The age-old adage of “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it” appears to be playing itself out yet again in Europe. From the return of “the German question,” to civil unrest in the former USSR, or the resurgence of political scapegoating and economic disarray, current conditions are raising concern from the global community. On April 2 the Government Department hosted a roundtable panel of four Hamilton faculty members to address key elements of the continent’s contemporary crisis.
Each panelist addressed a specific topic for 12 minutes, before opening the floor for a question and answer period. Associate Professor of Government Sharon Rivera addressed Russia and the war with the Ukraine; Associate Professor of Africana Studies Heather Merrill spoke about xenophobia and the rise of the Right in European nations; Professor of French John O’Neal offered a personal reflection before commenting on the French response to the January terrorist attacks; and Alan Cafruny, the Henry Platt Bristol Professor of International Affairs, concluded with an assessment of “German Power” and European crisis.
Cafruny also introduced the panel and began with an examination of the term ‘crisis:’ “Crisis is a difficult, maybe overused concept, but we all intuitively sense that Europe is in fact involved in profound destabilization, a multidimensional set of problems, contributing to a deepening social and economic disorder and creating the potential for serious violence.” Cafruny also explained that although this crisis may be happening within the borders of Europe, it is truly a global crisis considering that the European Union (EU) is the world’s largest single economic entity.
Rivera focused on “one of the most dangerous conflicts since the dissolution of the Soviet Union,” -- that between Ukraine and Russia. “The first thing to understand about Ukraine,” she began, “is that it’s not a ‘nation.’” That is, it is not “a community of people, whose members are bound together by a sense of solidarity, a common culture, and a national consciousness, using Hugh Seton-Watson’s definition.” In fact, Ukraine has three regions with distinct political and cultural orientations. Of note, since the collapse of communism in 1991 the western region has advocated more independence and autonomy from Russia and closer integration with Europe, while the eastern regions and Crimea have favored closer relations with Russia.
The immediate trigger of Russia’s current conflict was Ukraine's decision not to sign the Association Agreement with the EU as planned. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who considers the EU “post-religious,” and thus a threat to Russia’s Orthodox traditions, would not tolerate social liberalism and Western democracy so near its borders. After Ukrainian president Yanukovych decided not to sign the association agreement, protests erupted throughout the country, leading to civil unrest, Yanukovych fleeing Ukraine, and the March 2014 annexation of Crimea by Russia.
Next, Merrill spoke about the “crisis of immigration” that has been gripping Europe for the past couple of decades; specifically immigration from Europe’s former colonies and the movement of the Roma people from Eastern to Western Europe. Merrill pointed to neoliberal policies as well as the rise of the Right as contributing factors in this ‘crisis.’ State racism is perhaps best embodied by increased policing of the EU’s external borders, and increased profiling internally, earning the title “Fortress Europe.” Discourse of this ‘crisis’ sets up immigrants as a threat to the nation, an invading horde that needs to be stopped with police force and government legislation. This systematic and profound racism is rooted in Europe’s imperialistic history, Merrill contends.
This misplaced sense of cohesion in monoethnic societies is fostering a culture in which neo-fascism is no longer taboo, “a dangerous thing,” Merrill suggests. This “anti-black and anti-arab sentiment,” coupled with “an internal assault on labor” has increased the need for a scapegoat. The Right wing, which is highly nationalistic and fervently anti-’other’ is “a beneficiary of the economic slump that frames the elite as the enemy, while supporting nativism and ethnic superiority,” Merrill noted. Anti-immigrant discourse propagated by the government ends up legitimizing citizens’ anger and predisposes them to direct or indirect violence, she added.
Then, O’Neal offered a personal story from his first time leading a Hamilton in France (HiF) trip in 1986. It was during this trip, on Sept. 17, that a bombing in Paris transformed terrorism from an abstract to concrete concept for him. O’Neal has led six HiF trips, experiencing terrorism in France during three of them, but has gained an appreciation for how the French respond to such incidents. “It’s not that [the French] aren’t shocked and appalled by these attacks, because they are, but they demonstrate strength and solidarity as well,” he stated. O’Neal found the country’s response to the Charlie Hebdo bombings “quintessentially French,” in that no matter what happens, “they won’t let others ruin their lives, diminish their freedom or restrict their happiness.”
Out of the three main values of the French Revolution, liberty, equality and fraternity, “fraternity” is the least well understood by Americans, who place an emphasis on self-reliance and personal progress. Therefore, when the “Grand March of January 11th” took place in the streets of Paris, Americans didn’t understand the significance of the nearly ubiquitous response. The Grand March was as much a protest of increasing dangers posed to democratic values as it was about the terrorist attack. O’Neal explained that the French consider themselves the heartland of democracy, and believe that the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen apply to all humans.
Drawing on his recent article, “The Logic and Tragedy of German Power,” Cafruny discussed Europe’s current conflict in the context of the past century. “Germany has, at least in modern history, always been the epicenter of violence in Europe,” he began. Its geographic location is partially to blame for this, although “since 1870 there has been an overwhelming and unbalanced German Power.” Though many thought that the “German question” had been answered for once and for all with the Treaty of Versailles in 1945, the economic crisis in Europe has caused former Allied countries to seek further reparations. This economic emerged from the divided post-WWII Germany, which became “encased in the US military and economic system,” temporarily resulting in a strong welfare state, widespread pacifism, and a hearty Franco-German alliance.
Jumping to 2002, with the implementation of the Euro and the creation of a monetary union, “[Germany] returned to center stage, now encased in a regional and global system,” by centralizing the EU banking in Frankfurt and creating the rules for this monetary union themselves. Cafruny noted that, “Germany has become an export powerhouse in the world, overwhelming the weak economies of Europe and reaching comparable rates with China.” Germany effectively destabilized the economy and politics by turning “[the EU] into a mechanism for German economic development, resulting in massive indebtedness and growing poverty, while reinforcing and deepening the problem of unemployment” which increases the appeal of nationalism and xenophobic thought.