- - Thursday, April 21, 2016


The French, as usual, have a word for it, and sometimes more than one word: “The more things change, the more they are the same.” After the cataclysmic destruction of World War II the optimists thought the patterns of political life were changed forever. Nothing of the old could remain.

With all the blood spilled in Europe and in Asia — over 60 million people killed, about 3 percent of the 2.3 billion men, women and children in the world of 1940 — surely even the dimmest among us had learned the lesson. Yet a look around the world some six decades later is not reassuring.

The unreasonable and merciless hatred of the Jews survives. Many of the 400,000 thousand or so Jews in France are looking now for a way to leave in the wake of waves of radical Muslims washing over the old and the familiar. The Holocaust destroyed much of European Jewry. Six million perished in Nazi concentration camps. But the themes continue and Europe is now afflicted with anti-Semitism without Jews, proof again how nonsensical that ancient sin against God and man.

European nationalism produced centuries of dynastic religious and political war in one of the most sophisticated regions of the world. Economic and then political union finally to put an end to all this. But the union is threatened without the usual wars. Russian aggression against Ukraine suggests that shooting war may be not far away.

For generations, the threat at the center of the European political conflict has been the overwhelming and always growing strength of Germany, lately united and a force for good. A federal Germany dedicated to democracy, having given up the goal of unification with Austria, is a worthy partner of a united Europe. But a strong Germany, this time with an emphasis on the economic, not the army, stalks the fears of many Europeans. Having exported part of its wealth to its neighbors via credit, the Germans are forced into bill-collecting, and nobody likes a bill collector. Germany’s strength and power, based on thrift and hard work, are held as marks against it.

Pearl Harbor, everyone thought, destroyed once and for all the argument against America’s participation in world politics, a dispute going back to the lessons of the Founders. The success of American arms in World War II not only saved the world from Nazi barbarism and Japanese savagery, but made the United States the arbiter and conciliator of the world’s disputes. But with the access to power of a young and inexperienced president who yearns to be transformative, the old arguments return. Donald Trump bristles at being called an isolationist, but his nostrums bear the hallmarks of updated arguments against “interventions.”

Karl Marx, quoting the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, said “all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. [Hegel] forgot to add, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Some of those playing out the old roles now are often regarded as buffoons. That, too, may be misreading reality. The world can only hope so.

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