Europe: War and peace

Ruined: The German city of Dresden shows the scars of the Second World War in 1945.

Europe is marking the anniversaries of the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the Second World War in 2015. But is bringing the continent’s people together the way to build a lasting peace?

It was heralded as the moment which would bring peace in Europe. On 18 June 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte’s attempts to expand through the continent were brought to a decisive end at the brutal Battle of Waterloo. But a century later, fields and cities across Europe were torn apart by two confrontations which turned out to be far bloodier: the World Wars.

2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the second of those wars coming to an end and the 200th anniversary of Bonaparte’s defeat. The occasions serve as a reminder that previous attempts to eliminate conflict from Europe have failed. Claims that the First World War, in particular, would prove to be ‘a war to end wars’ were proven tragically wrong.

Europe has now avoided war between its major powers for an extended period once again, but the dream of a truly peaceful Europe has remained elusive. For 44 years, tensions over control of Europe threatened to bring a nuclear apocalypse during the Cold War, and then ethnic, religious and racial tensions brought a devastating conflict over the breakup of Yugoslavia.

This has coincided with Europeans setting up institutions designed to bring them closer together. The European Economic Community (a common market) was founded to allow close economic ties between six countries in 1958 and the European Union, which also formalised a political bond between a larger group of member states, was formed in 1993.

Today, the repercussions of the 20th century are still being felt: in Ukraine, forces in favour of further integration with Europe battle separatists who want closer relations with Russia. Islamist terrorism has killed people in several European countries and separatist groups have brought violence to countries such as Northern Ireland and Spain. And with social unrest and instability spreading across a continent where dozens of nationalities live in close proximity, there remains potential for a rise of destructive forces such as extreme nationalism, fascism and authoritarianism.

Time to integrate?

In 2012, the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Strengthening the economic and political bonds between peoples and nations, the awarding committee indicated, would give them a vested interest in working together. Rather than fighting each other, they would appreciate their common interests.

But law professor Mark Dawson is among those who question whether European integration is the way to avoid conflict and instability. Making an integrated Europe work requires abandoning national sovereignty, which people will never accept. Modern European projects are unwittingly threatening the most important ingredient of a sustainable peace: democracy.

You Decide

  1. Will Europe ever build a lasting peace?
  2. Does political and economic integration make conflict more or less likely?


  1. Write a discussion between someone in 2015 and someone speaking during a war which has affected Europe. What would you like to ask a witness from the past, and what would they make of the situation today?
  2. Write a letter for European leaders to read, outlining how you would try to keep Europe peaceful for the next 50 years. What threats might you need to deal with, and what would you do about them?

Some People Say...

“Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.”

Ernest Hemingway

What do you think?

Q & A

Could Europe be at war again soon?
The biggest powers in Europe are now democracies with no interest in fighting each other, making a repeat of the First or Second World War very unlikely. But the fighting in Ukraine has been vicious and could drag in other countries. Western powers would become particularly concerned if Russia threatened states which are members of NATO, such as Estonia or Latvia, as they would be bound to fight to protect them. Terrorism is also an ongoing concern.
How can I learn more about Europe’s previous wars?
The Imperial War Museums have plenty of excellent detail, and have invested money in up-to-date displays for the 100th anniversary of the First World War. Most towns in Britain have war memorials, and look out for local museums and commemorative events.

Word Watch

Breakup of Yugoslavia
Yugoslavia was initially formed in 1918 and re-formed as a socialist state in 1945. It was made up of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia. In the early 1990s, Serb nationalists who wanted to keep the federation together came into conflict with those who wanted to break away.
Islamist terrorism
Relevant incidents have included the London bombings of 2005, the Madrid train attacks in 2004 which killed 191 people, bombings in Istanbul in 2003 and the Charlie Hebdo attack earlier this year.
Northern Ireland
Militant groups fighting over the future of Northern Ireland committed numerous atrocities during the Troubles of 1968-1998. The IRA aimed to see the province reunited with the Republic of Ireland, while loyalist paramilitaries wanted it to remain within the UK. The British army was stationed in Northern Ireland in an attempt to maintain order there from 1969 onwards.
Terrorist group Eta, who wanted to see the Basque Country separated from Spain, launched a campaign of violence between 1960 and 2011.


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