Will Europe Arrest Its Strategic Fade?

Justin Vaïsse
Justin Vaïsse Former Brookings Expert, Director, Policy Planning Staff - French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs

March 30, 2012

Europeans don’t come from Venus. They are the conflicted inheritors of a long military tradition which still survives — but which nearly devastated their continent, leaving in its trail a complex relationship to war.

In 1870, as a result of the French defeat, the Germans invaded France and annexed its eastern region of Alsace-Lorraine, home of my family. But my great grandfather, André de Chevigny, was born French rather than German, because his mother would always make sure to cross the French border a few weeks before delivery so as to avoid giving birth to little Germans. André attended the Saint-Cyr military academy, class of 1897, and became a colonial officer. He took part in the fight against the Boxer rebellion in Beijing, and administered various territories in Indochina and in Madagascar.

In 1914, when World War I broke out, Germany invaded eastern France again (André had moved to the French part of Lorraine in the meantime), this time with considerable violence. In the nearby small town of Longuyon, more than 80 civilians were executed by German soldiers, including the mayor and the priest. While André’s manor was pillaged and occupied by Bavarian and then Prussian troops, who turned it into a hospital, he was on his way to Turkey, for the Dardanelles expedition (Gallipoli). While trying to seize Koum-Kale from the Turks and the Germans, he was shot and fell in the water. He was rescued at the last minute by one of his Senegalese soldiers and slowly recovered from his wounds in a military clinic in Alexandria, Egypt. He went on to fight in Verdun in 1917, where he suffered mustard gas attacks, and in the Somme in 1918, where he was severely injured again. He was lucky to be alive at the end of the war, unlike other men in his family and so many of his fellow officers — indeed, the entire Saint-Cyr class of 1914 was wiped out by the war. After the war, he spent a lot of time in the administrative process of obtaining reparations to rebuild his property.

In 1940, when World War II broke out on the Western front, Lorraine was invaded again, the family property occupied and damaged again, and André’s son Pierre de Chevigny (my grandfather) fought in the campaign of France. But his antiaircraft platoon was no match for Hitler’s stukas, and he had to retreat until the armistice. After being demobilized, he took on the management of a regional youth organization for the Vichy regime. In 1942, this organization became a front for a Resistance movement called Alliance. Alliance was affiliated with the British intelligence services, and Pierre was reporting on German aircraft movements in Lyon. He and his young wife were arrested by Klaus Barbie’s Gestapo in the summer of 1943 and brutally interrogated in Paris. While my grandmother was released to give birth to her first child (my mother), Pierre was sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp in January 1944. Even though he was not part of the underground communist organization which was running daily life in the camp with an iron fist (and tacit acquiescence from the Nazi guards), he survived the horrific experience of Buchenwald. In April 1945, the 80th Infantry Division of General Patton’s Third Army took control of the camp, and liberated him.

But his return home was tainted with sadness. His younger brother had died a few months before fighting the Germans after landing in Provence, as part of the French African army. Two of his brothers-in-law also died for France. Like his father had done 25 years earlier, he spent considerable time in the process of obtaining reparations to rebuild his property. But this time, the international situation was different. Things had gone too far between France and Germany. Even in the disputed and patriotic region of Lorraine, there was a solid European movement, in which Pierre de Chevigny took part. He embraced a political career, was elected a senator, and was part of the nato parliamentary assembly in the 1960s — where he cooperated with his American and West European, especially German, counterparts, to build a militarily strong and united West.

Family histories like this one, marked by nationalism and violence, with their tragic harvest of young men at each war, are in large supply across Europe, particularly in countries like Germany, the uk, France, and Poland. They provided the original impetus for reconciliation and the European construction after World War II. But they also led to contrasted and internally conflicted strategic cultures and sensitivities toward the use of force — although certainly not to a general debellicization of the continent.

When he wrote his famous article “Power and Weakness” in 2002, Robert Kagan captured the zeitgeist of a particular place at a particular moment: the Brussels of the European Union at the turn of the century, where he had been living for a few years. The contrast could then not be greater with a nationalist and aroused America, seething at the infamy of 9/11, inebriated by its easy takeover of Afghanistan, and conditioned by the Bush administration to see Iraq as a true danger. So while “Power and Weakness” was a fair reflection of the dominant strategic culture in eu circles at the time, and of its stark contrast with George W. Bush’s America, it is not unreasonable to think that it would have been a very different article had Kagan lived in London or Warsaw — or in Paris a few years earlier or later — rather than in Brussels.

The modelization Kagan used in the article was critical to his success. The image of Venus-Europe, and its inability to understand Mars-America, triggered a spirited transatlantic debate — a useful one. But the complexity of European strategic cultures, as well as the historical variations in public opinion on both sides of the Atlantic, rendered that very modelization unsatisfactory and, ultimately, inaccurate. With the benefit of historical perspective, I would like to revisit the recent past of transatlantic relations over issues of war and peace in light of the article, and offer a more nuanced view of the opposition between European and American strategic cultures.

Read the full article »