The Rev. Joseph Musser’s household has all the time lived in the area of Alsace, however not all the time in the similar nation.
His grandfather fought for the Germans in World War I, and his father for the French in World War II. Today, nobody is combating anymore. His great-niece lives in France however works in Germany, crossing the border her ancestors died combating over with out even noticing it.
It is that this period of peace and borderless prosperity that champions of the European Union think about the bloc’s singular achievement.
“The basis of the European Union is the reminiscence of battle,” mentioned the Reverend Musser, 72. “But that reminiscence is fading.”
On Sunday, as dozens of world leaders collect in Paris to mark the centenary of the armistice that ended World War I, the chain of reminiscence that binds Mr. Musser’s household — and all of Europe — is rising brittle.
The anniversary comes amid a sense of gloom and insecurity as the outdated demons of chauvinism and ethnic division are once more spreading throughout the Continent. And as reminiscence turns into historical past, one query looms massive: Can we study from historical past with out having lived it ourselves?
In the aftermath of their cataclysmic wars, Europeans banded collectively in shared dedication to subdue the forces of nationalism and ethnic hatred with a imaginative and prescient of a European Union. It isn’t any coincidence that the bloc positioned half of its institutional headquarters in Alsace’s capital, Strasbourg.
But at this time, its youthful generations don’t have any reminiscence of industrialized slaughter. Instead, their consciousness has been formed by a decade-long monetary disaster, an inflow of migrants from Africa and the Middle East, and a way that the promise of a united Europe is just not delivering. To some it feels that Europe’s bloody final century would possibly as effectively be the Stone Age.
Yet World War I killed greater than 16 million troopers and civilians, and its legacies proceed to form Europe.
‘‘The battle to finish all wars’’ set the scene for an much more devastating battle and the barbarism of genocide. Churchill, Britain’s legendary wartime chief, thought of 1914-1945 as one lengthy battle.
“Those who fail to study from historical past are condemned to repeat it,” he mentioned in 1948.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, whose resolution to welcome greater than 1,000,000 migrants to Germany in 2015 first grew to become a logo of a liberal European order, then a rallying cry for a resurgent far-right, mentioned the jury remains to be out on whether or not Europe will heed the classes of its previous.
“We now reside in a time during which the eyewitnesses of this horrible interval of German historical past are dying,” she mentioned of World War II. “In this section, it is going to be determined whether or not we’ve got actually realized from historical past.”
Indeed, the final World War I veteran died in 2012. And the quantity of those that skilled World War II and the Holocaust is quickly shrinking, too.
Politicians are apt to make use of historical past selectively when it fits them. But the historical past on this case is ominous.
Now as then, Europe’s political heart is weak and the fringes are radicalizing. Nationalism, laced with ethnic hatred, has been gaining momentum. Populists sit in a number of European governments.
In Italy, a founding member of the European Union, Matteo Salvini, the nationalist deputy prime minister, has turned away migrant boats and referred to as for the expulsion of Roma. Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary speaks of a “Muslim takeover” and unapologetically flaunts his model of “intolerant democracy.”
“In 1990, Europe was our future,” he mentioned earlier this 12 months. “Now, we’re Europe’s future.”
The political discourse is deteriorating in acquainted methods, too. In Germany, the far proper has turn into the primary voice of opposition in Parliament, mocking the mainstream media as “Lügenpresse,” or mendacity press — a time period that was first utilized by the Nazis in the 1920s earlier than their ascent to energy.
Traute Lafrenz, the final surviving member of the White Rose, an anti-Hitler pupil resistance group in the 1940s, mentioned she acquired goose bumps seeing photographs of Hitler salutes at far-right riots in the japanese German metropolis of Chemnitz lately.
“Maybe it’s no coincidence,” Ms. Lafrenz, now 99, instructed Der Spiegel. “We are dying out and at the similar time every little thing is coming again once more.”
After World War II, the European Union sought to stop something prefer it from taking place once more by regularly creating a standard market, a standard foreign money, a passport-free journey zone and by pooling sovereignty in a quantity of areas.
But on Sunday, standing subsequent to Ms. Merkel and her host, the fiercely pro-European French president, Emmanuel Macron, can be a quantity of nationalist leaders who would really like nothing greater than to drag the European Union aside — amongst them President Trump, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.
