The 21st of February this year marked the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Verdun, the longest battle in human history. This struggle between France and Germany is infamous for being the “epitome of the pointlessness and savagery of World War One.” Lasting roughly ten months, the battle led to nearly 1 million causalities and added to the disillusionment of an entire generation following the war. The current state of Europe – stabilized by the European Union – looks very different than it did in 1916. The Battle of Verdun may seem like a mere memory in history textbooks, but it serves as a reminder not only of how far we have come, but also of the enduring importance of the EU.
At the break of dawn on February 21, 1916, nearly 1,400 German cannons opened fire on Verdun – a relatively quiet town surrounded by Napoleonic-era forts. By mid-afternoon, one million shells had fallen on a six-mile radius. This bombardment was so loud that the rumbles were reportedly felt 99 miles away. This was a part of a plan by Erich von Falkenhayn, Germany’s Chief of the General Staff, to “bleed France white” and massacre any additional French soldiers sent to protect the historic city. A French soldier recalled, “men were squashed. Cut in two or divided from top to bottom. Blown into showers; bellies turned inside out; skulls forced into the chest as if by a blow from a club.” One hundred years later, thousands of French and German children traveled to Verdun to watch volunteers in military costume perform memorial services. The same day, Verdun’s Memorial Museum reopened its doors to the public after an extensive renovation that sought to “balance the French and German points of view.” One hundred years is not a long period of time for Europeans who drive past Roman ruins on their way to work.
“Even when the world seems more conflict-ridden than before at times, this is generally an illusion, as the proliferation of technology and the spread of information have made world news easily accessible.”
By February 23, 1916, just two days into the battle, 3,000 French POWs had been captured. French Lieutenant Colonel Émile Driant and all company commanders, were killed, leaving the French defense forces disorganized and vulnerable. February 23, 2016, on the other hand, was rather docile. French and German Foreign Ministers traveled to Kiev, Ukraine to advise government officials about conflicts with Pro-Russian separatists. On the same day, French and German commissioners on the European Commission attended a thematic conference on reducing salt intake on the continent.
Essentially, we take for granted the fact that we live in a rather static and docile world; major world leaders espouse doctrines of peace and diplomacy, imperialism is something we read about in textbooks, borders and territories don’t often switch hands, and global threats come and go in regular intervals with only small ripple effects on the international community. Even when the world seems more conflict-ridden than before at times, this is generally an illusion, as the proliferation of technology and the spread of information have made world news easily accessible. This isn’t to say that major conflicts are non-existent, but that a legitimate threat of total global war in the same vein as those of the twentieth century is unlikely. If war comes to a head, it will be between two opposing ideological schools rather than the whims of a wealthy minority with a disproportionate amount of power as was seen in 1914.
The overall lack of major conflict can in part be attributed to the EU, which has strived to avoid internal conflict and serve as a leader on the international scale. Following two World Wars, a “coal and steel community” was created in order to foster economic interdependence between multiple European states, notably France, West Germany, and Italy. Proponents of this community argued that states that depended on each other for economic resources were more likely to cooperate. This economic tie became the precursor for the modern day European Union, which strives to create a cohesive European identity and promote Western ideals.
Put plainly, conflict between member states is risky and expensive, so it is best for states to settle issues through diplomatic means. Historically trapped in the most volatile European relationship, the French and Germans have been marred by numerous wars and general enmity since the early 16th century. Now, French and German officials spend their time negotiating energy policy transparency and tax loopholes. French and German politicians now call themselves a “brotherhood” rather than enemies in a war. This shifting relationship represents most of the modern EU, whose member states have realized that cooperation is the only way to succeed in the modern world. When there is internal conflict in the EU, it normally revolves around tedious details like the monetary policy of the European Central Bank or the recommended sodium intake of EU citizens.
The EU as a supranational government is an institution that has never been attempted before in history. However, this accolade does not make it infallible. While the organization has facilitated amicable relations between member states and a general political platform, it has struggled in its efforts to alleviate international crises. The EU’s Foreign Policy has to balance the opinions and interests of twenty-eight individual member states. Creating concise policies and coordinating international actions has been a struggle for the organization. The EU’s involvement in the Bosnian War is an often-cited example of this, in which member states were so divided over the issue that the EU did practically nothing. When the EU does create an institution-wide stance on an international issue, trouble still follows. Its declared support of creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel continues to add tension to an already unpredictable situation.
“The memory of the brutality of the Battle of Verdun reminds us how far the world has come, but also shows us how far we can go.”
Up until the middle of the 20th century, European states had a “one against all” mentality where every other state was seen as a threat. Treaties were signed and alliances were formed, but those agreements were only as strong as the leaders’ word. It was these shaky alliances created by monarchs and imperialists that led to one of the deadliest conflicts in human history. In contrast, for better or for worse, the political, economic, and social alliance of the EU today is strong and held accountable by the millions of civilians who are affected by its policies. We oftentimes fail to acknowledge the monumental progress that has transpired in a mere century; from a world of imperialists on horseback fighting for the protection of their estates and servants to the modern world we see now. Battles are still fought and lives are still lost, but the scale of these things is minute in comparison to what they used to be. Fifteen years in Iraq and Afghanistan killed nearly 6,500 Americans, which is equivalent to three days worth of French losses at Verdun. However, it can be argued that those Americans died fighting for something. The same cannot necessarily be said for the French and German troops, who were wasted as pawns in a larger game. The attack on Verdun was more symbolic than strategic and from the beginning was designed to divert French troops away from key positions on the Western front. Verdun was created to be a bloodbath, and while the blood has been washed away, its stain still remains. While the transnational union deserves criticism in some ways, it still holds true that the EU, powered by French and German remorse, has helped facilitate a more peaceful and diplomatic approach to European conflicts. The memory of the brutality of the Battle of Verdun reminds us how far the world has come, but also shows us how far we can go.