Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?

While teaching a class on European Integration History, I have come to present the students with European Integration as a historical phenomenon set in a series of contexts – mostly, of course, the Cold War, but also economic, technological, social, demographic change. Some “general histories” I read while preparing the lecture series tended to present integration as a closed process, unconnected to the world, born out of great men and the inner logic of “ever increasing”, theological integration. It seemed important, on the contrary, to replace European integration into wider European developments, to overcome the isolation of European integration historians from other fields of historical research interested by the developments of Europe in the second half of the 20th century (an isolation Piers Ludlow recently deplored in a historiographical article, and that he described as mutual – Cold War historians, he writes, fail to consider the specificities of European Integration in their studies of the Cold War, while European Integration specialists fail to replace their object of study into wider developments).

One of the contexts in which I replace European integration during the lecture series is the change of mentalities in Europe regarding war, military violence, and the military activities of the state. There has been a pacification of interstate relations, a vanishing of war as a possible option in international relations between Western European states. In 1975, the old drunk impersonated by the French comedian Coluche, asking for a “good war” to make a man out of his son, had to acknowledge this was out of date: even young Germans did not want war anymore! Clearly, something had happened since 1945.

To present this “something”, I have been using Alan Milward’s The European Rescue of the Nation-State, where he describes the transformation of the early 20th century warmongering states into “nanny” states, welfare states, who needed prosperity, cooperation and openness to foster growth and satisfy their opinions. Recently, I found another book that looks very promising:  James Sheehan’s Where Have All the Soldiers Gone? The Transformation of Modern Europe. Here it is on Amazon; here on Google Books, and a review by journalist and writer George Wheatcroft. From the few pages I have read, the book seems perfect for the classroom: readable, documented, clear without being simplistic. The point is clear: for Sheehan, the Cold War provided an incubator where the Western European states became “civilian states”, that retained the capacity to make war with each others but lost the interest to do so. This counts of course only for Western European interstate conflicts: FLN militants tortured by the French army were quite ignorant of the fact that France had become a “civilian state”. But nonetheless, the game had changed where it had been the bloodiest – in the relations between Western European states. Essentially Sheehan’s point is the same than Milward’s, but he arrives to that through different ways.

If this “good spirit” in Western European relations since the war is quite clearly a result of the memory of past wars and the context of the Cold War, it has also been strongly enhanced by the creation of institutions, practices and habits organizing these relations. Battlefields have been replaced with the meeting rooms of European institutions. They might still dislike each others and have different interests, but at least Western European states don’t go to war anymore to solve these questions. Considering the record, we should take it while it lasts.

James Sheehan, Where Have All the Soldiers Gone? The Transformation of Modern Europe (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008)

Piers Ludlow, “History Aplenty; But Still Too Isolated” – in Michelle Egan, Neill Nugent, William Paterson (eds.), Research Agendas in EU Studies (Palgrave, 2010)

Alan Milward, The European Rescue of the Nation-State (Routledge, 2000)

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