When Churchill made that speech 70 years ago today it was seen as something a little short of an old aristocratic warlord’s call to arms to stop the advance of communism.
Even if the speech formalised the Cold War, some contemporary historians now argue that it was made more in sadness than in anger. They argue that Churchill, who had just been stood down by a war-weary British electorate, thought the terror and hardships of the preceding years — nearly 50m dead — were hardly worth it if it meant no more than one totalitarian regime replacing another.
Seventy years later it is remarkable how very little, but how very much, has changed. Most of those ancient capitals are now the first cities of democracies, some more secure than others. The advance of communism — Reds Under the Bed! — is no longer a concern, but a bellicose, near-bankrupt Russia is an issue bordering on a threat, especially under the leadership of the inscrutable and volatile Vladimir Putin.
The people of Ukraine and Crimea are only too familiar with Russian, particularly Putin’s, assertiveness and what it means to try to live something like a normal life in the buffer zone between the Europe of Nato and the EU and the hinterlands of the old Soviet empire. Russia’s policy of promoting instability in Ukraine to the point that the state cannot function has turned some of that country into something like a lost African country in the grip of anarchy, facilitated by a deranged dictator.
This is not at all how how it should be, or was supposed to be, on the fringes of the new, liberal, and peaceful Europe rejuvenated all those years ago by America’s Marshall Plan.
Earlier this week, General Philip Breedlove, Nato’s supreme allied commander in Europe, warned the massive flow of migrants from Syria has had a destabilising effect on European countries and that this worked to Moscow’s advantage. He warned that Russia is helping Syrian president Bashar al-Assad turn the refugee crisis into a “weapon” against the West. There seems an unquestionable rationale to Breedlove’s analysis as the refugee crisis has divided the 28-member EU like no other challenge in recent decades.
Countries such as Germany, Sweden, and Denmark, that welcomed the destitute of North Africa and beyond, face huge challenges — from without and within. Countries such as Greece and Turkey, struggling to do the right thing but unable to respond as they might wish because of the huge resources needed, seem swamped. Others, like Macedonia and Hungary seem hostile, unwelcoming. We look on and hope no-one will notice us sitting quietly in the corner.
On Thursday, European Council head Donald Tusk poured fuel on an incendiary situation by urging economic migrants to stay at home. With 10,000 people stuck on the border between Greece and Macedonia, and 2,000 more arriving daily into Greece, Mr Tusk vowed that the EU would support Greece as it finds itself on the front lines of a deteriorating humanitarian situation. Yesterday, the European Commission gave EU member states until the end of the year to phase out all border checks introduced in the wake of the refugee crisis. In an effort to save the Schengen free-travel area, EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos urged member states to “pull together in the common interests to safeguard one of the union’s crowning achievements”.
As this crisis gathers what seems an unstoppable momentum, military historians and politicians of the right point out that European armies were never weaker or less able to act as a plausible deterrent. So too America. It is indeed a tragedy to have to consider such things but it would be even more tragic not to. Even at a point in time when the study of history is unfashionable — or its purpose less understood — it would be a dangerous travesty to pretend that the horrors of the last century might never be repeated. Like it or not, the only way to deter a hostile force, or to persuade it that aggression will have severe consequences, is to be in a position to make that threat real. This unattractive reality is no more than a recognition of an obvious fact — that we rarely learn from history, and the threat Churchill recognised 70 years ago exists today, albeit in a different guise and on a different scale.