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Remembering World War 1

August 8, 2014

Now I am living in Somerset not far from Hadspen, I am reminded of the family tensions and tragedy that fell on to my Hobhouse grandfather and his three brothers.

Stephen was a Quaker and conscientious objector, Arthur and my grandfather Jack fought at the front and survived, and Paul was killed. Paul died in the German offensive later in the war and his body was never recovered. Stephen’s memoir to his mother records the frantic search for his whereabouts and the vain hope that he had been captured rather than killed.

The generation that survived WW1 – and I particularly remember Harold Macmillan’s memoir – was a generation that said ‘never again’. Of course, a European war did happen again 20 years later, caused to some degree by the harsh 1919 settlement.

The French and the Germans first understood how Europe needed to change. They wanted to build a permanent peace. And the result is the EU.

In Britain, there is a hostility to the concept and practice of a connected, interlinked, collaborative and peaceful Europe. Many British people don’t want to be part of it. They want out.

It seems to me that this British approach to other European countries is very similar to the approach taken by our predecessors leading up to WW1. Themes like Balance of Power, Divide and Rule come back in a new form. It is the politics of how an imperial power retains power by dividing and weakening its rivals.

Going back in Britain to this Us and Them approach – to see Europe not as collaborative but as divisive – might have two consequences:

First, the marginalisation of Britain as the rest of Europe continues to collaborate.

Second, the success of this return to the competing nation state, the disintegration of the EU and, probably, the return to war.

To remember WW1 is to remember and learn, not to remember and repeat the mistakes one hundred years later.

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