“It’s very alien to see this in Europe,” Prince William remarked on Wednesday 9 March, of the sadistic war now eviscerating Ukraine. He was visiting London’s Ukrainian Cultural Centre, and went on to express strong solidarity and a wish to be able to do something useful.
The sentiment be may well-intended and understandable. But unfortunately, William couldn’t be further from the truth. If there was a prize for unremitting armed conflict, Europe would be on the world podium, and quite possibly at the top. The two world wars were made in Europe and, although they inspired institutions including the United Nations and the European Union, which have both helped prevent a third worldwide conflagration, they in no way eradicated war in Europe.
Indeed, since 1945 there has been military conflict in the Hungarian Revolution, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Turkish landgrab in Cyprus, the Yugoslav Wars, the Chechen Wars, the Albanian Civil War, Russia’s Georgian War and annexation of Crimea, and a host of others. All that, of course, is without counting long-running insurgencies like that in Northern Ireland, or even the wars fought by European armies in other theatres such as the Falklands or the Middle East.
Indeed, going beyond recent history, we can say war is entirely native to Europe and hardwired into its psyche. The majority of European countries were born with horrific levels of violence and they have continued this bloody tradition for centuries both at home and abroad.
The Romans forged their empire across Europe in suffering and slavery, after which the Germanic tribes pulled it apart in a similar fashion. In Britain alone, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Normans cut Britain into the map with sharpened steel. And our nation has remained firmly martial ever since, through the crusades, the Anarchy, the 100 Years War, the Wars of the Roses, the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, the endless campaigns of the Stuarts and Hanoverians, the bloodshed of the empires to the west and east, and the mechanised abattoir of the two world wars. Many European countries can recount a similar litany of conflicts that define their history.
It is true that Europe did not invent war. The earliest evidence of mass conflict comes from Sudan around 11,400 BC. But Europeans of pretty much every generation have viewed one another at the end of a sword or barrel of a gun, at home and in the great number of conflicts they provoked in Africa, Asia and elsewhere during their colonial and imperial phases.
War is in no way alien to Europe. In fact, it is quite the opposite. The countless conflicts of the 75 years since the Second World War are so normalised that we barely register them, or else soon forget they ever took place. What is shocking about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not that civilian cities are being levelled in Europe, with all the associated barbarity and horrors, but that we fail to see how fragile European peace is, and to protect it properly.