Thursday, November 11, 2004

Lest we forget

This year is the ninetieth anniversary of the start of World War I and today, Remembrance Day, marks precisely 86 years since it ended. But today is also the twentieth anniversary of another event.

On 11 November 1984, two portly middle-aged men stood holding hands in front of the largest pile of human bones in Europe. One was the President of France, Fran├žois Mitterrand; the other the Chancellor of Germany, Helmut Kohl.

The reason why the two most powerful political leaders in western Europe were staging an act of reconciliation before tens of thousands of graves was that the site of this ceremony was the ossuary at Douaumont, just outside Verdun in eastern France.

And if there was one historical event which more than any other inspired what was eventually to become the European Union, it was the battle which had raged around Verdun in the First World War.

For the British the defining battle of that war was the Somme in the summer of 1916. For France and Germany it was the colossal battle of attrition launched in February the same year, when the French commander, General Philippe Petain, pronounced that the fortresses on the hills overlooking Verdun on the River Meuse were where the advance of German armies into his country would be brought to a halt. His legendary words "Ils ne passeront pas" were endorsed the same day by France's prime minister, Aristide Briand.

For nearly a year, the French and German armies battered each other to destruction in the most intense and prolonged concentration of violence the world had ever seen. French artillery alone fired more than twelve million shells, the German guns considerably more. The number of dead and wounded on both sides exceeded 700,000.

The impact of this battle on France was profound. Because of the way in which her citizen soldiers were rotated through the front line, scarcely a town or village in France was untouched by the slaughter.

Among the two and a half million Frenchmen who fought in the battle were France's future President, Charles de Gaulle, and Louis Delors, whose son Jacques would one day be President of the European Commission. Present for several months fighting for the other side was the father of Germany's future Chancellor, Helmut Kohl.

So deep was the wound Verdun inflicted on the psyche of France that the following year her army was brought to mutiny. Its morale would never fully recover. And from this blow were to emerge two abiding lessons.

The first was a conviction that such a suicidal clash of national armies must never be repeated. The second was much more specific and immediate. It came from the realisation that the war had been shaped more than anything else by industrial power.

As the battle for Verdun had developed into a remorseless artillery duel, trainloads of German shells were arriving at the front still warm from the factories of the Ruhr. The battle, and the war itself, became less a trial of men and human resolve than of two rival industrial systems. And the French system had been found sorely wanting.

Particularly inferior had been the heavy guns, many dating back to the 1870s, able to fire shells at only a seventh of the rate of their German counterparts. More and better guns became vital.

But, as France's politicians found to their consternation, manufacturing them and the huge quantities of ammunition needed was beyond the capacity of an industry which compared equally poorly with Germany's. This had since August 1914, under the inspiration of Walter Rathenau, been put on a fully integrated war footing, under the control of a War Raw Materials Department.

In the summer of 1916, therefore, a crisis-stricken French government gave an industrialist, Louis Loucheur, near-dictatorial powers to reform and develop the manufacturing base. Before the war, Loucheur had been one of the early pioneers in the use of reinforced concrete. In a national economy dominated by artisan manufacture, he was one of the few French technocrats familiar with the techniques of mass production.

With all the power of the state behind him, Loucheur succeeded in his initial task, even building new factories to make the new guns. But improvements in production precipitated critical shortages of steel and coal, exacerbated by the German seizure in the first weeks of the war of around half France's industrial base in the north-east of the country.

Remedying these shortages required massive imports from Britain, and then from the United States. In turn, this placed considerable demands on shipping. All this required unprecedented economic co-operation between the Western Allies, leading Loucheur to conclude, like Rathenau before him, how far success in modern warfare demanded industrial organisation.

Thus, Loucheur came to reflect, industrial organisation was the key to waging war. From this he developed the idea that, if key industries from different countries, above all their coal and steel industries on which modern warfare so much depended, were removed from the control of individual nations and vested in a "higher authority", this might be the means of preserving peace.

From this beguilingly single concept came the spur that led Jean Monnet, 34 years after the battle of Verdun, to suggest to Schuman the idea of a European Coal and Steel Community, which in turn was to lead to the European Economic Community and thence the European Union.

In that sense, the intellectual father of the European Union was not Monnet, much less Schuman, nor even Spinelli – all of whom are honoured in the hagiographies of the European Union. The greater claim to being the "father of Europe" rests with that almost totally unknown Frenchman, Louis Loucheur, whose work undoubtedly provided the inspiration for Monnet.

The great tragedy though is that the idea picked up by Monnet in the 1920s (and translated into institutional format by the English civil servant Arthur Salter) was out of date by the time it came to be implemented in 1950.

An idea born out of the carnage of the First World War, intended to prevent future wars, was a model in fact designed to prevent the Second World War. In 1945, however, when peace was finally imposed, the geopolitical situation had changed beyond all measure. That 1920s model was totally out of date and no longer appropriate.

Nevertheless, it was still pursued by a group of old men (all of whom would have qualified for bus passes, had they existed then), reliving their youthful dreams and unable to understand how much the world had changed. This is something also we should not forget. The "failed" model is called the European Union.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.