I was introduced to the history of Europe while careering through the continent on the backseat of an Italian car driven by British parents. Queues for passport control were never long, but they were profoundly unfair to a bored five year old. What was the point? In answer to this, I discovered borders were things my grandfather had fought over. Entering Germany from Belgium, I rolled down the rear window to extend my machine-gun arm into the auto-bahn and shout “Shoot the Germans! Shoot the Germans!”
On family campsites in the forests of the Dordogne I was taught that Italians were passionate, the French arrogant, Germans clever, the Swiss dull and Spaniards crazy. The British were apparently funny, fat, and superior enough to believe themselves not European. But this was adult talk. In the forest playgrounds, European kids were all the same. They fought over swings and played kiss-chase.
There were Europeans missing from the family discos of Euro-Camp resorts. Apparently, in the lands of ‘Eastern Europe’, people didn’t dance or have holidays, and the borders between East and West could not be crossed.
Communist Europe was a place which lived only in my boyish imagination, fed by spy films that lured me late night into the morally troubled shadows of foreign cities. Everything in those shadows was life or death, and death gave life a meaning it lacked for the children of baby-boomers, made comfortable as we were by peace, and fattened by the fruits of the single market.
At the age of ten, the only game in the playground was World War II, the only choice to be British, American or German. No Russians or French here. We weren’t taught about the Eastern front. When a hole opened in the Berlin Wall I was only 13 but, like Alice and her rabbit hole, more than ready to fall into it. When my school days ended, I did.
In 1994, at the age of eighteen, I joined civilian armies of student English teachers, businessmen and Eurocrats flooding the Baltics, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Those who said History had ended were wrong — they just weren’t in the right place. I lived in a classroom of a Budapest high school where the teachers worked all day and a second job at night. By their sweat, and a zeal for the new corruptions of capitalism, Hungarians aspired to break through the rust coloured smog of their Communist era pollution to emerge in the bright uplands of ‘Central’, not ‘Eastern’, Europe.
I fell in love with the bullet-ridden heart of this city on life-support, finding in its shrapnel-scarred streets a physical connection to the wars of my grandfather; a map of man’s willingness to kill man, raised in contours of shattered stucco I needed to touch.
There was real blood too. It belonged to a Roma woman beaten on the street between our school and the Elizabeth Bridge. It was blood that belonged to no nation and having no nation would never be ‘European’. Everyone knows we destroy what we secretly want but cannot have.
Gyorgy, a school-boy who invited me home to show me his dioramas of metal soldiers re-enacting the mysterious Eastern front, revealed to me a map of Europe I had never seen before, where the small countries in the East were the big countries in the middle. In that map, the axis of my world shifted. Belarus, Moldova, Georgia — new lands arose on the mantle of my imagination.
Gyorgy called himself an anti-fascist. It seemed like an easy identity to me. I didn’t live in a country where there were any fascists to be ‘anti’ about. Hadn’t they all died in the school playground?
But Gyorgy, playing with World War II soldiers and World War II ideas, was not a boy behind the times; he was a boy ahead of them.
Gyorgy was the first to explain to me who Bosnians were, and why they were sleeping outside the train station in Pest. All this time I had been looking for a war, and here it was, on the steps of Keleti Pályaudvar, in the blinded eyes of an old woman. Looking into those eyes, I finally knew that war was not something to want, but something to stop.
At twenty, I crossed the border into Croatia and followed the road south until it became a collapsed bridge, a four-lane concrete highway broken like a frail branch in the river Drina. In the town of Tuzla I lived among women who had fled a place called Srebenica, and there I learned: war, the fantasy of my own childhood, was something which stole the childhoods of those who lived it.
Should the Bosnian war remind Europe of why the borders of our childhood had gone? Or did the failure of Yugoslavia’s super-state show us why they were needed? The Historians argued again. Politics, sharpened by shrapnel, was returning to Europe.
At University I read the poets of the 1930’s. I thought I understood something when Auden told me ‘There is no such thing as the state / And no-one exists alone’. Others seemed to learn too. Europe’s hard lessons in Bosnia were applied in Kosovo with better, if not perfect, results. In Northern Ireland even the Loyalists and Republicans stopped killing each other.
Victorious, the armies of Eurocrats, businessmen and English teachers marched on, over the steppes of Ukraine, and through the gates of the Caucasus, where even Greek civilisation had once lost its way. Perhaps, like any empire over-extended, the beginning of Europe’s end lay with the pipelines of oil and gas in these mountains. When Russia invaded, Europe retreated.
