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PUBLISHED: 18:56 EST, 12 March 2013 | UPDATED: 03:53 EST, 13 March 2013
The world is at a crossroads in history. Vast, untameable economic forces are remaking the landscape of international affairs.
In Britain, a dithering Prime Minister is buffeted by crisis after crisis. Abroad, from the heart of Europe to the fringes of Asia, economic powers are rising. And there is talk of a new German empire, bigger and more powerful than ever.
It sounds like something ripped from today’s newspapers. But this was the state of the planet in 1913, 100 years ago.
At first glance, the Britain of 1913 appears impossibly different from the Britain of today. Our imperial dominion stretched across the globe, while our bankers and manufacturers were widely regarded as the best in the world.
And in a society rigidly divided by class, the Tories were in the wilderness, Labour was merely a minority third party and the Liberals — led by Herbert Asquith — were entering their eighth successive year of government.
Beneath the surface, however, the problems that confronted our forebears back then were uncannily similar to those facing us today, particularly in the changing balance of power in Europe.
This week, the faultlines that run ever deeper across the Continent were the subject of an extraordinary speech by a long-time president of the European Council, who insisted there are indeed chilling parallels between 2013 and the eve of World War I a century ago.
Jean Claude Juncker said that resentment against Germany is running high because its imposition of austerity — in a bid to shore up the euro — has exposed long-running tensions between nations.
‘The demons haven’t been banished; they are merely sleeping,’ he warned, adding that ‘anyone who believes the eternal issue of war and peace in Europe has been permanently laid to rest could be making a monumental error’.
Perhaps a decade ago he would have been dismissed as a scaremonger. But today, the political mood is shifting across Europe more dramatically than for many years. As the legendary American investor George Soros said last year, if the German Chancellor Angela Merkel continued in her economic demands on the rest of Europe, ‘the result will be a Europe in which Germany is seen as an imperial power that will not be loved or admired by the rest, but hated and resisted, because it will be perceived as an oppressive power.’
The Left-leaning magazine the New Statesman simply labelled Merkel ‘the most dangerous German leader since Hitler’. The language may seem inflammatory, but ever more citizens in the Mediterranean countries of the eurozone in particular argue that for the third time in less than 100 years Germany is trying to take control of Europe.
Of course, the Germans would say they’re simply trying to maintain economic stability in nations which for years spent far beyond their means.
But if they continue to impose brutal economic strictures on Europe’s peoples, the consequences in terms of social alienation, international disputes and the rise of political extremism could be dramatic.
Already we have seen bloody protests against the German economic yoke in Athens, Rome and Madrid.
It is a situation tailor-made for ultra-nationalist, Right-wing parties such as Golden Dawn in Greece, which is acting with increasing violence and impunity against foreigners with every passing week.
At the heart of the crisis is the great euro project, an economic regime created in hubris — but now threatened with ruinous collapse.
In the past year, the close relationship Merkel enjoyed with the Right-wing Nicolas Sarkozy of France has been banished by the socialist Francois Hollande, who came to office on the promise of massive new state spending to reinvigorate the economy. Thus, a deep ideological divide now exists between the two nations.
The agonies of Greece, where effigies of Angela Merkel dressed as a Nazi were burned, have been well documented, but Portugal has been cruelly hit, too. After a 78 billion-euro bailout in 2011, its people have seen welfare spending cut and taxes raised. Even several public holidays have been abolished.
In Spain, meanwhile, cities have seen rioting as unemployment has soared to 25 per cent and anti-German sentiment has grown.
Last year, hundreds gathered to protest in central Madrid after the German Chancellor had left the capital, waving banners and saying ‘Merkel go home’ and ‘No to a German Europe’. One Spanish economist who took part in the protest said: ‘The German financial mafia is taking Spaniards hostage . . . Merkel belongs to a political class that serves German oligarchies.’
The same sense of outrage is driving a massive protest movement in Italy, where the Right-wing newspaper Il Giornale published a front page picture of Merkel under the headline ‘Fourth Reich’.
In the recent general election, the technocrat Prime Minister Mario Monti — who sought to impose Brussels’ austerity measures — polled just 9 per cent of the vote.
Instead, the headlines were seized by the anti-establishment party led by stand-up comedian Beppe Grillo, who could yet prove to be kingmaker in a coalition government.
Thanks to this seemingly endless political crisis, Germany is increasingly being seen not as Europe’s economic saviour but its oppressor.
Of course, back in 1913, Kaiser Wilhelm II’s German Empire had more nakedly militaristic ambitions. Frustrated that his newly unified country had missed out on colonising Africa and Asia, he had embarked on a vastly expensive arms race with Britain, symbolised by the production of vast naval dreadnoughts.
Even at the time, many people warned that war was coming. As early as 1906, the Daily Mail — then just ten years old — had serialised a bestselling book by William Le Queux, who predicted that the inevitable war with Germany might lead to a Teutonic invasion of southern England.
Far-sighted observers of the global situation could see that behind all the domestic arguments about female suffrage, the popularity of gramophones and bicycles and all the celebrity gossip about high-society hostesses, the world was entering a new and extremely dangerous phase.
On the edge of Europe, the Ottoman Empire was breaking up, destabilising the alliances that had hitherto kept the Continent at peace.
In the First Balkan War of 1912, Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece and Montenegro had defeated the Ottomans and were busily carving up the Balkans for themselves.
In June 1913, the victors fell out over the spoils, with the Bulgarians fighting the rest for the disputed territory of Macedonia. And even now, a century on, that conflict is a reminder of the potential of ethnic passions and national resentments to unleash devastating violence on the peoples of Europe.
Superficially, of course, our own situation looks very different. Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has even declared that the very existence of the euro is a guarantee the Continent will never again descend into bloodshed. Only by such means, she said, could we be sure to enjoy ‘another half century of peace in Europe’.
Yet the truth is that lashing together the economies of nations as disparate as Portugal, Greece, France, Italy and Germany has served only to inflame old enmities.
And if keeping the euro project alive means condemning the more impoverished nations to years of penury, with the Mediterranean economies in ruins, neo-Nazis marching on the streets of Athens and resentment building against Berlin and Brussels, it would take a brave man to predict that violence will never return to the cities of Europe.
So could war again haunt the cities of the Continent?
Alas, it is never easy to draw simple lessons from history. In 1913, few people in Britain realised that the bloodiest war in human history was just around the corner. Like most of us, they had known nothing but peace and prosperity, and assumed the golden age would continue for ever.
Abroad, too, few could imagine the storm that was coming. Without realising it, Europe had been dancing on the edge of a precipice.
We, too, have been living the high life, enjoying comforts our predecessors could never have imagined. And if the story of 1913 does offer a lesson, it is that, even in these financially straitened times, we should count our blessings.
We often imagine that things can only get better. But as the events of a century ago so tragically and devastatingly proved, they can, in fact, get an awful lot worse.
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