Memorial Day started as a commemoration of the hundreds of thousands killed in our Civil War. It was a war that started because the nation could not tolerate being half free and half slave-owning any longer. What won the day was one nation, once assembled, which could never pull apart. Perpetual Union is now sanctified in blood and taken as a given.
While we pause to remember the sacrifices of those who came before us, Europe is deep into their own process for understanding what Union means to them. It has been in the works for perhaps 200 years, or 2,000 if you want to start with Rome. The bloodshed has been grave and terrible.
Does it really come down to stark choices like this for Europe?
Some time ago I was in the little town of Burghausen, Germany. This is a place where people are more likely to call themselves “Bavarian” or “European” than German. Tucked just under the Alps that hover over them to the south, this is the land where the Rhine and Danube rivers come breathtakingly close together. The ancient highways brought people and goods from the North and the East equally. It is, in many ways, the heart of Europe.
This little town has a curious tradition every year, known as “French Week”. People from their sister city in Fumel, France come to visit and the town is festooned with red, white, and blue flags. The menus in the restaurants are even replaced with ones in French. They do it up in a big way, going as completely French as they can. I asked Herr Miterer, the owner of the Hotel Post, how people really felt about European Union and the single currency – was this really going to work?
“It has to,” he replied. “We’ve seen the alternative.”
Across the barriers of language and a lot of very bad history, people have little choice but to talk about Union and really do it up as a big show. In the USofA, we’ve more or less assumed it for nearly 150 years – it’s simply a matter of faith at this point, no matter how much people gripe and complain.
But there is always some complaining. More and more Union around the world means that definitions of people and nations are bound to become bigger and necessarily out of touch with the people that make up the nation. Perhaps new technologies might make democracy much more workable in these big structures, but that process is also still muddling its way through.
Union will come to places where it simply has to, given how terrible the alternatives are. We learned that lesson, and so did Europe. Their job has been a bit harder. The single currency floated without a true Federal Union of Europe was always more of a stepping-stone. We may have tried to forget that was the plan all along, but Helmut Kohl, the man who presided over the reunification of Germany, knew exactly what was going on. The lines were falling everywhere and people were free to trade, travel, and simply be together.
Today, markets around the world are being wracked by the turmoil in Europe. Will the Euro fall apart? Nearly everyone, even here in the US, has heard the story by now and has some kind of opinion on what this thing called “Europe” really is. What will happen to it, though?
The answer is that they are in that awkward stage in their relationship where they either move forward or fall apart. That’s what the talk of Eurobonds is all about, a hesitant step without a lot of solid commitment. This will soon shuffle into more and more talk about a real United States of Europe.
We learned our lesson long ago, even if we’re always working on the kinks as the advantages of Union play out against the advantages of local people working together, eye to eye. Europe learned its lesson, too, even if it’s been terribly slow to push it together.
If we think this through, we know where the story has to go. We especially know here in the USofA because of what we honor on this Memorial Day.