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1918-2018. The Europe of nationalisms is exposed to new threats

The Great War ended a century ago. It caused tens of millions deaths and left left wounded, mutilated people and destruction in its wake throughout the Continent. What great lessons have we learned from history? The precious treasure of peace and democracy,  the new dangers represented by populist political leaders and misinformed citizens…

Fighting came to an end in November 1918. It was time to count the losses of the first world war in the history of humanity that saw more than one hundred Countries at war across the globe, a massive involvement of combating forces, including civilians. A mass carnage, the first total war in history left 9 700,000 dead, 21 200,000 wounded, hundreds of thousands mutilated. To these must be added the civilian casualties, deaths caused by diseases, without forgetting the first genocide: the genocide of the Armenian people in the Ottoman Empire in 1915.
The death toll was coupled by material destruction, economic crisis and immense suffering. The victorious Countries described it as a victory. Can a bloodbath of such huge proportions be ultimately defined a victory? A great French writer, a war veteran, Roland Dorgelès, speaking about the Battle of Verdun said: “300 000 dead amount to how many tears?”.
What kind of peace can be created  in these conditions? How can true peace be established? That war was the result of nationalisms that grew stronger during the 19th century. The war was the result of the affirmation of prejudice and hatred, of the fear of others. It was the result of imperialistic ambitions, of arms race, of the quest for power of every nation to the detriment of their neighbouring Country and of colonized populations.
Fear, hate, the quest for power… none of that disappeared at the end of 1918. Pope Benedict XV – that had sought, unsuccessfully,  to impose a war “without winners or losers”, during the conflict – voiced his concerns once again in 1920, calling for a peace that rests “not on a forest of bayonets.”
The Versailles Treaty of June 28 1919, and the subsequent Treaties that reshaped Europe, were imposed upon the defeated Countries without a true negotiation. For example, Art.231 of the Versailles Treaty specified: “The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.”
That declaration encompassed everything: the spirit of retribution, the staggering war reparations demanded from Germany (“Germany will pay”, was the catchphrase), the demobilization of its military forces, the loss of its colonies, the reduction of its territory. It equally stipulated the destruction of empires, of the Austrian-Hungarian empire to the benefit of small nationalist States, of the Ottoman Empire to the benefit of the British and French powers, when the Russian Empire was experiencing the tragedy of a civil war. Imposing the responsibility of war to one party alone amounted to a denial of the facts. In fact the responsibility of the war was shared by all governments. In his last speech delivered in Lion on July 25 1914 the great French politician Jean Jaurès denounced a huge system of international relations based on confrontation, which France was fully accountable for. He said: “Every people appears throughout the streets of Europe carrying its little torch; and now comes the conflagration.” With this speech he became a target of the nationalist militants. He was killed five days later. Unfortunately, the lesson of the “useless massacre”, as Benedict XV described it, failed to be acknowledged. On the contrary, suffering exacerbated the hostilities. For that reason it’s the essence to reflect on the following question: How does peace vanish? How can peace be created? In 1945, and later, in 1950, a group of statesmen managed to think differently, to seek new solutions, also as a result of in-depth reflection developed during the Resistance throughout all Countries occupied by the Nazi regime. These were men with a vision who managed to lay the foundations of a new Europe, with radically new methods, based on the restoration of normal friendly relations between ex belligerents and on delegated sovereignty prerogatives, starting with coal and steel. The Schuman Declaration of May 9 1950, launched the constitution of the first European Communities, that was to become the European Union. This political approach ensured several decades of peace throughout Europe. But the story does not end there. Once again, the reasoning of European political leaders mirrors that of 1919, triggering feelings of hate and fear. Various populist forces exploit the malaise of misinformed citizens, the weaknesses of public institutions, they endorse neo-Fascist ideologies seeking to destroy the labour of pace created by the European Union, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012.
It is indispensable to commit the period 1919-1920 to memory in order to avoid its repetition. Peace is never endlessly preserved because it’s the result of a democratic edifice, of a reflection. War is an instinct concealed in the folds of every people.

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