The euro crisis and 'the old monster of nationalism'

British historian Antony Beevor talks about his new book "The Second World War" and the crisis in Europe today.

We're all 'prisoners of the past,' historian Antony Beevor says. But all you find there are warnings

British historian Antony Beevor: 'The threat of economic collapse is totally divisive.' (Timothy Neesam / CBC)

Historian Antony Beevor is famous for his gripping accounts of the Second World War. But his recent book has interviewers asking him about the lessons of that conflict for modern Europe as it navigates the euro crisis and a new bout of political instability.

"It's a very dangerous temptation — to look back as though you'd find answers in the past," he said in an interview this week, while in Toronto promoting his new book The Second World War. "All you'll find, in fact, are warnings."

Ask Second World War buffs to list their favourite writers of the period and Beevor will likely top the list.

The British historian has churned out several best sellers focusing on the different theatres of the war, including the battle of Stalingrad, the fall of Berlin, and D-Day.

Now he has produced an epic narrative of the entire conflict that attempts, he says, to put the whole jigsaw together, and show the interrelationship between the different battles across the globe.

The timing for such a survey seemed right, he says. "Even when I started, we were seeing the moral crisis in Europe."

Europe is a vastly different place today than it was in the 1930s and '40s. But what are the lessons to be learned from that earlier period of upheaval?

Beevor spoke with CBC News producer Jennifer Clibbon. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

CBC news: When people ask you this question — what are the lessons for today? — how do you respond?

Beevor: All you'll find are warnings. You're never going to find any form of game plan or any form of explanation of how things are going to turn out, because history never repeats itself.

Unfortunately, politicians forget this. You only have to look at the Iraq war or 9/11 being compared to Pearl Harbour (and the disastrous effect that had).

This is why I'm saying it is a danger that the Second World War becomes a dominant reference point.

But then you look at the 1930s and today, there are worrying aspects, because you see the political centre starting to crumble, and a move towards the extremes.

It doesn't mean we're going to see the same thing, because we don't have a major fascist state or a major communist state acting as poles to which the various parties could attach themselves.

What we do see is the way that the populations of Western Europe are just as badly informed today by their politicians and by the press as they were in the 1930s.

But in the 1930s, the threat of war was a much more unifying factor, in national terms. The threat of economic collapse is totally divisive.

That is why politicians are so terrified of actually telling their populations how bad things are.

You've said that the Second World War helped diminish militant nationalism, but the euro crisis has helped to ignite it. Can you explain that?

As a result of the Second World War there was this idealistic notion that a unification of the European countries would prevent war.

That was a nice idea but actually it was completely false because it's not unification that prevents wars, it's governance, because democracies do not fight each other.

What we're seeing now is a terrifying paradox — to solve the euro crisis there has to be a tremendous centralization of power in Brussels through the European Central Bank, which means the old monster of nationalism is going to be woken up again.

The fact that [this crisis] has been seen in crass Second World War terms — remarks about the Fourth Reich, and the way that the Greek press has been portraying [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel with a Hitler moustache in an SS uniform and all this sort of stuff.

We're seeing the worst caricatures imaginable being created here.

My fear is France. It has always been a culture, since the Second World War, that as soon as there is a problem, it's out on the streets, au barricades, dumping cabbages on the Champs Elysees or blocking the autoroute with lorries. The government backs down every single time.

[President Francois] Hollande's government, I am afraid, is going to find the nastiest reality check just down the road.

In 1944- 45, French intellectuals believed that somehow ideas could overcome the reality of the capitalist system. This is the same idea today, almost sealing France in a bubble away from the realities of the outside world.

So the ghosts of the Second World War linger on?

We're all prisoners of the past. One of the reasons for this book is to bring all these aspects together.

In the West we know far too little about the horrors of the Sino-Japanese war and why China is quite as resentful of the West as it is.

Do the spheres of interest from the aftermath of the Second World War, that Cold War period, still have an impact on European politics?

You only have to look at the speech of General Dimitri Makarov of the Russian general staff, saying to Finland, you should have nothing further to do with NATO, you are part of the Russian sphere of influence, and any military exercise you carry out will be seen as directed against us.

The Russian attitude to the near abroad has always been there. It's part of the paranoia from even before Communism, the fear of encirclement.

[As well], Russia has always had that Big Power attitude.

There has been a huge resentment since that period of the mid 1990s when America paid no attention to Russia because it wasn't a player.

Putin is therefore much more desperate to exert any influence he has in the world and that explains a lot of the extraordinary Russian behaviour over Syria, from our point of view.

There's still huge interest in the Second World War, and your best-selling books are a reflection of that. Do you think young people are as interested?

The Second World War provides a fascination for a younger generation because they cannot imagine what it was like at a time of totalitarian warfare when individuals had no control whatsoever over their own fates.

Because we are living in a post-military world, people ask what would I have done? Would I have survived psychologically or physically? But also, would I have survived morally? Would I have collaborated if my country had been invaded by the enemy?

The Second World War was a period of huge moral choice. Moral choice is one of the bases of most human drama. That's one of the reasons why it still has that fascination.