I stood silently staring down a corridor a kilometer long and buried deep underground.
Yellow incandescent lights buzzed softly, and the walls were damp. My arm grazed my goosebumped thighs, and the air was dense with an intense, latent fear from 89 years ago. The French built this massive fortification – the Maginot Line – to protect them from their German neighbors starting in 1929. It did not work, despite building all along their enormous border and only skipping the dense Ardennes forest. The Germans invaded through that forest and took control of France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. For decades it has stood as a monument to human fallibility.
Down here, though, I am consumed not with the irony of this place but with the tragedy of living in a Europe that seems to have forgotten what it was like to have this much fear of your fellow man.
I am a bit of an outsider here in Europe.
I am an American whose relatives emigrated long before the World Wars rocked this continent and nearly destroyed it twice. That being said, I feel the weight of Europe’s history all the time. I live in Frankfurt, Germany – a few hours drive from the French border. This city is covered in stumbling stones in front of houses declaring the names of former residents who were deported and murdered in camps. It was all but razed by the British, and so it looks nothing at all like the picturesque streets of Prague or Paris. It can feel like Germany is preoccupied with course-correcting to make up for their slide into Nazism, their genocide and their campaign to obliterate and possess Europe.
That preoccupation gets a fair amount of flack, especially from the right-wing, but it’s always felt comforting to me. Our leaders and most of the people here are on high-alert – extra sensitive to nationalism, fascism, and dangerous overreach if only because it has been a cultural norm for so long. I’m glad that in 2018 I still feel like the country I live in is acutely aware of what lead to the rise of Nazism and Fascism and what resulted from it.
That does not feel like it is the norm across the EU, though, and that is terrifying.
I am married to a wonderful British man, who came to Germany after five years in Japan for his dream job. Coming here to build a life was his birthright as a citizen of the EU, after years of visa anxiety in Japan, he was back home in Europe. Today, we are making plans to drive our things across France and into England before Brexit so we can be sure that we will have the right to move freely and build a life together in his home country, just as the EU promised us.
It hurts to know his country, the country our children will call home, has so easily forgotten the lesson of the Maginot Line.
In Italy, my friends are losing sleep and breaking down into tears as the most far-right, anti-EU government in memory has taken the reins and has begun to remind them all of their own collective nightmare, Mussolini.
Hungary has descended into far-right nationalism and embraced white supremacy, anti-LGBT policies and open advocacy of an authoritarian government. Viktor Orban, the Prime Minister who has overseen this move won a third term this past April. Poland’s government has been careening towards social and political conservatism. Germany and France have both seen a rise in the political prominence of far-right, racist and anti-EU parties and antisemitism and Islamophobia are on the rise. These examples are only an abbreviated description of what Europe is facing right now. Across this continent, people have forgotten the fear and forgotten just how much of a political miracle the EU is. Peace and cooperation in Europe were long thought to be an impossibility, but that reality has been within reach.
This imperfect union is a lifeline that many citizens, scholars and politicians thought was an impossibility, but it’s here, and it’s ours.
The European Union is a project in progress, but its value is clear. When governments and factions seek to revisit the horrific crimes of the previous century, there is a body that can prevent that – not with guns and ships – but with trade and influence and diplomacy.
The United States is exiting the world’s stage, no longer considered a leader in democracy and human rights. At this moment, the EU is more critical than ever. The Maginot Line has been relegated to history books. It is tucked away in the French countryside and has no place in public consciousness. Standing inside its chilly corridors, I could feel the Europe that I love letting go of the memory and lessons of the 20th century.
I had goosebumps – not because I was cold, but because I was very, very scared.