The centennial of the Great War is the clearest argument for why the European Union matters
In May 1917 – 100 years ago this month – the first U.S. troops arrived in Europe to support the Allied forces in the Great War. Decisive to victory, their entry also sealed the fate of Austria-Hungary. American divisions tipped the balance on the battlefield, and at Versailles in 1919, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s “14 Points” and commitment to “self-determination” guided peace negotiations. With France’s Georges Clemenceau bent on dismantling power structures in Central Europe, any Habsburg plans for a federation of constitutional monarchies got nowhere. From an empire of 52.8 million, little Austria, at 6 million, became “whatever was left” after the successor states had been stripped away.
Just 20 years later, as German tanks rolled into Poland, war engulfed Europe once again – re-enflaming injuries to national pride left to smolder after the Paris Accords. When it ended, the cities and economies of Europe were devastated and over 60 million had died, three times the number in World War I.
It was all an incredible waste. And certainly not inevitable. Winston Churchill, for one, was horrified by the decision to dismantle the Habsburg Empire, the “cardinal tragedy” of the 1919 Paris Accords – so many little countries isolated by language and inexperienced at self-government, amid wrenching dislocation. While the banks were in Vienna, the industrial center was in Czechoslovakia, the coal mines in Poland and Ukraine, the breadbasket in Hungary. The Imperial Customs Union became a patchwork of border and tariff regimes, leaving crushing shortages and unemployment.
The Habsburg Empire, Churchill believed, had solved several existential problems of Central European societies – anticipating core strengths of the European Union – without which, the next war was foreordained. First, in Emperor Franz-Josef’s “many-peopled land,” citizens spoke 11 native languages, yet the architecture alone revealed a shared imperial identity side-by-side with the ethnic-national one. The second advantage was economic, a “common market” very like that of the EU, supporting prosperity and peace through interdependence and mutual benefit. And third, a tradition of government by persuasion.
EU founding father Jean Monnet understood this: “There will be no peace in Europe if the States rebuild themselves on the basis of national sovereignty,” he wrote in 1943. Too weak to survive, they must form “a European entity that would make them into a common economic unit.”
The Great War is still a vivid presence in Austria, its effects deeply felt. Every country village has a monument engraved with lists of names of the fallen, an entire generation lost to the war. Another was to follow.
It was out of these horrors that the European Union was born – two engulfing tragedies only a generation apart. And it is in this history of these two wars that we remember why the EU matters.