Fritz Groothues

The Somme, Verdun and Brexit

We are now half-way through four years of First World War commemorations. Comparing how the Great War is remembered in Britain, France and Germany throws a revealing light on the basic differences in the relationships of these countries with the European Union.


Seen in this context, Brexit is the clash between two conflicting narratives – that of France and Germany and that of the UK. They are encapsulated by two images: one, taken at Verdun in1984, shows Kohl and Mitterand holding hands, a gesture repeated by Merkel and Hollande in 2016. In the other picture members of the Royal family commemorate the centenary of the battle of the Somme at Thiepval.


The Franco-German narrative is pretty straightforward: it took two world wars in one generation to put in place, slowly and deliberately, mechanisms and institutions of cooperation that would make another war in Europe impossible.


The transformation and EU accession of three military dictatorships in Southern Europe became part of this story. For Greeks, Spaniards and Portuguese the EU was the guarantor of freedom and democracy, and even the financial crash of 2008 and its devastating consequences for these countries have not radically changed a largely positive attitude towards the EU, as the positions of Syriza and Podemos show.


Another chapter opened with the fall of the Berlin wall. The countries of Central and Eastern Europe, now freed from Soviet domination, joined a Union that would help them economically and whose democratic principles they now shared.


From the beginning, the British narrative was shaped by fundamentally different factors – an island nation, not invaded by Germany and whose victories in two world wars were, understandably, a great source of pride.


British politicians and the media made sure it stayed that way, to the exclusion of any attempt to reach a common understanding of Europe’s history in the 20th century. Where France and Germany purposefully created symbols of reconciliation, Britain excluded from its war commemorations any representatives of the defeated in two world wars. This is as true for the current 1914 – 18 centenary events as it is for Remembrance Day every year.


In school curricula and mass media the British victories in 1918 and 1945 are framed as Britain’s finest hour, with little attention paid to post-war Germany and France. This did not change after 1997, when a decidedly pro-European Labour government came to power. It was a Labour minister who downgraded modern languages in secondary schools, with far-reaching consequences for a new generation’s ability to function in Europe as equals.


During the referendum debate it became painfully clear that the ‘Leave’ campaign had all the arguments that reached the heart: ‘Let’s take back control’, ‘Breaking Point’, ‘We want our country back’, ‘Believe in Britain’, these were slogans that addressed the pride, the sense of fierce independence and autonomy of the British voter.


The economic and security arguments of the Remainers never managed to appeal to the emotions in a similar way, because from the start of Britain’s EU membership politicians neglected the creation of close cultural links with other European countries. As a consequence the emergence of a common European ‘we’ became much more problematic in the UK, where other Europeans were regarded in just the same way as other foreigners, not as fellow citizens of a political union.


Brexit has accentuated this sense of isolationist nationalism – against the wishes particularly of Britain’s younger generation. The huge task of reframing the UK’s emotional relationship with Europe needs to start now.

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