line to Brexit. However, May must be careful. Like it or not, she is by extension aligning Britain with illiberal Europe in the form of presidents Erdogan and Putin. That is a place Britain most certainly does not belong.
Can Britain and Germany do a deal? It is unlikely soon. Last week Axel Schäfer, one of Berlin’s Brexit negotiators, gave an interview to BBC Radio Four that was both train wreck and car crash combined. He lectured the British that Brexit was a “great illusion” and that a trade deal with Trump’s US was “delusional”. This was bombastic Germany at its very worst, not the considered German power I have come over the years to like and respect. You see, as a Briton, I do not fear the power of contemporary, liberal Germany. However, because I do not fear German power I will contest it. Above all, I will never accept being told by a German leader that ‘resistance is futile’. As I wrote in an email to Herr Schäfer too often in the past Germany has made the mistake of underestimating Britain, and paid a heavy price.
My point is not to suggest that Europeans are about to go to war with each other, but rather that small leaders like Herr Schäfer are part of big events that they do not understand, and through ignorance make worse. That is certainly the impression I have of many of today’s European leaders as they fail to grasp the enormity of the change again taking place in Europe. One of the blessings of my Oxford education is that it gave me the intellectual courage to see deep into big pictures, to understand the change behind events, not just the events themselves. Brexit, Putin, the Trump administration, Turkey, the Eurozone crisis, terrorism, the immigration crisis, and the teetering Middle East are all part of another re-ordering of power in and around Europe.
For the sake of Europe, and for the sake of that nice, old, proud German who offered his help and friendship in Hamburg’s cold, grey station all those years ago, both Britain and Germany must not under-estimate what is again happening to Europe, and most certainly must not under-estimate each other. We are friends, not enemies.
And I never did get to know my German friend’s name, even as he went gentle into the good night.