At the age of 25, in a Georgian city full of rusting tractor parts and amid the hum of generators, I read Tolstoy and Lermontov by candle-light. The old masters told me Europe had been here before; Russian Europe holding a front-line against the Persians; Georgian Europe defined by a Christian culture in opposition to the Islamic world. I learned how British soldiers in World War I had once roamed the same front lines as the red-army. In a power-cut country my idea of Europe deepened like the darkness.
Come the millennium and my early thirties, history moved again, now waving the coloured flag of revolutions: Black in Serbia, Orange in Ukraine, Rose in Georgia. Chechens wandered into Tbilisi and begged on the streets while on the other side of the mountains the Russian Government mopped up the blood of its reconstruction. A decade later Russian armies would invade Ukraine and with the barrel of a tank, pose even harder questions about what we believe Europe to be.
And what nonsense we believe.
We still believe the French are arrogant, the Italians passionate, the Germans clever. We still talk of East and West Europe. We are hopelessly confused about the distinction between Europe and its ‘Union’. When a country wants to play by the rules of trade it becomes a part of ‘Europe’. When a society collapses or falls into civil war, it is no longer European. This is how we have kept wars out of Europe, by disowning them, by re-drawing the borders of what we believe Europe to be.
When, in an NHS hospital, my grandfather lay dying, he was surrounded by the world his war created; by doctors from the lands he had helped to free. I don’t know what he would have thought about borderless Europe and the free movement of labour, but he was often dumbstruck by the peace that had lasted on the continent. When I let go of my grandfather’s hand for the last time, I was, like tens of millions across the world, letting go of the generation who made the Europe we inherited.
But what is that inheritance?
In middle age I have my own children. They do not play World War II in the playground. No child does. Children today pretend to be the super-heroes of parallel worlds, free of the history of war. At home, their parents can switch-off the reality, with its news item about the Polish immigrant of Brexit-Land, stabbed in the neck.
Having failed to invest in our own hospitals and housing, having decimated manufacturing and leased the economy to the short-term interests of private capital, having presided over an era of growing inequalities, a right-wing elite have sold the lie that borderless Europe and its migrants are to blame for all our problems.
And so our children will not travel so lightly across Europe. Their parents will avoid islands crowded by refugees and beaches where bodies wash-up, and they will find it hard to answer questions about the future of a planet whose life we are draining, or exactly how nations and borders help us to manage it.
My own education has taught me Europe is no more than an idea, and as much as an idea. A state without nations. Europe is an idea as beautiful and complex as its borderless roads, its myriad cultures, and shared scientific research; it is an idea which helps us to think ourselves out of the traps of nationalism and patriotism; an idea as difficult as the bureaucracy of the Union which seeks to hold it together; as dangerous as the Mediterranean to refugees, or the Calais Jungle to an asylum seeker. It is a difficult idea, but this very difficulty is its beauty.
As the British government accepts the mandate of their own lie and panders to the fears of less than a third of our population, as it turns its back on the European Union towards ever decreasing circles of national identity and devolution, it also turns its back on the complex realities of our inter-dependence — and on complexity itself. Desperately, the Brexiteers talk of opening Britain ‘to the world’; but they see the world with mercantile eyes: trade not as a means of international co-operation, but as a means of national profit.
The attraction of extremism is simplicity — the simplicity of authoritarianism over the messy business of politics, the simplicity of a wall between the US and Mexico, a barbed wire fence on the borders of Hungary, a distinction between ‘foreign workers’ and citizens. Simplicity promises things will be easier. The ease of ‘they are not like us’, instead of the difficulty that ‘we are them’. As all children know, it is easier to fight than to talk.
In Britain, it is easy to feel wars are far away. But a plane will fly us to the borders of Ukraine or Syria in only a few hours. My own, borderless, education has taught me this: never forget you can wake in your bed at breakfast and be in the middle of a war by lunch. Never forget — because those in a war will have the same thought about travelling to a land at peace. Because those people are you.
Writing this, I tried to find Gyorgy, the Hungarian boy who was such a significant part of my European education. It wasn’t hard. Gyorgy turned out to be a prominent political activist in the socialist opposition to Viktor Orban’s fascistic government; a man now, but with the same intense eyes which once loomed over the troops of his imaginary Eastern front. I found Gyorgy on Youtube, facing the interrogation of a Hungarian journalist.
He was explaining history to people who don’t seem to want to learn its lessons. The name of the political party — ‘Together’.
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