Historians guard in opposition to drawing direct parallels between the fragile aftermath of World War I and the current, pointing to a quantity of notable variations.
Before World War I, a Europe of empires had simply turn into a Europe of nation states; there was no tried and examined custom of liberal democracy. Economic hardship was on one other stage altogether; youngsters had been dying of malnutrition in Berlin.
Above all, there may be not now the form of militaristic tradition that was completely mainstream in Europe at the time. France and Germany, archenemies for hundreds of years, are intently allied.
“What is being eroded at this time, is being eroded from a a lot increased stage than something we had ever achieved in Europe in the previous,” mentioned Timothy Garton Ash, professor of European historical past at the University of Oxford.
Still, Mr. Garton Ash sees 1918 as a warning that democracy and peace can by no means be taken with no consideration.
“It’s a extremely sobering reminder that what looks like some kind of everlasting order can very quickly collapse,” he mentioned.
In that sense, if Europe’s motto after World War II was “by no means once more,” the lesson of World War I is “it may occur once more.”
Daniel Schönpflug, a German historian who lately revealed “A World on Edge,” an evocative ebook monitoring 22 characters in the interwar interval, factors out that for hundreds of years, intervals of extended battle in Europe’s violent historical past have been adopted by intervals of extended peace.
“But as soon as the era with residing reminiscence of combating had died, the subsequent battle got here alongside,” Mr. Schönpflug mentioned. “History teaches us that when the era that skilled battle dies out, warning diminishes and naiveté towards battle will increase.”
“That means we’ve got to be very cautious at this time,” he mentioned.
In 1918, the artist Paul Klee made ‘‘The Comet of Paris,’’ a tightrope walker hovering precariously in the air with a comet searing via the sky above and the Eiffel Tower beneath. What is unnerving about the picture is that one can not discern the rope though one is aware of it’s there.
“It sums up the place individuals had been then, and in a means the place we’re at this time,” mentioned Mr. Schönpflug.
No one is aware of what would possibly come subsequent. Europe has entered the unknown.
In 1929, as it occurred, individuals entered a murderous decade with out even realizing.
“That’s what’s so eerie trying again,” mentioned James Hawes, a historian and creator of The Shortest History of Germany. “Right as much as 1931-32, nobody realized what was about to occur. They thought they had been simply coming into one other decade.”
What would possibly future historians write about the Europe of 2018?
Antony Beevor, creator of a quite a few best-selling historical past books, is pessimistic. The ethical dilemmas of the future will undo European liberal democracy, he predicts. The migration disaster of 2015 was solely a foretaste of what’s to return.
“Future waves of migration are inevitable and Europe is their primary vacation spot,” Mr. Beevor mentioned, pointing to the disruptive forces of poverty and local weather change in creating international locations as the primary causes.
“European leaders will face the selection of turning again ravenous refugees or of handing ammunition to the far proper and eroding the material in their very own societies,” he mentioned.
Others see it in another way. Niall Ferguson, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, says the greatest downside going through Europe is just not populism however the incomplete foreign money union of the euro.
“The main menace of Europe at the second is just not Orban or Salvini, the main menace is that the E.U.’s institutional association is unstable,” Mr. Ferguson mentioned. Mr. Macron’s ambition has been to repair that; however there is no such thing as a consensus backing him.
Whatever the future of Europe’s establishments, one large distinction from 100 years in the past is that the Continent is now not at the coronary heart geopolitics.
“A century in the past, Europe was the heart of the world — even when it was the darkish tragic heart of the world,” mentioned Dominique Moïsi, a French creator and thinker. “Today we may be again to tragedy however to not centrality.”
“History is shifting elsewhere,” he mentioned.
That, too, needs to be a motivation to shore up European integration, says the Reverend Musser in Alsace. One of his grandnieces is doing an internship in China, not Europe.
Bones, bombs and bullets stay in the soil of Alsace, a area switched backwards and forwards between varied incarnations of France and Germany 5 occasions between the Thirty Years’ War that led to 1648 and the devastation of World War II.
Local residents joke that Alsatians nonetheless hold German avenue indicators of their basements, simply in case.
The Reverend Musser places it this manner: “Alsace is a reminder of how a lot has been received in Europe — and the way a lot will be misplaced.”