P002 Brexit: The consequences of forgetting


‘RESOLVED to substitute for historic rivalries a fusion of their essential interests; to establish, by creating an economic community, the foundation of a broad and independent community among peoples long divided by bloody conflicts; and to lay the bases of institutions capable of giving direction to their future common destiny’.

Taken from the Treaty constituting the European Coal and Steel Community.

Lofty ideals. Fast forward 70 years, and it seems we have collectively forgotten how the world looked just a human lifetime ago.

World War II had claimed at least 60 million lives. New terms such as ‘displaced person’ were invented in an attempt to describe the huge number of people that were forced to leave their homes, sometimes voluntarily, at other times through force. The Czech state alone expelled nearly 3 million ethnic Germans in the years after 1945, and Poland a further 1.3 million.


Europe was battered place. The UK was nearly bankrupt from fighting the war. It had to call on its colonial possessions, actively encouraging immigration from the Commonwealth to help rebuild the nation.

France emerged from the Second World War in ruins; the whole country needed to be rebuilt after years of war and Nazi occupation. The human cost, while not as catastrophic as that which had been witnessed in World War I, was still heavy, with over 600,000 French lives lost. The country also had to deal with those people who had collaborated with the Nazi occupiers and been complicit in the arrest and deportation of France’s Jews.

British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery described the situation in Germany after 1945 like this:

‘‘Displaced Persons’ were roaming about the country, often looting as they went. Transportation and communication services had ceased to function. Agriculture and industry were largely at a standstill. Food was scarce and there was a serious risk of famine and disease during the coming months. And to crown it all there was no central government in being, and the machinery whereby a central government could function no longer existed.’ (1)

In the immediate aftermath of all this devastation, cooperation, commonality and integration were the buzzwords. This was reflected in the birth of organisations like the United Nations, designed to be stronger than its predecessor the League of Nations, and institutions that reshaped the international economic landscape, known collectively as the Bretton Woods system; the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs. The 1951 Treaty of Paris, which established the European Coal and Steel Community, reflected this spirit as it sought to create diplomatic and economic stability in Europe.


We have: Brexit; the rise of the spectre of nationalism in Italy, Austria and Poland; the resurgence of racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny; economic brinkmanship between USA and the Chinese; the igniting of military rivalry between the West and Russia.

From one perspective it seems that more reactionary forces in our political systems are ‘winning’ – looking to take us back in time, ignoring and sometimes, as in the case of the Holocaust, outright denying the hard battles and that were fought to bring us the freedoms and liberties that most of us take for granted.

The promise of making any other nation ‘great again’ is a throwback to an age that was not great, despite the way it is portrayed in the current popular imagination.  We need to be mindful of our recent historical past and be wary of those that want us to return to it.


(1) Knowles, C. (2017). Winning the Peace: The British in Occupied Germany, 1945-1948. London: Bloomsbury, p13.