If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
These closing lines of John McCrae’s poem have haunted many a student of literature. History, too: Voices from the graves in Flanders fields, where “poppies blow/Between the crosses, row by row,” seem to admonish us about the human cost of war McCrae saw 97 years ago, in the tragically misnamed “war to end all wars.”
They are more haunting still for a visitor to the cemeteries in Flanders fields, in the Ardennes, at Normandy. And these are just the American memorials, just a few of them.
“Never again” is the feeling that overcomes a visitor to these gravesites. It is also the mantra that for 55 years has led the peoples of Belgium, France, Germany and beyond to band together and extricate themselves from millennia of war. World War I did not “end all wars” in Western Europe, but economic cooperation, beginning with the free trade of coal and steel in 1957, has. So far.
As another Memorial Day approaches, though, it is with haunting memories that a visitor to those gravesites might look back across the pond, and see creeping reasons for worry.
The first glance is to Greece, whose fiscal profligacy has brought it again to the brink of default and, perhaps, an exit from the euro currency. Bailouts from more sound nations, chiefly Germany, are all that have kept these developments at bay the past 27 months.
Now, there’s anger. The Greeks feel betrayed by their government for agreeing to the bailouts, and resentful of the austerity the Germans demanded in exchange. This month they voted in large numbers against the two centrist parties, and for a collection of radicals, Communists and neo-Nazis who speak with a nationalist tone — anathema to the European Union.
The Germans also feel betrayed: It’s well-documented that Athens lied about its finances when applying to join the euro. And they are resentful of being handed the check after spending a decade getting their own finances in order.
Just as there is the threat of financial contagion spreading from Greece to more consequential economies — Italy, Spain, even France — there is the risk these nations will also point the finger at Berlin. Voters in these countries have already lashed out at their political establishments and are not unfamiliar with nationalism.
History suggests the prospect of an isolated, indignant Germany is not to be relished.
There may also be some inauspicious timing on America’s part. Seventy years of guarding against remilitarization in Europe may wind down as Washington grapples with the realities of its own profligacy and, perhaps, looks to withdraw finally from the theater. A subsequent rearmament in Europe, even if in the name of defense, would seem only natural.
For now, there is reason to believe the worst scenarios can still be avoided. It is a long march from a Greek exit from the euro to a divided, rearmed Europe. And for all the dark clouds on the horizon, many here and there still hear those voices in Flanders fields.
But do not forget that the admonition preceding the warning not to “break faith with us who die” reflects a different sentiment, one that exists yet in human nature:
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you with failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
Even in Flanders fields.
– By Kyle Wingfield