European Civil War

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A French satirical cartoon map of Europe in 1870.

The European Civil War is a term of historical argumentation in the form of an overarching construct tying a series of 20th century conflicts between sovereign nations in the now mostly unified continent of Europe.

According to this view, the period that notably included both World Wars and many lesser conflicts of the interwar period constituted the European Civil War (1914-1945).[1] Other historians argue that this period started in 1870 [2] or in 1905.[3]

The term seeks to explain the emergence of the European Union. By the self-mutilation caused by the World Wars, it is argued, European states lost their hegemony and caused the continent to be divided during the Cold War into two spheres of influence: one "Western" and one Soviet.[4] This period ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Maastricht treaty and the enlargement of the Union in 2004 to former soviet countries.

Comparative application of the 'European Civil War' concept

This construct attempts to characterize both World War I and World War II, and the inter-war period and its conflicts as a protracted civil war taking place in Europe. It is used in referring[citation needed] to the repeated confrontations that occurred during the first-half of the 20th century. Unlike traditional approaches to history, this construct reinterprets the past in light of a present reality, rather than interpreting that reality in light of the past.

The term does not easily encompass aspects of several conflicts in the period of its presumed application. There is no consensus over many details and links, such as the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), the Russian Revolution, and Russian Civil War (1917–1923). There is no consensus on its application to related conflicts within or between proximate European colonies in North Africa and in the Middle East. There is no consensus on its application to related conflicts outside the fringes of Europe such as the Japanese invasion of China and campaigns in the Pacific theater and Southeast Asia theater of World War II.

The role of the United States in these events is difficult to explain within the construct. Also, the concept of a European Civil War is difficult to reconcile with the involvement of numerous sovereign, non-colonial combatants in the conflict from continents other than Europe, including South America (Brazil) and the Pacific (Thailand).

In comparison with traditional historical analysis of 20th-century European conflicts, the utility of the "civil war" concept has not been demonstrated. The extent of the period, the geographic coverage, the multiple causes of the subsets of conflicts within the historical period and geographical range of to operations and effects have not yet been completely explained by the construct of a continental European "civil war." At least two historically understood national "civil wars," the Russian Civil War (1917–1923) and the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), are among some of the internally conflicting arguments of the thesis. K. M. Panikkar's original range from 1914 to 1945 is among the chronological ranges argued for, but does not explain some of these problems, such as the ideological content of both the nationalist and communist movements, the decline or elimination of related monarchies, and the rise of national and transnational social democratic organizations (political parties and trades union movements) in the period.

The period of events between 1936 and 1945 which began with the conflict in Spain and ended with the European portion of World War II are commonly cited. The University of Massachusetts Boston argues 1945 as the end date but begins the conflict in 1917, with the Russian Civil War.[citation needed] However, for the self-mutilation perspective there is a tendency to stretch the beginning as early as the Franco-Prussian War on July 19, 1870 and end as late as the reunification of Germany.[citation needed] The London School of Economics course “European Civil War: 1890 to 1990” argues that 1945 was the end date but the second half of the 20th century was the result of the conflagration’s aftermath. The University of Hong Kong's Department of History argues to divide the content in two sections; one covering 1914-45 and the second 1945 onwards.[5]

The supporting case

Those supporting the idea of a European Civil War contend that the heads of state in many European nations were so closely related as to constitute branches of the same family.[citation needed] European culture is also relatively homogeneous, with most nations tracing the roots of their culture to two principal sources; Christianity and Classical antiquity. Their respective legal systems, while separate, were remarkably similar and evolved to become more so over time.

At the end of the conflict, elites in the different countries of Europe began work to create a community of nations that has since grown into the European Union. The emergence of the EU from World War II is central to the argument, as a civil war typically occurs when competing parties within the same country or empire struggle for national control of state power. Civil wars usually result in the emergence of a new or restrengthened central authority.

Some academics, as mentioned below, regard the First and Second World Wars as part of the same conflict with a 22-year cease-fire. The theory defines the Spanish and Russian civil wars as intermediate conflicts, and links the roots of World War I back to the earlier Franco-Prussian conflict, regarding political changes in Italy, Portugal and elsewhere in a single context.

The central proponents of the European Civil War were originally based at the history department of the London School of Economics. Paul Preston – in his 1996 work The Republic Besieged: Civil War in Spain 1936–1939 – describes the Spanish Civil War as an "episode in a greater European Civil War that ended in 1945." The department even included the subject as a course in its own right (taught by Dr. Robert Boyce).[6] However, their position has since gained ground with academics elsewhere.

Others who have used the notion of a European Civil War in their work – Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Rome, Anthony Adamthwaite – Professor at UC Berkeley,[7] and Duke University's J. M. Roberts. In his 1996 work A History of Europe, Roberts stated that the "European Civil War ended the dominance of Europe in the world" - a typical claim of the idea's proponents.

An early reference to this concept occurs during the 1970s television series The World at War, when historian Stephen Ambrose comments that 1945 witnessed an invasion of an exhausted Europe by Russian and American armies, "thus ensuring that no European nation actually wins the European Civil War". Earlier still were comments by Indian diplomat K. M. Panikkar in his 1955 book "Asia and Western Dominance 1498-1945".[8]

Patrick J. Buchanan goes on to argue that this European Civil War has led to decline of the West and its world hegemony. His book, Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War: How Britain Lost its Empire and the West Lost the World, covers this topic extensively, and connects much of his predictions in his book, The Death of the West. Buchanan sees the World Wars as unnecessary conflicts mostly due to British foreign policy mistakes that led not only to the destruction of their own empire but also Western dominance, ideals, culture, and populations.[9][10]

The opposing case

The main argument against this concept is that Europe was hardly united at all during the period of the conflict and even today it is controversial that there is a European demos at all.[11] Without there being a Europe in a political sense of one nation, there cannot be a European civil war.

It is also important to recognize that there were multiple precursor cultural groups that gave way to each European nation state, sometimes even creating cultural division within one country (e.g. Celts, Norse and Angles in Scotland; numerous Germanic and Slavic tribes in Germany; Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Norse and Normans in England, etc.)

A further objection is the global character of two of the conflicts, World War I and World War II. The Pacific and Asian theaters of both wars are a difficult fit for a eurocentric conception of these wars.

See also


  1. The so-called European Civil War, a term used to describe the period of bloody violence that racked Europe from 1914 onwards, came to an end in 1945.
  2. Anna Triandafyllidou, Ruth Wodak, Michał Krzyżanowski, The European public sphere and the media: Europe in crisis, p. 80, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, ISBN 0230210422
  3. Twentieth century european history civil war
  4. The Journal of Historical Review, Spring 1986 (Vol. 7, No. 1), pages 95-114
  5. University of Hong Kong Course Guide[dead link]
  6. LSE Course Guide, 2004-2005[dead link]
  7. "Keynote address "The Spanish Civil War- ideological battleground of a European civil war?", international conference "Democratic powers and the Right in interwar Europe", University of Salford UK". June 2006.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. K. M. Panikkar, Asia and Western Dominance 1498-1945
  9. Patrick J. Buchanan, Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War: How Britain Lost its Empire and the West Lost the World
  10. Patrick J. Buchanan, The Death of the West