Athens 2014 is not Sarajevo 1914

The centenary of World War I will see many commentators looking to draw parallels between the political ructions of today's Europe and the calamity that led to the Great War. It should not be used as justification for failing European integration.

This year may not turn out to be a historic year for Europe but one thing is certain: it will be a year full of historical commemorations. All in one, 2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain, the 75th anniversary of the Second World War, the centenary of the First World War – and the 5th year of the euro crisis.

The 100th anniversary of the Great War of 1914 to 1918 will especially spark an unprecedented sequence of events, speeches and publications. Hundreds of new books in virtually every European language will be released this year – each trying to shed some new light on the original catastrophe of the 20th century. Heads of state and government from all nations that were involved in the War will come together for commemorative services and summits. Academic conferences will round off the collective march into one of world history’s grimmest chapters.

Where the Great War was shaped by attrition warfare, commemorating may also turn out to be a matter of attrition. By the end of this historical year, we will all be glad it will soon be 2015.

In all likelihood, we can expect many of these functions and publications not just to honour the dead and remember the past. Many will also seek to establish a direct link to the present and the future. For example, Australian historian Christopher Clark, author of The Sleepwalkers, made a direct comparison between the crisis management in the euro crisis and the period prior to World War I.

In an interview, Clark said: “The euro crisis did make me think about parallels with 1914 and about the question of whether we've actually gotten more politically intelligent as a species. Because you look at the euro crisis, and you see that all the leaders in Europe had one fear in common: They all feared a meltdown of the currency. But that fear that they had of a catastrophic outcome was not in itself enough to bring them into sort of a consensual position, to force them into collaborating with each other and finding common solutions.”

Clark’s perspective may be the sombre and slightly pessimistic one of a historian. After all, “we learn from history that we learn nothing from history”, as George Bernard Shaw put it. Today’s political leaders would nevertheless insist that important lessons had been learnt that would prevent a rerun of historical events and indeed a new war on European soil.

Expect to hear a lot of political rhetoric over the coming months explaining how the lesson learnt from previous confrontations in Europe was the push for European integration, and how monetary union was the primary way of achieving this goal. German chancellor Angela Merkel has been making similar arguments for years, declaring the survival of the euro currency a question of war and peace. It usually culminates in her mantra: “If the euro fails, then Europe will fail.”

But is the lesson of World War I really that simple? And are the events of a century ago even remotely comparable to what is happening in Europe today? By taking the emotion and the rhetoric away, a more realistic picture emerges.

It is undoubtedly true that the confrontation between Europe’s powers ended in the greatest possible disaster at the time. That, however, does not prove that binding European nations together within a system of supra-nationalism has done away with all such antagonisms. As Christopher Clark correctly observes, European politicians are still pursuing their own agendas despite being formally integrated into a construct euphemistically called European Union. It remains a fact that countries do not have friends but only interests.

Instead of drawing the conclusion that more integration was a way of turning a once bellicose Europe into a more peaceful continent, the very opposite might also be argued. Was the Great War not triggered by tensions occurring within the Habsburg Empire, a fragile construction that forced peoples together that had nothing in common but their hatred for each other? And is the construction of the euro not trying something very similar?

If Europe today looks like a more peaceful place than in 1914 when the young generations of many countries joyfully entered the War, then this has many reasons. Progresses with European integration may well be among them. More important, however, are other factors.

For a start, society was a lot younger than today. In most European countries, the median age was just above 20 years. Today it around 40 years. It has long been shown in sociological studies that the relative abundance of young males is one of the best factors explaining wars. Seen this way, Europe’s demographic ageing process may weaken its economic performance but at least it reduces its propensity for military conflict.

The differences in the forms of government are also clearly visible between then and now. Constitutional and parliamentary monarchies were the predominant forms of governance before the Great War. Today, parliamentary democracies are dominating the scene. Though there is a lively academic debate about this theory of democratic peace, it seems that on balance democracies tend to be less prone to go to war with each other.

None of this is to say that conflict, even violent conflict, is impossible in Europe today. My argument here is a much more modest one: Whatever we may hear over this historical commemorations year about supposed parallels between the past and the present, take any such claims with a few pinches of salt. The euro crisis is not the July crisis, Angela Merkel is not Wilhelm II, and Athens is not Sarajevo.

World War I was the war that should have never been fought. It was a war that was senseless, purposeless and superfluous. It sowed the seeds of further catastrophes over the following decades including the rise of communism, fascism and the Cold War.

But World War I cannot and should not be used as a justification for a European integration agenda that is visibly failing. Least of all should it be used in any discussion relating to Europe’s monetary problems. These are economic questions – and fortunately not questions of war and peace.

Dr Oliver Marc Hartwich is the Executive Director of The New Zealand Initiative.