Farewell to Arms

Where Have All the Soldiers Gone? The Transformation of Modern Europe by James J. Sheehan (Houghton Mifflin, 284 pages, $26.00)

Try driving from Paris to Berlin and you will understand that in Europe today the only frightening extremes are the speeds at which motorists drive on the Autobahn. It is a remarkable change for a continent that not so long ago was consumed by the passions of war and wracked by cruelty and suffering. In place of that strife are the mundane and less terrifying tasks of securing the well-being of nations that are self-conscious of their varying histories and eccentricities, but whose borders resemble those of Connecticut and Massachusetts.

This transformation is the subject of James J. Sheehan's Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?, one of those rare books that rearranges the terms of discussion of 20th-century European history. A distinguished historian, recently retired from teaching at Stanford, Sheehan goes one step beyond Eric Hobsbawm's Age of Extremes -- the best and most stimulating synthesis to date -- by showing that 1945, rather than 1968 or 1989, was the real point of no return throughout the continent. Before 1945, states were sovereign entities that waged war. After that date and over time, states voluntarily parted with some of their sovereignty in joining a new Europe whose business was welfare, not warfare.

Sheehan's focus is this passage of Europe from "garrison" to "civilian" states, the achievement that may now allow Europe to put its history in its past. The change came about through two massive political transformations after 1945. The first was the peaceful transition from right-wing dictatorships to democracies first in Germany and Italy, and then in Spain, Portugal, and Greece, whose political stability is due in large part to their participation in the European Union. The second was the relatively peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire in Eastern Europe. Sheehan rightly emphasizes contingency in these two processes. Without farsighted leaders like King Juan-Carlos in Madrid or Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow, these changes might have been blocked or accompanied by significant bloodshed. But they were not, probably because men and women all over Europe had had a surfeit of violence and knew from their own and their families' experiences what that violence had meant. "Never again" was a phrase less associated with the Holocaust after 1945 than with total war against civilians and soldiers alike.

Here is the source of what Sheehan acknowledges to be a fundamental divide between European and American visions of the state. Europeans do not want a superstate that submerges the peculiarities of their cheese and sausages; even less do they want a Europe that is armed to the teeth. Americans are more divided on both points -- the bland homogenization of tastes and products, and the need to pay or to force our grandchildren to pay for today's perpetual war, the war on terrorism.

A civilian state, Sheehan shows, is one incapable of fighting a war without end. Let someone else fight that fight, most Europeans say. And when isolated European leaders join the fight led by the White House, the domestic political price they pay is very high. It is at least arguable that all the domestic achievements of Tony Blair over 10 years as British prime minister were thrown away when he stood shoulder to shoulder with George W. Bush. Not only did he undermine the massive majority his Labour Party had forged after the dark years of Thatcherism, but his willingness to believe the lies the American regime told about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003 undermined to the vanishing point his credibility with the electorate. So did the foolish stance taken a year later by Spanish Prime Minister José Maria Aznar that the bombing of a commuter train near Madrid was the work of Basque terrorists (Islamists proved to be responsible). Aznar made this statement on the eve of elections, and thereby through his transparent lies, ensured his own defeat. In rejecting Blair and Aznar, the people of Britain and Spain were making clear their opposition to an American-style presidential executive, someone all too ready to send in the marines and to lie about the reasons.

Leaders of civilian states lie, too. Witness the case of French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, the poet of morality who went to the U.N. Security Council to condemn America. Not long thereafter he was involved in blackening the name of his chief rival for the French presidency, Nicolas Sarkozy, by apparently getting one of his own aides to tap into banking records and to invent and record a nonexisting account for his rival's supposed kickbacks from securing defense contracts. It was de Villepin and not Sarkozy who got caught and is paying the price. There is no point in claiming any greater moral vision among Europe's leaders than among America's.

Instead, Sheehan points to the role played by millions of ordinary Europeans who voted with their feet and their pocketbooks against the garrison state. In 2003, there were massive demonstrations against the war in Iraq, a moment captured brilliantly by Ian McEwan in his novel Saturday (2005). Tony Blair ignored the protests, only to be forced into a somewhat manic retirement, pretending to know how to bring peace to the Middle East. His failure was inevitable because he tried to use the resources of a civilian state -- and Britain is emphatically such a state, especially now that the conflict in Northern Ireland appears to be defused -- not for civilian purposes but on behalf of his American partner in regime change in the Middle East. This decision effectively destroyed not only his political career and legacy but probably his party's chances of remaining in power. Siding with the Americans over Iraq also had economic consequences. With British state schools still massively overcrowded and public transport both undercapitalized and too expensive, should we be surprised that British voters find the Iraq adventure both irrelevant to their concerns and slightly insane?

