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Europe

'The idea of Europe was a saving grace'

As someone who first saw Europe as a soldier in World War II, Canadian historian Robert Spencer is deeply disturbed by the current crisis. He says Europe needs leadership to avoid a comeback of national politics.

DW: You have a long connection to Europe which began when you came here first as a young soldier during World War II. What was your first impression and experience of Europe back then?

Robert Spencer: We were confined to a role. We didn't see very much. But I had studied history and I knew something about the landscape and I was very glad to see Europe from Normandy almost to Oldenburg in Germany. That was my first experience. And there were some things we could do on the way. Brussels, for example, was captured undamaged and I had my first leave for 48 hours in Brussels in 1944. And that was a great thrill to see Europe first hand as a civilian really.

What was it like?

It really seemed very familiar. Because things went on as they had, it appeared. The cafes were functioning, there appeared to be no shortage of food at that time. It really seemed like normal life. And to walk the streets and see the European architecture was great fun.

Since then you have become deeply connected to Europe. When you compare Europe during your first visit and today did you ever think it would change and develop as it has?

If I would have thought about it, I think I could have never imagined how it would develop. My first post-war visit was after I finished university in England in 1950 and I came for the summer to Freiburg im Breisgau in the south of Germany. That was just after the currency reform, just after the formation of the Federal Republic and the transition was quite remarkable.

The destruction everywhere you went was very great. But nevertheless the restaurants and cafes were functioning, people were busy working. I didn't get to Berlin until 1952 and that was a real thrill. I flew in from Düsseldorf for two nights and that's all I could get. And I noticed that the destruction there was really great. I wondered the streets and went to East Berlin and really got a feel of what was going on.

That was also the first time I really had closer contact with the German population. I had arrived in Freiburg in 1950 with an introduction with one of the most celebrated German historians, Gerhard Ritter. And he was my introduction to German academic life.

Europe, specifically the EU, is generally perceived to be in its biggest crisis since its founding. Do you agree?

Everything I hear, read or talk to is about the crisis. I think the crisis is real. I find it very disturbing. And in a broader sense I suppose I also sense a disappointment and disillusionment with Europe itself. I well remember when I crossed in 1950 from Alsace to Baden, a sign by the roadside read "Autre pays, mais toujours l'Europe" (Different country, but still Europe - the ed.). That was the dream.

I just now came from NATO headquarters. And when I hear of the difficulties of bringing Europeans together, politicians seem not to be able to go beyond the nation state and have a broader view of things. I understand how difficult that is. On the other hand, even though I don't think the European Union deserved the Nobel Prize which I think would have much better gone to NATO, nonetheless Europe has had a turbulent history in the 20th century. And the fact that one can now travel and not even produce a passport is a real change and change for the better.

From your personal experience if you could give Europeans any advice about the current European crisis, what would it be?

You're asking me to be a super foreign minister for all Europeans. I think one thing that is really necessary is that somebody has got to provide leadership and guidance and persuade Europeans that the way ahead is to build upon what was accomplished and try to avoid slipping back to a defense of national interests.

The idea of Europe in many ways was a saving grace. Who in 1945 could have envisaged the long period of peace that has endured, peace and cooperation? That is a real accomplishment. And I would hope that they can solve the terrible problems we witness now. And one of the "awful" things about democracies is that you have to deal with your publics who elect you. That I think is something that requires leadership and persuasion and vision.

Robert Allan Spencer is professor of history emeritus at the University of Toronto. Born in Montreal in 1920, he served with the Canadian military in Europe between 1942 and 1946. The author of numerous books, Spencer is an expert on German and European history and politics and transatlantic relations. He received the Canada Decoration in 1965, the Queen's Silver Jubilee Medal in 1978, the Goethe Medal in 1983, and the Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1986.

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