By Desmond Smith
IN THE harrowing opening scenes of Steven Spielberg’s Hollywood masterpiece, Saving Private Ryan, sea-sick US troops nervously approach the shores of occupied France, vomiting over the sides of their landing boats. They come under a hail of enemy fire and see their fellow men get blown to smithereens. Upon the release of this highly-acclaimed, Oscar-winning film in 1998, real-life combat veterans fled the cinemas in distress, describing the scenes as so realistic that they triggered flashbacks and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Art doesn’t always imitate real life accurately, nor does it always need to. Real life often takes on the unreal or surreal qualities of art. In 1944, despite the long suffering of the French people under Nazi occupation, and the hundreds of thousands of French fatalities during the war, an astonishing 7,000 to 11,000 Frenchmen voluntarily served in the 33rd Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS Charlemagne (1st French) on the German side.
Most of these French Nazi-sympathisers perished defending Hitler’s bunker. The few who survived or surrendered were sent to Allied prison camps or executed by the French authorities as traitors. Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis posits that the 1st French division of the SS Charlemagne had bought in to the Hitlerian concept of a Pan-Europa.
World War II was not the last setting in which Charlemagne’s name had been borrowed without licence to endorse the European Project. On 15 September 1978, French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing and German Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt met at the Holy Roman Emperor’s tomb at Aachen Cathedral to pay their respects. They then signed a bilateral agreement to create the European monetary system (EMS). The euro was born.
Aachen will again be the backdrop of another French-German marriage of convenience this week. On January 22, 2019, President Emmanuel Macron and Chancellor Angela Merkel will sign a co-operation treaty replacing the Elysee Treaty of 1963, signed on the same day by their predecessors Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer. The theatre continues. The actors and costumes may have changed but the stage design and props are the same. The story without end: a renewed commitment towards a United States of Europe.
For Macron, this is a distraction from his troubles on the home front. For Merkel, a final dramatic swansong on the European stage. But take a peek behind the smoke and mirrors, both are diminished figures in an increasingly nightmarish Lord of the Flies scenario. Merkel, a lame duck chancellor, biding time before handing the conch shell to Kramp-Karrenbauer. Macron, dubbed a “president for the rich” by his own people, forced to buy off the baying Yellow Vests with a 10 billion euro tax give-away. “Mutti”, as the German chancellor is maternally nicknamed by her people, has been remarkably mute about Macron’s blatant disregard for EU rules requiring all EU countries to keep their budget to within 3 per cent of GDP. Perhaps Matteo Salvini — Italy’s deputy prime minister, minister of the interior, and leader of the far-right Lega Nord (Northern League) party — will demand equal treatment for Italy from the European Commission?
The acid test for a united Europe is the ability to create a community willing to concede individual national sovereignty in favour of the collective European good. Economists Ashoka Mody and Joseph Stiglitz – both non-Europeans and US-based – argue that the only way the euro would work is if the German hegemony leaves it and goes back to the Deutsche Mark. The single European currency has created more income inequality across Europe than ever, Stiglitz maintains. The IMF has calculated that if the overflow of people vs. jobs in Europe continues at present rates, central Europe, Eastern Europe and SE Europe – including Cyprus – will lose around 9 per cent of their GDP by the year 2030. The outlook is bleak.
Europe is or was meant to be a bastion of freedom, law and order, equality, democracy, civil rights, human rights, multiculturalism and civilisation. Are these not the values that the Allies fought to defend and preserve in World War II? Yet only 75 years after the D-Day landings, illiberal forces are marching across the European ‘family’ of nations like SS divisions.
Europe is regressing, not progressing. From the National Rally in France (formerly Le Front National) to Lega Nord in Italy, to the Alternative for Germany (AFD), right-wing populists and nationalists across Europe, both inside and outside governments, are teaming up in prep for European Parliament elections in May 2019. Should they rise to power, Europe will go back to the drawing board of the 1930s.
A united Europe is a myth, a false construct, and a theatre. No different to the illusions and deceptions of a Hollywood film. It just depends who’s directing.
Desmond Smith, M.A., is a retired history teacher and freelance writer