Sheehan rightly emphasizes the transformation of living standards in Western Europe since 1945 in the process of Europeanization and "civilianization." Europeans can afford the social state. There are still gross inequalities in all the countries of the European Union, but there is also a safety net for everyone who at one time or another falls off the tightrope of the labor market or gets sick. Garrison states are costly because they never stop devising new weapons for their defense. And these weapons systems are now astronomically expensive.

While Sheehan's story is persuasive, he misses one aspect of the transition from the garrison state to the civilian state: the creation of a European human-rights regime. Nearly ten years before the Treaty of Rome got the European Economic Union under way, the Council of Europe, a body of independent states, ceded some of its sovereignty by framing a European Convention on Human Rights. To enforce that convention, a European Court of Human Rights opened its doors in 1950; its decisions must now be written into the laws of member states.

This commitment matters. The obstacle to Turkey's admission to Europe is not just its military. Two other hurdles are its dreadful human rights record and its refusal even to countenance the word "genocide" to describe the extermination of approximately 1 million Armenians. In a way, the Turks are still fighting World War I and trying to defend the honor of the Kemalist revolution that gave birth to modern Turkey by denying a crime that everybody with eyes to see accepts as historical truth.

It is a pity that Sheehan left the rise of human-rights commitments out of his story, because if he had included them, he would have seen that the post-1945 human-rights movement was a product of many people who learned to hate the garrison state by fighting in its defense. Ex-soldiers were responsible for the transition at the heart of Sheehan's book. The man who presented the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the United Nations in Paris 60 years ago, René Cassin, was a severely wounded veteran of World War I and un grand Résistant of World War II. In his last years, he asked that the text of a BBC address he delivered in September 1940 be placed in his coffin in remembrance of the men with whom he had fought and suffered during the Battle of the Marne in 1914. Soldiers of peace, he called them, and he was right. The veterans' movement he helped create was one of the strongest voices for pacifism between the two world wars, and he took that position directly into the planning of the postwar world in 1941-1945. For Cassin and millions of others, states that violate human rights are a threat to peace. The European human-rights movement was pre-1945 pacifism projected onto the stage of European law after 1945. This was one of the sources of the judicial reconstruction of Europe.

The role of human-rights law in the making of the new Europe is significant in another way. At the heart of the Helsinki accords of 1975 was the Soviet Union's acceptance of human-rights monitors in exchange for recognition of its western borders. Dissident groups such as Charter 77 and Solidarity drew strength from that human-rights commitment. The fall of the Soviet Union was overdetermined, but surely one element in the story was the growing belief that states cannot deny their citizens human rights in the way the Soviet leadership regularly did. After the disastrous nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1986, hundreds of apparatchiks got their families out and then calmed down the populations in Ukraine by saying that nothing dangerous had occurred. Garrison states do that; civilian states cannot.

Recently Walloons and Flamands in Belgium concluded a standoff that left Belgium without a government for months. And yet the absence of a ruling party, indeed the absence of a functioning state or executive power, seemed to make no difference at all to the Belgian people or to anyone. Those who control garrison states matter to the population; those who control civilian states are less important because they can do less damage. Millions of people in Europe today would be happiest if (as in Italy, for instance) they had nothing to do with the state and the state had nothing to do with them.

No, the state is not withering away. It is still robust, but older ideas of sovereignty have gone. The state is no longer "a master in his own castle," as Goebbels liked to say. What is different today, and what is clarified by Sheehan's lucid analysis, is the sense that Europeans no longer have to fear their own states. Their states may be massively incompetent and occasionally corrupt, but they don't murder their own citizens, they don't exterminate, they don't recognize the power to go to war as the bottom line of any definition of what a state is.

We are in James Sheehan's debt for telling us in a powerful narrative how this extraordinary change in the nature of the European state came about. His book is one of those rare publications that makes its readers feel not only better informed but also a bit more intelligent, a bit more humane. The term "humane scholarship" can be a cliché; here it is a description of the best that a historian can offer.