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Monday, June 28, 2004

90 years ago today Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo. As most of you will know this triggered the spiral of events that lead to the carnage of the Great War. Looking back on such dates I am always inclined not so much to mourn what happened, but rather to wonder, what went wrong. I don't mean this is a straightforward way in saying that technical mistakes were made, there was an accidental circumstance not foreseen or anything like that. I wonder what went wrong in terms of the thinking about the crisis the political leaders were faced with. Was their way of looking at the world and its problems at fault? Were they too optimistic about their enemies' motives or too pessimistic about their allies' motives?
David Gelernter touched on this theme a while ago, by explaining how Europe's inclination towards appeasement is a result of the horror of 1914-1918 and how this accounted for Europe's attitudes towards invading Iraq. I can't quite agree with a lot of what he writes, but there is one point that I draw attention to specifically: Britain. Gelernter far too often confuses the British experience and reception of WW2 with that of the Continent. I certainly agree with him that the European spirit has incorporated WW1, but in the longer run WW2 doesn't matter much. The lesson of WW1 was "never again war"; the lesson of WW2 was "never again Auschwitz". Superficially many people fail to grasp that these two lessons often rule each other out.
I would slightly alter that second lesson for the victors, Britain, America and our close allies - "never again Munich". That is however the lesson that only victors could really feel belonged into a proper worldview. This matters greatly for Britain and our place in the world. Is this our lesson, after all? For most of the post-45 era Britain's attitude was clearly shaped by anti-appeasement, even to the extent of making the mistake of the Suez campaign in 1956. But the ruckus over Iraq had opened up, or at least opened up to view, a chasm in the British world view: how strong is our belief that there should be no second Munich? If we regress entirely to the WW1 lesson, who are we? Won't we just be a part of the big European family of burnt children, too scarred by war to accept that an early war against tyranny is less horrific than a later larger one, and also to fully grasp that there can be things that are worse than war? These are questions that matter deeply to our nation's soul and to our future place in Europe and the wider world.
I'm sorry I am finishing this posting on such an unclear and ambiguous note, but there isn't a way in which an answer can be given in a short blog posting, and certainly not after a long hard days worth of studying military sociology journals.


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